Errors in the moral theology of Fr. Martin Rhonheimer

In his article, The truth about condoms, Fr. Martin Rhonheimer confuses the intention of an act and the moral object of an act. This is a common misunderstanding in Catholic ethics, and a frequent source of error in the moral writings of Fr. Rhonheimer.

This error is also the very reason that Rhonheimer’s writings are so popular. He provides a theological methodology for nullifying one of the most difficult teachings of the Catholic Faith, that certain kinds of acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances, due to their moral object. By redefining moral object in terms of intention and circumstances, he transforms acts that are intrinsically evil and always immoral, into acts that are evil based only on the extrinsic considerations of intention and circumstances, not the intrinsic moral nature of the act. With this approach, an intrinsically evil act can be (falsely) claimed to be moral if you have a good intention or difficult circumstances. Morality becomes dependent on your will, not on the will and nature of God who is Justice itself.

Rhonheimer’s approach is erroneous, because the Universal Magisterium has infallibly taught that certain kinds of acts are intrinsically evil and always immoral. His approach nullifies that teaching, since the kind of act is not even considered, and the moral object is redefined in a manner contrary to definitive Catholic teaching. Intrinsically evil are no longer always immoral, in his view, because a change in intention or circumstances makes the very same act supposedly moral.

Rhonheimer’s Error

There are three fonts (sources) of morality: 1. intention, 2. moral object, 3. circumstances. In order for any act to be moral, all three fonts must be good. The intention is the intended end, the purpose for which the act was chosen. The intention is in the subject, the person who acts. The moral object is also an end, but it is not the end chosen by the person who acts. The moral object is the end toward which the chosen act is inherently directed. The intended end is in the subject; but the moral object is in the objective act.

The objective act is intentionally chosen by the subject. For morality pertains to knowingly chosen (intentionally chosen; deliberately chosen) acts. But in choosing a type of act (the moral type or moral species of the act), the person necessarily chooses the inherent moral meaning of that act, as determined by its moral object.

If a person chooses an intrinsically evil act, such as euthanasia, for a good intended end, the act remains intrinsically evil because the evil moral object is unchanged by the intention of the person choosing the act. An act of euthanasia is inherently directed, by the nature of the act, independent of the person who acts, toward an evil moral object, the deprivation of life from an innocent human person. No good intention can change that moral object into something good.

“If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person…. Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” (Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 81)

In fact, the very definition of euthanasia presumes a good intention, to relieve all suffering (Evangelium Vitae, n. 65). And yet the Magisterium has definitively condemned euthanasia as intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Therefore, an act chosen with a good intended end is not thereby given a good moral object. The choice of an intrinsically evil act for a good purpose is nevertheless sinful, since intention cannot transform the moral object from evil to good.

A frequent point of confusion arises from the fact that all three fonts of morality are types of ends, and all three fonts of morality arise from the human will.

1. intention: the intended end chosen by the human will
2. moral object: the end toward which the intentionally chosen act is inherently directed. The act itself is intentionally (deliberately, knowingly) chosen, but the moral object is inherent to whichever type of act is chosen. The will, in choosing a type of act, necessarily also chooses the essential moral nature of that act as determined by its moral object (the end toward which the act is inherently ordered).
3. circumstances: the reasonably anticipated end results (consequences) of the act; the human will, in choosing a particular type of act for a particular intended end, intentionally makes that choice in the light of the knowledge of possible (or likely) good and bad consequences.

Since the moral object is the end of an act that is intentionally (deliberately, voluntarily) chosen, the will and its intention is involved in the font called moral object. However, no intention can transform an intrinsically evil act into a good act. The will can intentionally choose a different type of act, an act with a good moral object instead of an evil moral object. But the will cannot transform evil into good.

Rhonheimer’s Error Applied to Contraception

Fr. Martin Rhonheimer begins his article on contraception by correctly distinguishing things from acts: “Condoms cannot be intrinsically evil, only human acts; condoms are not human acts, but things.” Morality concerns knowingly chosen acts; morality concerns choices of the free will based on knowledge in the intellect. A knowingly chosen act can be a sin, but an inanimate object cannot be a sin.

Rhonheimer’s error is found in basing his definition of intrinsically evil acts on intention and circumstances, not on the moral object:

“Contraception, as a specific kind of human act, includes two elements: the will to engage in sexual acts and the intention of rendering procreation impossible. A contraceptive act therefore embodies a contraceptive choice…. a contraceptive choice is the choice of an act that prevents freely consented performances of sexual intercourse, which are foreseen to have procreative consequences, from having these consequences, and which is a choice made just for this reason.”

Contraception is defined by Fr. Martin on the basis of intention; he sees it as an intentionally-contraceptive choice, based on the intended end, to render procreation impossible, and also based on the reasonably anticipated consequence of contraception, that conception is avoided.

This definition contradicts not only the teaching of the Magisterium that contraception is intrinsically evil, but the more fundamental teaching that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention and circumstances. By changing the basis for the intrinsic evil of contraception from the moral object to the intention and circumstances, Fr. Martin can thereby falsely claim that certain knowingly chosen acts, whose moral object is the evil of contraception (the deprivation of the procreative meaning from sexual acts), are justifiable and not intrinsically evil. He goes so far as to say, on this same spurious basis, that such act are not even deserving of the term contraception, even though the acts in question have the same moral object as acts which he does call contraceptive and intrinsically evil.

According to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, found in Veritatis Splendor, and the CCC, and other magisterial sources, every intrinsically evil act has an evil moral object; such acts are immoral regardless of intention or circumstances.

“Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed ‘intrinsically evil’ (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that ‘there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object’.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 80; inner quote from the CCC)

Rhonheimer’s error is even specifically condemned by Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor:

“A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition. Such a doctrine revives, in new forms, certain ancient errors which have always been opposed by the Church, inasmuch as they reduce the human person to a ‘spiritual’ and purely formal freedom. This reduction misunderstands the moral meaning of the body and of kinds of behaviour involving it (cf. 1 Cor 6:19). Saint Paul declares that ‘the immoral, idolaters, adulterers, sexual perverts, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers’ are excluded from the Kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 6:9). This condemnation — repeated by the Council of Trent — lists as ‘mortal sins’ or ‘immoral practices’ certain specific kinds of behavior the willful acceptance of which prevents believers from sharing in the inheritance promised to them. In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 49).

By basing the immorality of intrinsically evil acts, such as contraception, on the intended end (purpose) and the reasonably anticipated consequences, Fr. Martin has dissociated the knowingly chosen act of the human person from its bodily dimensions. So the act of a married couple, who intentionally choose to have sexual relations using a condom, is condemned by him if they intention to contracept, but is approved by him if they have a good purpose, such as preventing disease transmission. Yet the bodily dimensions of the act are the same. The act in both cases is an intentionally chosen act, which is ordered by the very nature of the act toward the deprivation of the procreative meaning from sexual acts. The moral object is unchanged by a change in intention or circumstances.

Whoever intentionally chooses an intrinsically evil act, necessarily also chooses the essential moral nature of that act, which is determined by the moral object. It is not possible to choose the bodily dimensions of the act (using a condom during natural intercourse) while choosing a different moral meaning for that act. The meaning of the act in terms of morality is chosen by the intentional choice of that type of act. The moral meaning of the act is inherent to that act and therefore inherent, even if only implicitly, to the intentional choice of the act. And that inherent moral meaning is determined by the moral object, not by the intended end (purpose) or the circumstances.

Astonishingly, Fr. Rhonheimer’s entire article on morality and the use of condoms makes no mention at all of the moral object. His definition of intrinsically evil acts is so fully divorced from the teaching of Veritatis Splendor on the three fonts of morality that he mentions only two fonts: intention and circumstances. The concept of the moral object does not even receive a passing mention. And why should it? For he has replaced the moral object with intention and circumstances, reducing the fonts of morality from three to two.

This grave error by Fr. Martin on the basic principles of morality results in several grave errors on intrinsically evil acts. He justifies the use of condoms (or other forms of contraception) in cases of rape.

“The definition of the contraceptive act does not therefore apply to using contraceptives to prevent possible procreative consequences of foreseen rape; in that circumstance the raped person does not choose to engage in sexual intercourse or to prevent a possible consequence of her own sexual behavior but is simply defending herself from an aggression on her own body and its undesirable consequences.”

To the contrary, if a woman intentionally chooses to ask her rapist to use a condom (as some commentators have claimed she ought to do), or if a woman takes chemical contraceptives due to the risk that she might be raped, she is choosing an act that is inherently directed toward the deprivation of the procreative meaning from sexual acts. If any sexual act is not intentionally chosen, then that act is not a sin; the victim of rape does not sin by being the unwilling object of the sexual sin of another person. But if the victim makes any choice at any time, that choice is subject to the moral law. All knowing choices of the free will are subject to the eternal moral law. So if she chooses to use contraception, she chooses an intrinsically evil act.

Fr. Martin tries to justify the use of contraception in cases of rape by an appeal to her intended end and the reasonably anticipated consequences of her choice. If both are good, he asserts that the act is not contraceptive. But this conclusion is based on his fundamental error of not defining intrinsically evil acts by their moral object, but instead by intention and circumstances. Though it may seem moral for her to use contraception in cases of rape, an intrinsically evil act is never justified.

Contraception is intrinsically evil because it is an intentionally chosen act inherently directed toward the deprivation of the procreative meaning from sexual acts. All such intentionally chosen acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of the intended end, and regardless of the good consequences that one intentionally seeks to obtain and the bad consequences that one intentionally seeks to avoid.

Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. Saint Augustine even states that lying is not justified to avoid being raped.

“As concerning purity of body; here indeed a very honorable regard seems to come in the way, and to demand a lie in its behalf; to wit, that if the assault of the ravisher may be escaped by means of a lie, it is indubitably right to tell it: but to this it may easily be answered, that there is no purity of body except as it depends on integrity of mind; this being broken, the other must needs fall, even though it seem intact; and for this reason it is not to be reckoned among temporal things, as a thing that might be taken away from people against their will. By no means therefore must the mind corrupt itself by a lie for the sake of its body, which it knows remains incorrupt if from the mind itself incorruptness depart not. For that which by violence, with no lust foregoing, the body suffers, is rather to be called deforcement than corruption.” (On Lying, n. 10)

Saint Augustine asserts that lying is always wrong, even if the intention is to avoid rape and the harmful consequences of rape. The principle that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances, has long been the teaching of the Church. Fr. Martin’s rejection of that principle is contrary to the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium.

Fr. Martin next asserts that: “A woman athlete taking part in the Olympic Games who takes an anti-ovulatory pill to prevent menstruation is not doing ‘contraception’ either, because there is no simultaneous intention of engaging in sexual intercourse.” In this case, if the woman is not sexually active during the time that she takes the oral contraceptive, the act does not have an evil moral object. The evil moral object of contraception is the deprivation of the procreative meaning from sexual acts. If there are no sexual acts, then there is no deprivation of the procreative meaning. This analysis also applies to a woman who is not sexually active, and who takes oral contraceptives to treat a medical disorder; her act is not intrinsically evil since there is no deprivation of the procreative meaning.

But Rhonheimer does not make this distinction; he justifies the woman athlete’s use of oral contraceptives — despite the fact that such pills are also abortifacient — regardless of whether or not she is sexually active. In effect, Fr. Martin justifies direct abortion on the basis of the good intention of taking part in athletic competition, and the good consequences that the participation is not interrupted or hindered. His error in rejecting the dogma that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral bears this and other rotten fruits.

He also claims that: “But if they [promiscuous people, prostitutes] ignore this teaching, and are at risk from HIV, should they use condoms to prevent infection? The moral norm condemning contraception as intrinsically evil does not apply to these cases.” This claim is a grave moral error because it contradicts the teaching that the moral object of any act remains unchanged by intention or circumstances. The ordinary and Universal Magisterium teaches that contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. The circumstance that these persons are unmarried, and the intention to avoid disease transmission, cannot change the moral object. The good intended end, to prevent disease transmission, does not justify an intrinsically evil act. The intentionally chosen act remains deprived of the procreative meaning, by the very nature of the act, and so the act remains intrinsically evil.

He extends this same error by saying:

“Nor can there be church teaching about this; it would be simply nonsensical to establish moral norms for intrinsically immoral types of behavior. Should the Church teach that a rapist must never use a condom because otherwise he would additionally to the sin of rape fail to respect ‘mutual and complete personal self-giving and thus violate the Sixth Commandment?’ Of course not.”

To the contrary, the Magisterium has the authority and ability to teach on the entire moral law, on any point and every point. The whole moral law is open to reason, and the whole moral law is open to the teaching authority of the Church. The fact that a person is committing an immoral act, such as sexual relations outside of marriage, does not prevent the Church from teaching that such an act can be more gravely disordered and therefore more sinful on the basis of intention, or another evil moral object, or circumstances. For example, the Magisterium teaches that rape is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, and that the rape of a child is ‘graver still’ (CCC, n. 2356). The Magisterium teaches that heterosexual sexual acts outside of marriage are gravely immoral, but that homosexual sexual acts are ‘acts of grave depravity’ (CCC, n. 2353, 2357). The term ‘acts of grave depravity’ indicates that homosexual sexual acts are more gravely disordered than heterosexual sexual acts, even though both types of acts are intrinsically evil and gravely immoral.

It is nonsensical to claim that, once a person is sinning, the Church is unable, or ought to be unwilling, to teach from the eternal moral law concerning the disordered elements of that sinful act (in all three fonts). If you choose to commit the sin of sex outside of marriage, you sin more gravely if these sexual acts are unnatural sexual act, rather than natural; you sin more gravely if these sexual acts are contracepted; you sin more gravely if you have a more sinful intention; you sin more gravely if you reasonably anticipate greater harm in the consequences. The commission of a grave sin does not exempt any person, nor any act, from the eternal moral law. To say otherwise is a grave doctrinal error that harms many souls and endangers their salvation (by blinding them to moral truth).

Fr. Martin even justifies the use of condoms in sexual acts outside of marriage: “Of course, this last argument does not apply to promiscuous people, because even if condoms do not always work, their use will help to reduce the evil consequences of morally evil behavior.” Again, he gives no consideration to the moral object. His moral analysis is based on the intention to avoid the bad consequences of procreating children outside of wedlock. His conclusion that condoms are moral in such cases is contrary to the teaching of the Church that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. The bad consequence that the children will be born outside of a marriage relationship does not change the evil moral object of contraception from evil to good.

His argument is essentially a justification of an evil means (contraception) on the basis of a good end (avoiding negative consequences). The claim that a good end can justify an immoral means is contrary to the definitive teaching of the Universal Magisterium, and is a grave moral error.

Furthermore, his claim that the Magisterium has only condemned the use of contraception within marriage is false. See this article for proof that the Magisterium has condemned the use of contraception outside of marriage.

Summary

The fundamental basis for Rhonheimer’s error is easily discerned by applying these same alleged principles of ethics to other intrinsically evil acts, such as euthanasia. The intended end in euthanasia is to relieve all suffering; by definition, euthanasia has a good intention. Many cases of euthanasia involve dire circumstances, such as a terminally ill person whose suffering cannot be relieved except by death. If we apply Rhonheimer’s approach to euthanasia, the result would be the justification of most or all cases of euthanasia — and yet this result is contrary to the infallible teaching of the Magisterium which unequivocally condemns euthanasia (Evangelium Vitae, n. 65), even with the good intention to relieve all suffering, even in dire circumstances. Therefore, any approach that justifies an intrinsically evil act by reference to good intentions and dire circumstances (even claiming that the act is thereby no longer intrinsically evil) is contrary to the infallible teaching of the Magisterium.

See also: Intention and Moral Species in Rhonheimer

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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