Intrinsic Evil

There are three fonts of morality, three things that determine the morality of an act:
1) intention
2) moral object
3) circumstances

The intention is the end intended by the person who acts (finis agentis). The object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is ordered by its very nature; it is the end of the act (finis actus). The intended end resides in the person who acts (agentis), while the moral object resides in the act itself (actus).

We can speak of an act, on the whole, as including all three fonts of morality, as when we assert that a single bad font makes any act immoral. But when we say “the act itself”, we mean a particular type (species, genus, nature) of act, apart from intention and circumstances. So the act itself can always be defined without mention of the intended end or the circumstances.

The intention and object are each types of ends. Then the morality of the circumstances is determined by the reasonably anticipated consequences of the act, the anticipated end result. So each font has its morality determined by a type of end.

Each font proceeds from the free will to its end. The will freely chooses an intended end. The will freely chooses an act, whose moral nature is determined by its object. In choosing any act, the human person necessarily also chooses the moral nature of the act and its moral object. Even if the object is not desired or specifically intended by the person, the choice of that type of act is necessarily, at least implicitly, also a choice of its moral nature and its moral object.

We call the second font the “moral object” or “object”‘, but moral objects never exist apart from concrete acts. So the second font is the intentional choice of a concrete act, whose inherent moral meaning is determined by its object. Each good or bad act is intrinsically ordered toward a proximate end (the moral object), and that ordering constitutes the moral nature of the act. An act intrinsically ordered toward evil is an intrinsically evil act; it is always wrong to deliberately (intentionally, voluntarily) choose to commit such an act. Every intrinsically evil act is immoral by its very nature.

However, in both cases — finis agentis and finis actus — it is not the attainment of the end that makes the font good or bad, but rather the choice by the free will of the intention and the act, each with its inherent ordering. An intention ordered toward an evil end is an evil intention. An act ordered toward an evil moral object is an evil act. The intention remains evil even if the bad intended end is not attained. The act remains evil even if the bad moral object is not attained.

We could say the same about circumstances. The ordering of the circumstances toward certain good and bad consequences is what makes the font good or bad, even if the reasonably anticipated good or bad consequences fail to result. A disordered font is always a bad font. The end of each font gives the font its good or bad ordering, but it is the ordering toward these ends, not the attainment of the ends, that determines the morality of each font.

When a person chooses to commit an act for a good intended end (a good purpose), does the moral object become good due to this intention? No. The good intended end is in the subject (finis agentis), whereas the chosen act has its own end (finis actus). If that end (the moral object) is evil, then the deliberate choice of the act is always objectively a sin.

Notice that the act must be intentionally (deliberately) chosen to be an intrinsically evil act. And this explains why it might seem that, in some magisterial teachings on intrinsic evil, a certain intention is required. For example:

“The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable.” (Vademecum for confessors, n. 4).

The Church does not teach that couples may use contraception as long as they lack contraceptive intent. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances:

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

Rather, the marital act is “intentionally rendered unfruitful” in the sense that the intrinsically evil act of contraception is intentionally chosen, and the choice of the act includes the choice of its ordering and its end.

A couple who are infertile due to injury, disease, or old age do not contracept by having marital relations. In such a case, the chosen act remains ordered toward the procreative meaning as its moral object, even though that object cannot be attained. In the contrary case, a couple who choose to use a contraceptive pill or device, and yet who conceive a child by chance, have nevertheless intentionally chosen the disordered act called contraception. The end determines the ordering, but the choice of the ordering is independent of the attainment of the end.

It is not the attainment of the good or evil moral object that determines the morality of the act, but rather the intentional choice of an act ordered toward that good or evil end. Contraceptive acts must be intentionally chosen in order to be intrinsically evil. But the intentional choice of an act intrinsically ordered toward depriving sexual acts of their procreative meaning is the sin of contraception, even if the intended end or purpose is good.

Any “actions which are in themselves (that is, by their nature and condition) ordered toward a contraceptive end” are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of the purpose of the act. That quote is from Reply of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Sterilization in Catholic Hospitals [Quaecumque Sterilizatio, March 13, 1975, AAS 68 (1976) 738-740; DOCUMENTA 25], distinguishing the sins of contraception and direct sterilization from indirect sterilization.

Why does it seem, in some Church documents, that intention or circumstance are part of the definition of the moral object?

One reason is that all intrinsically evil acts must be intentionally chosen. The Magisterium refers to intrinsically evil acts as deliberate, voluntary, or intentional because the free will must knowingly choose the act for it to qualify as intrinsically evil. If you assert a falsehood believing it to be true, you have not committed the intrinsically evil act of lying, not even as a merely objective sin. If you have relations with your spouse, and later it is discovered that your marriage was not valid, you have not committed the intrinsically evil sin of fornication. Intrinsically evil acts are always intentionally chosen; they must be knowingly chosen.

Another reason is that the overall act always includes an intended end and the circumstances. So it is common in discussing any sin to mention intention or circumstances. Euthanasia is murder with the intention of relieving all suffering. But that good intended end does not make euthanasia moral. Abortion is murder in the circumstance that the innocent victim is prenatal. But if you wait until the prenatal is born, the act is still murder. An intrinsically evil act can be defined or described with intention or circumstance without implying that the moral object is determined by intention or circumstance.

The CCC defines masturbation as “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action”, and yet the most common intention is mentioned: “in order to derive sexual pleasure.” (CCC 2352) This type of sexual act remains gravely immoral, even if the purpose is not pleasure, but to obtain a specimen for medical analysis. The mention of a common intended end does not imply that the moral object depends on that intention.

The choice to use a contraceptive pill while sexually active is an inherently contraceptive act, regardless of the purpose of the choice. A couple still sin if they use a condom for the purpose (finis agentis) of preventing the spread of disease. They lack a contraceptive intention, yet they are still choosing an inherently contraceptive act. By choosing that type of act, they are in a real sense intentionally choosing to contracept, despite a medical purpose as their intended end. The finis actus is inherent to the deliberate choice of any act.

There is a false doctrine spreading online: that the moral object is defined in some cases by intention or by circumstances. The result of this error is that certain intrinsically evil acts are said to become a different type of act, one that is no longer evil, due to a good purpose or a different circumstance. This type of claim was soundly rejected by Pope Saint John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor.

“the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.” (Veritatis Splendor 82)

The opinion that you cannot know an act is immoral solely by knowing its species (the nature of the act as determined by its moral object) without also knowing intention and circumstances has been rejected by the Magisterium. If you know that the moral object is evil, then you know that the act is immoral, without knowing anything about the circumstances or the intended end (purpose of the act).

“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 82)

If the moral object were determined by intention or circumstances, then a different intention or circumstance could make the act no longer intrinsically evil. But as Pope Saint John Paul II teaches above, that can never happen. Neither circumstances nor intention can transform an intrinsically evil act into a good act because the moral object of the act is evil, making the act itself inherently immoral. The morality of an intrinsically evil act is wholly and solely determined by its object, independent of intention and circumstances.

“A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together…. The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety…. 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.” (CCC 1755-1756)

I just don’t know how the Magisterium could phrase this teaching so that it is any clearer. Intention and circumstances do not determine the object of the act. There are three fonts of morality, not only two. Some acts are immoral by the very nature of the act, and so it is always wrong to choose that type of act. A good intention or an unfortunate circumstance cannot alter the object, making the intrinsically evil act moral. Intention, object, and circumstances are three distinct sources (fonts) of morality.

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. (Veritatis Splendor 82)

An act with an evil moral object is ordered toward evil by its very nature. The act is irremediably evil, due to this inherent moral disorder. The only moral choice is to choose a different type of act, an act with a good moral object.

‘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?’. (Veritatis Splendor 82)

“Who would dare to affirm that” by committing a disordered act for a good purpose, the act would no longer be a sin? I can actually name persons who believe and teach this error. You can find them on the internet, spreading this false idea, despite the fact that the Magisterium and Pope Saint John Paul II have clearly condemned this grave error. And many of them actually claim that they are merely teaching what the Magisterium itself teaches. They do not put forward their claims as a theological opinion. Instead, they publicly assert that this grave error (already condemned by the Magisterium) is merely the correct understanding of Church teaching.

May God have mercy on the Church, constantly besieged by arrogant and ignorant teachers of grave doctrinal error.

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

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2 Responses to Intrinsic Evil

  1. Matt says:

    After the Warning, Consolation and Miracle occur, the repentance by married couples for using contraception may result in a huge baby boom. What are your thoughts?

    • Ron Conte says:

      You could be right about that. It would be good for society to have more children. But they will suffer through the first part of the tribulation.

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