Human Acts have an Inherent Moral Meaning

Human persons are created by God with the gifts of body and soul, intellect and free will. We are responsible before God for the use or misuse of those gifts. As persons created in the image of God, we are called to love God above all else and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our use of intellect and free will, in every knowing free choice, is judged by God based on that threefold love: an ordered love of God, neighbor, self. The eternal moral law is based on the love of God, neighbor, self. Every sin is in some way and to some extent contrary to that love. Every moral act is in harmony with that love.

Every knowing free choice is subject to the eternal moral law. In Catholic ethics, morality is based on knowing choices. The term “act” or “human act” refers to each and every exercise of the gifts of knowledge and free will. A human act is a knowing deliberate choice. Each choice is an act. Some acts are interior, restricted to the heart and mind. Other acts are exterior; they including the interior exercise of intellect and free will as well as an exterior bodily or physical action.

Human acts have a moral nature, which is the inherent moral meaning of the knowing deliberate choice. Even when an act is a physical action, that act has a nature in terms of morality. But the actions of human persons are never merely physical; they are knowing deliberate choices before the eyes of God, who is justice and love by His very Nature. So every concrete act (the act in a particular case) of a human person has a meaning, intrinsic to the act, in terms of morality. This meaning is the moral nature of the act.

The moral nature of the act is sometimes also called its “moral species”. For the nature of an act is the type (kind, species) of act, in terms of morality. The term moral species was used by Saint Thomas Aquinas, and it has been used by the Magisterium, especially in Veritatis Splendor. These terms are interchangeable: the moral nature, or moral species, or moral meaning of the act. Veritatis Splendor also uses the term “kinds of behavior” to refer to this same concept, the moral nature of the act.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behaviour prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments. As we have seen, Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions: ‘If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments… You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness’ (Mt 19:17-18).” [Veritatis Splendor 52]

Every concrete act is comparable to the human person: the one person is comprised of body and soul, thoroughly united in one nature. The concrete act is the figurative body of the act, and its inherent moral meaning (moral nature, moral species) is the figurative soul of the act. In the analysis of the morality of acts, we cannot separate the concrete act from its inherent moral meaning, just as we cannot separate the soul of a person from the body (except in death). Physical actions, knowingly chosen by human persons before the eyes of God, are never morally neutral; they never lack an inherent moral meaning.

Even in the abstract, apart from the knowing deliberate choice of that act by a human person, acts have a moral nature. The nature of the act is intrinsic to the act itself, regardless of the intentions of the human person who might choose that act. The inherent moral meaning of any act is not affected by subjective intention; it is part of the objective act. Some acts are objectively moral, and other acts are objectively immoral. If this were not true, then the ten commandments would be only guidelines, to be interpreted and applied differently in different cases, rather than an expression of the moral law.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition.” [Veritatis Splendor 49]

“But the negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behaviour as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever. Once the moral species of an action prohibited by a universal rule is concretely recognized, the only morally good act is that of obeying the moral law and of refraining from the action which it forbids.” [Veritatis Splendor 67]

Some acts have an evil moral nature. These acts are immoral, in and of themselves, by the very nature of the act, apart from intention or circumstances. Such acts are termed intrinsically evil. It is always a sin to knowingly choose an intrinsically evil act. The evil is intrinsic to the act itself; it is not a result of choosing or performing the act for a particular purpose. An intrinsically evil act chosen for a good reason is nevertheless a sinful act; it remains intrinsically evil. An intrinsically evil chosen in a circumstance where the good consequences far outweigh the bad consequences, and none of the bad consequences are intended, is nevertheless a sinful act; it remains intrinsically evil.

God is always offended when we choose to commit any intrinsically evil act, because intrinsically evil acts have an inherent moral meaning (moral nature, moral species) that is contrary to the justice and love inherent to the Divine Nature. If you truly love God, you must not knowingly choose an inherently evil act.

What makes the act intrinsically evil? The concrete act — the act in any particular case — always has an inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God. And that meaning, called the nature of the act, is nothing other than its inherent ordering toward a proximate end, an end in terms of morality called the moral object. When the object is evil, the act is intrinsically evil and always wrong to knowingly choose.

Intrinsically evil acts are always knowingly chosen, in other words: intentionally chosen, deliberately chosen, voluntarily chosen. Acts are the knowing deliberate choices of human persons before the eyes of God, our Creator and Father. We exercise the gifts of intellect (knowledge) and free will whenever we act, for an act is a knowing free choice. Each choice is subject to the eternal moral law. And that is why many magisterial documents on intrinsically evil acts refer to those acts as “deliberate” or “deliberately chosen” or “intentional” or “voluntary”. However, this does NOT imply that the very same concrete act, or the very same kind of behavior, becomes moral when chosen for a different intention, or in a different circumstance.

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]

Intrinsically evil acts are irremediably evil acts. Neither intention nor circumstances can reform the act, making it morally good.

Prevailing Opinion

A particular not uncommon opinion among Catholic theologians, apologists, and other authors, on the topic of intrinsically evil acts, is directly contrary to the teaching of Veritatis Splendor on intrinsically evil acts.

They often evaluate the morality of acts without any reference to the three fonts of morality. Sometimes, they discuss intention and circumstances, but without mention of the moral object of the act. Other times, their arguments are essentially a claim that one can know that an act is moral, without knowing its moral object or moral nature. They do not base their moral teachings on the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which is the most extensive and comprehensive teaching document on the basic principles of ethics.

Veritatis Splendor has been rejected by most Catholic moral theologians and by most Catholics who write on ethics. They ignore its teaching. Sometimes they openly contract what Pope Saint John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendor.

Veritatis Splendor clearly and definitively teaches that certain “kinds of behavior” are intrinsically evil and therefore always wrong to knowingly (deliberately, intentionally, voluntarily) choose. But the prevailing opinion is that any particular kind of behavior is devoid of morality, without an evaluation of the reason or purpose for which the act was chosen (intention), and its good and bad effects (consequences).

Pope Saint John Paul II: “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’.”

Pope Saint John Paul II also describes, in Veritatis Splendor, certain false ideas on morality:

FALSE: “A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise” [Veritatis Splendor 49]

FALSE: “it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behaviour” [Veritatis Splendor 75]

FALSE: “deliberate consent to certain kinds of behaviour declared illicit by traditional moral theology would not imply an objective moral evil.” [Veritatis Splendor 75]

FALSE: “justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behaviour contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law.” [Veritatis Splendor 76]

FALSE: “it is impossible to qualify as morally evil … the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.” [Veritatis Splendor 79]

FALSE: “it is impossible to qualify as morally evil … 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 above ideas are all rejected as FALSE by Pope Saint John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. And yet these ideas are typically found in most Catholic writings — whether by theologians or apologists or priests or bloggers and online commentators — on morality.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also teaches the same truths taught by Pope Saint John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. The CCC emphasizes the three fonts (“sources”) of morality. The CCC teaches that an act with an evil moral object is never justified by intention or circumstances.

And yet, most present-day Catholic writings on ethics are incompatible with, and at times directly contrary to, Veritatis Splendor and the CCC on ethics. They seem to be seeking another system of morality, one that allows certain kinds of behavior, called intrinsically evil by the teaching of the Church, to become morally permissible with a good intention or purpose, or in a difficult circumstance or context. And their audience praises them for their efforts to cast off the yoke of the Lord.

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

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

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