Catholic Ethics and the Concrete Act

Overview of Ethics

Human persons have the gifts of reason and free will from God. The use of these gifts, in knowing choices, implies moral responsibility. For we are capable of understanding transcendent truths and of distinguishing between good and evil. And we are capable of understanding that our actions may please or offend our Creator, and may harm or help other human persons.

The Catholic Faith teaches that three and only three things make any exercise of reason and free will moral or immoral before the eyes of God: the three fonts of morality.

1. Intention. The first font is the intention of the person who acts. This font is the purpose chosen by the person; it is the reason for choosing the act. The intention resides in the person who acts. It is always wrong to act with a bad intention, i.e. with a bad purpose in your mind and heart.

2. Object. The second font is the object (or moral object) of the knowingly chosen act. The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. But the whole font does not consist solely of this end, for moral objects do not exist apart from knowingly chosen acts.

So the second font is really the knowing choice of a concrete act, with its inherent ordering toward its moral object. When the moral object is evil, any act inherently ordered toward that evil is an inherently evil act, also called an intrinsically evil act. It is always wrong to knowingly choose an intrinsically evil act.

The moral object resides in the act itself, not in the person who acts. The moral object is not the purpose or reason for choosing the act. When an act has an evil moral object, no intention or purpose, no circumstance, and no other acts can make that act good or in any way justifiable as a knowing choice.

Every knowingly chosen act has a moral nature, which is nothing other than the inherent ordering of the concrete act toward its moral object. Every act is either good or evil, either morally permissible or immoral (sinful). Acts have a moral nature because they are knowingly chosen by human persons, who can understand right from wrong, and who are called to act in accord with the love of God and neighbor.

3. Circumstances. The third font is the totality of the reasonably anticipated good and bad consequences for all persons affected by the act. When the reasonably anticipated bad consequences morally outweigh the good consequences, the third font is bad and the act is a sin. It is always wrong to act when you reasonably anticipate that your act will do more harm than good.

What is a Concrete Act?

A concrete act is an exercise of reason and free will by a human person in a particular instance. Some concrete acts are entirely interior, confined to the mind and will. Other concrete acts include an exterior action, but always along with the interior knowing choice of the human person. A sin of omission occurs when the person decides not to perform an act (interior or exterior) required by the moral law. Such a decision is itself an interior act; it is a knowing choice, and so it is a concrete act.

Morality concerns the concrete acts of human persons. In particular, the second font — called the moral object — is based on the concrete act itself. Intention and circumstances relate to, or we could say, surround, the concrete act. But the moral object is derived solely from that concrete act, and is the sole determinate of its inherent morality.

Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“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.” [CCC 1755]

“There are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose, because their choice entails a disorder of the will, i.e., a moral evil. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” [CCC 1761]

“Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed.” [CCC 1778]

Pope Saint John Paul II:

“But the negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior 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]

“Activity is morally good when it attests to and expresses the voluntary ordering of the person to his ultimate end and the conformity of a concrete action with the human good as it is acknowledged in its truth by reason. If the object of the concrete action is not in harmony with the true good of the person, the choice of that action makes our will and ourselves morally evil, thus putting us in conflict with our ultimate end, the supreme good, God himself.” [Veritatis Splendor 72]

The Structure of the Second Font

When a human person exercises the gifts of reason and free will, in a knowing choice, that choice is subject to conscience and to the eternal moral law of God. Each and every knowing choice of the human person is a concrete act. A human act is termed “concrete” because it is not a mere abstract possibility, but a particular instance of a human person acting. A concrete act is the exercise of reason and free will in a particular case. Every concrete act — the act of any human person in any particular case — is either good (at least morally permissible) or evil (sinful to knowingly choose).

Every human act has the same structure: the knowing choice of a concrete act, with its moral nature, as determined by its moral object. Every knowingly chosen act includes all three components:

(1) concrete act — what you are choosing to do, in any particular case
(2) moral nature — the ordering of the act toward its object(s)
(3) moral object — the good or evil end(s) toward which the concrete act is inherently ordered

The knowing choice of any concrete act always necessarily includes the choice of its nature and its object. In choosing any act, we choose the concrete act, and its moral meaning, and its object. These three components are inseparable.

For example, if a person chooses to use an abortifacient while sexually active, that concrete act is ordered toward the death of the innocent prenatal, and so its moral nature is that of direct abortion — regardless of the purpose which the person who acts has in mind for that act. Such a choice is the intrinsically evil act of abortion, and cannot be justified by any intention, purpose, or circumstance.

Thus, when a human person chooses the same concrete act, for a different purpose or in a different circumstance, that act nevertheless retains the same moral nature and the same moral object. For the moral object and moral nature are rooted in the chosen concrete act.

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

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