Human Acts have a Moral Nature

The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on ethics differs from every other source of ethical teachings. The main difference is the doctrine that human acts have a moral nature.

Each of our acts has an inherent moral meaning (or essential moral nature) before conscience and before the justice of God. Interior acts are confined to the heart and mind; exterior acts are of the heart and mind, but include exterior actions. But every human act is an exercise of intellect and free will; it is a knowingly chosen act. And each knowingly chosen act of a human person has a meaning in terms of morality, called its moral nature.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Freedom makes man a moral subject. When he acts deliberately, man is, so to speak, the father of his acts. Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil.” [CCC 1749]

Human acts are subject to the eternal moral law of God, and are either good or evil, in and of themselves. They do not take their inherent morality, that is, their moral nature, from the intention of the person who acts. They do not take their morality from the purpose for which the act was chosen (which is just another way of referring to the intention or intended end of the act). And they do not take their morality from the reasonably anticipated good or bad consequences of the act. Every human act is moral or immoral, in and of itself, by its very nature, quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances.

The moral nature of an act is its type, in terms of morality. It is the moral species of the act, in other words, the ethical type of the act. The act’s species or type is inherent to the chosen act, such that its morality cannot change, regardless of intentions or circumstances.

Proof that this concept is true can be presented to reason.

Person A rapes person B. Knowing that the act is rape, do we need to know the intentions of the rapist in order to know that the act is a grave sin? No, of course not. Do we need to know the circumstances, in order to know the morality of this act? Certainly not. Rape is an act that is immoral, by the very nature of the act, independent of everything else. Once you know it is rape, you know it is immoral.

Some other acts are similarly clear in their immorality, regardless of the purpose for which the act was chosen, regardless of the circumstances, such as: murder, genocide, slavery, and child abuse. Nothing can justify these acts because they are immoral by the very nature of the act. To avoid sin, one must refrain from choosing an act that is immoral by its very nature, and instead choose acts which are inherently moral.

An inherently good act — such as prayer, almsgiving, feeding the hungry, caring for the ill — can become immoral, due to intention or circumstances. But in such a case, the act itself (second font) is inherently good, and the immorality is exterior to the act.

However, when a human act is immoral by its very nature, the act is termed “intrinsically evil”. All intrinsically evil acts are wrong by the very nature of the act. And no intention or purpose or circumstance can justify the act. A good intended end or purpose cannot justify the deliberate choice of an act that is intrinsically immoral.

What makes each knowingly chosen act of a human person moral or immoral, by its very nature? Each knowingly chosen act consists of three inseparable parts: (a) the concrete act, (b) its moral nature, (c) and its moral object. The object of an act is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is intrinsically ordered. And this ordering toward a good or evil moral object is nothing other than the moral nature of the act. So the nature of an act is found in its ordering toward an end, that is either good or evil before the moral law. And the eternal moral law is based on the love of God above all else, and the love of neighbor as self.

The concrete act is the particular interior or exterior choice of the human person, a choice made by the free will in the light of knowledge in the human intellect. The concrete act is the act in a particular case. If I tell you that my neighbor stole from me, and you ask, “What did he steal, and how did he steal it?”, the answer to your question is the concrete act, a particular example of theft. But theft is the name given to the moral nature. There are many different ways to commit theft, and they are all called by that same name, for they all have the same moral nature, determined by the moral object.

What, then, is the moral object? Every act, good or evil, has an end, toward which the act is ordered. This is true because human persons are made in the image of God, and all things in Creation are given a share in the goodness of God by being ordered toward Him who is infinite perfect good. But free will can choose to turn aside from that goodness, and instead choose moral evil. And all moral evil is a deprivation of some good required by the eternal moral law. Acts which are morally evil are disordered; they do not have their God-given good ordering toward God, who is love.

All intrinsically evil acts are immoral, by their very nature, because their moral object is deprived of some good required by the love of God and neighbor, that is to say, required by the eternal moral law.

For example, theft is an act ordered toward the deprivation of goods from their owner. We need not say “unjust deprivation”, since the deliberate choice of an act ordered toward that deprivation is unjust by definition; it is inherently unjust. In other words, we determine that the act is unjust by understanding that it is ordered toward the deprivation of a good required by the love of neighbor.

What happens in the case of expropriation, when goods are taken, against the will of the owner, because an individual or group is in dire need? God is the first owner of all things, and the goods in God’s creation have a common ownership in cases of dire need. Thus, the taking of goods in this case is directly ordered toward fulfilling the common ownership of the community and the first ownership of God, and so the loss of the goods to the owner is an indirect result of that act, a result in the consequences, not in the moral object. The true ownership of the good is not deprived.

In every good or evil act, there is a direct relationship between the concrete act and the moral object, such that the act is ordered toward the object in a way that is morally direct (or morally immediate). When a deprivation of some good is only indirectly related to the concrete act, then that deprivation is in the consequences of the act, not in the moral object.

In murder, the concrete act is directly ordered toward the killing of an innocent human person. But in a self-defense killing, the concrete act is ordered toward defending the innocent, and the deprivation of human life is in the consequences, not in the object.

Notice, however, that in the case of murder, the death of the human person is found in both the moral object and the consequences. So if a deprivation is found in the consequences, even when that consequence is not intended, the same deprivation may still be in the moral object, and so the act can still be intrinsically evil.

Euthanasia is murder with the intention (the purpose or intended end) of relieving all suffering. The death of the person is not the intended end. The death of the person is in the consequences. And yet the act remains an act of murder, because the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered toward the death of an innocent.

It is a common error in ethics to attempt to justify an intrinsically evil act by asserting that the evil, such as the death of a prenatal, is an unintended bad effect. The assertion that an evil end is not intended concerns the first font (intention). And the assertion that the evil end is a bad effect or bad consequence concerns the third font (consequences). But the act can still be intrinsically evil, as that evil end, such as the death of an innocent, can still also be the end toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered.

The Magisterium condemns direct abortion to save the life of the mother, as when the physician crushes the skull of the prenatal, during birth, in a partial-birth abortion. In that case, the intended end or purpose of the act is to save the mother’s life. The death of the prenatal is an unintended bad consequence. And yet the death of the prenatal is also in the moral object, as the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered toward the death of the innocent. And so abortion in this case is direct and therefore intrinsically evil.

Radical Revisionist Ethics

There are two types of radical revisionists, (1) those who explicitly reject the above teaching on intrinsically evil acts, and (2) those who implicitly reject it, by radically reinterpreting the teaching of the Magisterium on the three fonts of morality and intrinsically evil acts.

The second type are far more dangerous. For they pretend that their heretical teaching on ethics is merely the correct understanding of the teaching of Jesus Christ through His Church. They justify partial birth abortion, abortifacient contraception, unnatural sexual acts in marriage, contraception outside of marriage, direct sterilization, and also, for some reason, lying. They do so by taking the intention of the act (the purpose or intended end, chosen by the subject) and using it to define the moral object. They claim that bodily or exterior acts have no moral meaning, apart from the purpose (intention, first font) chosen by the person who acts.

They allow a person to deliberately and knowingly choose an act condemned by the Church as intrinsically evil, and then they claim that the act is not intrinsically evil as the purpose gives the act a different moral nature. Contraception becomes moral, even when it is abortifacient contraception, because of a good purpose or intended end. The deaths of innocent prenatals that result are called an unintended side effect. And they go so far as to claim that a woman who takes an abortifacient contraception pill, while choosing to be sexually active, is not really contracepting and is not guilty of abortion, based on her intentions. These claims are made despite very clear teachings to the contrary in Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

These deceitful revisionists claim to accept that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. They will openly say that some acts are intrinsically evil, and these acts can never be justified for any reason. Then they go on to give reasons why the choice of abortifacient contraception by a woman, who also chooses to be sexually active at the same time, is not really contraception. They conveniently forget to mention that the aforementioned pill is also an abortifacient. They claim that the act is not contraceptive or abortive because of the intention or purpose chosen by the person who acts. There is typically no mention of the moral object, which is the determinant of every intrinsically evil act. They have radically revised the teaching on intrinsically evil acts so that the intrinsically evil act is defined by intention or purpose, instead of by the moral object, thus allowing them to justify partial birth abortions, abortions by abortifacient contraception, and other evils.

I continue to speak out against this grave heresy, which is being spread by priests, theologians, ethics professors, teachers of RCIA and other classes, and by Catholics online. But this heresy on ethics has already spread very widely, mostly by means of the internet. It is rapidly replacing correct doctrine, and in many sources of supposed Catholic teaching, the heresy of radical revisionist ethics is treated as if it were incontestable truth.

Why does this happen? It is because most Catholics commit objective mortal sin without repentance or remorse. They readily accept any teaching that justifies their grave sins. The radical revisionists are teachers with itching ears, seeking to justify the intrinsically evil acts that are popular with their listeners, while still condemning, as always immoral, the intrinsically evil acts that are still unpopular.

Do not be deceived by what appears to be the majority view. Do not be led astray by the good reputation of these heretics. Some have been led astray by pride in their own thinking and by having been poorly taught. But I suspect that some of these teachers understand that their position is directly contrary to magisterial teaching, and they nevertheless disingenuously claim that it is a correct interpretation of doctrine. In any case, the claims of the radical revisionists are heretical and are clearly contrary to past magisterial teachings, as well as the teachings of Saints and Doctors of the Church and the teaching of Sacred Scripture. Thou shalt not commit adultery does not allow for any creative reinterpretation of the word adultery. Thou shalt not murder does not allow spouses to kill their own unborn children with abortifacients so that they don’t have to refrain from sex while taking a “medication”.

“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]

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

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3 Responses to Human Acts have a Moral Nature

  1. Matt Z. says:

    Basically the Radical Revisionist is using consequentialism with sins that he is doing or is teaching others to do, while submitting to true Catholic teaching on the morality of acts when the sin is unpopular or within his own thought of a sin that is intrinsically evil. Well said. This is a result of many years of Cafeteria Type Catholicism within the Catholic Church. Peace and all good.

  2. Tom Mazanec says:

    Every human act is moral or immoral, in and of itself, by its very nature, quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances.

    Can’t an act be amoral? I just moved a bubblegram (laser etched cube) of Jesus about two inches on my desk. That is not immoral…I did not harm anyone or disobey God. It was not moral…it did no good for the world or fulfill any religious obligation. Was it a human act?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Was the act morally permissible? Yes. Then it is considered moral. The act is neutral as concerns reward or punishment, but it is not a sin. Human persons are made in the image of God, so if they choose an act that is not disordered (by intention, object, or circumstances), then the act is good.

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