The morality of an intrinsically evil act is NOT determined by intention

This teaching of the Roman Catholic Magisterium on morality is not an open question. It is, however, a common point of misunderstanding. Unfortunately, the Church right now is plagued by false teachers who have badly misunderstood the moral teachings of the Faith, yet arrogantly teach others their errors. Many faithful Catholics are now uncertain how to understand the morality of intrinsically evil acts, since so many ignorant persons have decided to teach, without first having learned. May God correct them.

To my mind, the magisterial teaching on intrinsically evil acts could not be clearer. There are three fonts of morality. The morality of each and every knowingly chosen act is determined by those three fonts. One bad font makes the act immoral. Only when all three fonts are good is the act moral to choose.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The morality of human acts depends on: — the object chosen; — the end in view or the intention; — the circumstances of the action. The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the ‘sources,’ or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.” [CCC 1750]

Compendium of the Catechism: “The morality of human acts depends on three sources: the object chosen, either a true or apparent good; the intention of the subject who acts, that is, the purpose for which the subject performs the act; and the circumstances of the act, which include its consequences.” [Compendium 367]

USCCB Catechism: “Every moral act consists of three elements: the objective act (what we do), the subjective goal or intention (why we do the act), and the concrete situation or circumstances in which we perform the act…. All three aspects must be good — the objective act, the subjective intention, and the circumstances — in order to have a morally good act.” [p. 311-312]

The three fonts:
1. intention or intended end – the purpose for which the person chooses the act; it is the reason why the act was chosen.
2. the object or moral object
3. the circumstances, especially the consequences of the act

The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. Any act with a bad moral object is inherently ordered toward moral evil, and so it is an inherently disordered act. Such acts are called intrinsically evil; they are wrong by the very nature of the act, apart from intention or circumstances.

Notice the various phrasings of the fonts in the quotes above. The second font is described as “the object chosen” because, in addition to choosing an intention or purpose (first font), the subject also chooses an “objective act”, which includes its moral object (second font). Every knowingly chosen act is ordered, by the nature of the act, independent of the reason for choosing the act, toward an end called the object of the act. The ordering of an act toward an evil end is what makes the act intrinsically evil.

Some confusion arises from the fact that the objective act is always intentionally (deliberately, voluntarily) chosen. The choice of an act that is objectively ordered toward an evil end is what makes the act intrinsically evil. No choice means no sin.

For example, if a married couple chooses to use contraception, they commit a grave sin, regardless of the purpose (reason, intention) for choosing that act. Contraception is intrinsically evil because it is an act that deprives sexual intercourse of its procreative meaning. But if the couple are infertile due to old age, they have not chosen an act which, by its nature, thwarts the procreative meaning, so their acts of natural marital relations are still in principle open to life. For the act, by its moral type, is still ordered toward procreation, despite being unable to attain that end.

So if a married couple chooses to use contraception for any purpose (reason, intention, goal), the act remains intrinsically evil. The purpose for choosing an act is the first font; the moral nature of the chosen act is the second font. All three fonts must be good for an act to be moral. An intrinsically evil act is defined by its moral object, not by the intended end.

“Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).” (CCC 2399)

A legitimate intention, such as to treat a medical disorder, does not justify the use of contraception (the birth control pill). A married couple who continue to have marital relations, while using contraception or abortifacient contraception, commit a grave sin, regardless of the purpose or intention. The will chooses an intended end (purpose, intention), but the will also chooses an objective act, with an inherent moral meaning as determined by its moral object. The choice of a disordered (intrinsically evil) act for any reason or purpose is always a sin.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

1755 A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting “in order to be seen by men”). The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.

The moral object, the intended end, and the circumstances — all three fonts — must be good or the choice of that act is a sin. An evil intention (first font) makes the act a sin, even if the moral object is good (second font). But conversely, a good intention cannot justify an intrinsically evil act (with an evil moral object). The choice of an act with an evil moral object “vitiates” (corrupts) the morality of the act “in its entirety”. Intrinsically evil acts are wrong “in and of themselves”, by the very nature of the act, independent of intention or circumstances.

Some magisterial documents speak of acts that are intentionally or deliberately contraceptive. The reference is to the intentional (deliberate) choice of an act with an evil moral object, such as contraception. This type of wording does not imply that the choice of contraception is moral with a non-contraceptive intention. Every intrinsically evil act, including abortion, abortifacient contraception, and contraception, is wrong because the will is choosing a disordered act. And the act is disordered because it is inherently directed toward an evil object, such as the killing of an innocent prenatal or the thwarting of the procreative meaning.

Direct abortion is condemned by the Church even when the intention (purpose) is to save the life of the mother. Saving a life is a greater medical purpose than treating a medical disorder. Abortion is not justified by the intention to save the mother’s life. And contraception is not justified by the intention to treat a medical disorder. Intrinsically evil acts are never justified by any purpose or intention.

Some persons have even strayed so far from Church teaching as to claim that the intention in some way determines if the act is intrinsically evil. So they say that the use of a contraceptive pill or device is only the intrinsically evil act of contraception if the couple have a contraceptive intention. But such a claim contradicts the teaching of the Magisterium on the three fonts of morality. Intrinsically evil acts are defined by their moral object. The act must be intentionally chosen in order to be a sin, but the intended end (the purpose for choosing the act) does not transform the intrinsically evil act into a good act.

Pope Saint John Paul II: 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. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”.

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. [Veritatis Splendor 81]

Who would “dare affirm” that by doing an intrinsically evil act for a good motive (purpose, intention), the acts would no longer be sins or would be justified? Many false teachers today make this claim. My reason for writing this very article is to refute that false claim. Saint Augustine and Pope Saint John Paul II called the claim “absurd” that an intrinsically evil act would be justified by a good purpose. And yet this foolish claim continues to spread among the faithful, mostly on the internet.

The example of euthanasia makes this point even clearer. Euthanasia is essentially murder for the purpose (with the intention) of relieving all suffering. The Church condemns euthanasia as intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Notice that, by definition, euthanasia has a good intended end, the medical purpose to relieve suffering. Yet it remains intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral because it is an inherently disordered act. The deliberate choice of euthanasia is necessarily always a sin, despite the good intention to relieve suffering.

The same is true for that most popular grave sin: contraception. No purpose or intention can justify the deliberate choice of contraception by anyone. If the wife’s doctor wants to put her on abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose (such as to regulate her cycle), she can take the pill only if she and her husband refrain from sex. Otherwise, she must seek a different treatment (or perhaps a different doctor). No purpose or circumstance justifies the choice of any intrinsically evil act, including contraception.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” [Evangelium Vitae 62]

In the Roman Catholic Church today, many false teachers are harming souls by teaching falsehoods on matters of faith, morals, and salvation. The internet has made this problem worse. Innumerable persons are teaching grave errors online, often under cover of various pseudonyms. In this way, they harm souls throughout the world.

Furthermore, any Catholic who publicly promotes or approves of the use of abortifacient contraception, by couples who are sexually active, for any purpose or intention whatsoever, is guilty of formal cooperation with the grave sins of abortion and contraception.

Over the course of many couples and many years, it is inevitable that this use of abortifacient contraception will cause the deaths of many prenatals. This subject area is not merely academic. Actual abortions are resulting from the spread of this grave error: the claim that a married couple can remain sexually active while using abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose. All of these foolish false teachers, who argue for this claim online or in print, are responsible for the abortions which result from this false teaching. Any Catholic who teaches that abortifacient contraception is only a sin with a contraceptive intention, or that abortifacient contraception is moral when used for a medical purpose, is morally responsible for the resultant abortions.

[James 3]
{3:1} My brothers, not many of you should choose to become teachers, knowing that you shall receive a stricter judgment.

{3:5} So also the tongue certainly is a small part, but it moves great things. Consider that a small fire can set ablaze a great forest.
{3:6} And so the tongue is like a fire, comprising all iniquity. The tongue, stationed in the midst of our body, can defile the entire body and inflame the wheel of our nativity, setting a fire from Hell.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you, especially on the subject of moral theology.

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9 Responses to The morality of an intrinsically evil act is NOT determined by intention

  1. Dot says:

    If the husband is the head of the wife (Ephesians 5:23), she is bound if he demands they use contraception.

  2. Dot says:

    Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 1 Corinthians 7:5.

  3. Dot says:

    I know what your response will be, however, in the year 2014, this marriage would be dissolved. The situation may arise where one of the partners experiences conversion, and not the other. Or they have 6 children already and one spouse says enough.

    • Ron Conte says:

      If the marriage is the valid sacrament, then it cannot be dissolved. The Pauline privilege (where one spouse converts, the other does not, and they separate) only applies to natural marriage, not the sacrament.

    • Dot says:

      US Catholics in sacramental marriages are not converted, nor are many priests. Catholic in name only.

  4. Francisco says:

    Message to Dot:

    ALL obedience is due to God. Obedience to our authorities is good, yes, but if they wants us to do something contrary to God’s will (intrinsically evil, or heretic acts) then those persons lose their authority over us at that point.

    Examples: – You are an Administrative Assistant and your Boss asks you to sell candies on the streets. As an Administrative Assistant, it’s not your job, but out of obedience to your boss you may obey. However, if your boss asks you to sell contraceptive on the streets, then you don’t do it.

    – Your husband asks you to have the conjugal act a night when you don’t want it. But out of love of God and your husband, you may submit to him and do it.

    – Your husband asks you to use a contraceptive means in order to have sexual relations, then you don’t do it, instead, out of love of God and your husband, you CORRECT him for the sake of his soul.

    – If you truly have a headache (or getting sick), then it’s the duty of your husband to retract of this act at that moment and serve you instead, for your husband is not you ruler.

    St. John Paul II to husbands:
    Authentic conjugal love presupposes and requires that a man have a profound respect for the equal dignity of his wife: “YOU ARE NOT HER MASTER,” writes St. Ambrose, “but her husband; she was not given to you to be your slave, but your wife…. ” — Familiaris Consortio

    The husbands are not the ‘gods’ of their wives, meaning they can do whatever they wish with them, or that they are free to commit any sin with their wives.

    {5:29} But Peter and the Apostles responded by saying: “It is necessary to obey God, more so than men.

  5. Dot says:

    This is not personal. Thank you for your replies.

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