Certain Kinds of Behavior are Always Wrong to Knowingly Choose

Intrinsically Evil Acts

The type or kind of an act, in terms of its morality, is called the “moral species” of the act. Some acts are wrong by the nature of the act. These acts are a bad type of act. Such acts represent a kind of behavior that is always wrong to knowingly choose. These acts are called intrinsically evil by the Church because the moral nature of the act is evil.

What makes the act immoral is the knowing deliberate choice of an inherently disordered act by the human will. And the act is wrong to choose because it is directed, by its very nature, toward an evil end, called the moral object of the act.

Now, in choosing any concrete act (the act in a particular case), the human person necessarily always chooses the concrete act, its moral nature, and its moral object. And the nature of the act is nothing other than the inherent ordering of the concrete act towards its object. Any evil in the moral object makes the act intrinsically evil and always immoral.

Intrinsically evil acts are immoral regardless of intention. They are not wrong due to the intended end, i.e. the purpose for which the act was chosen. The acts are wrong because they are intrinsically morally disordered, and because they are chosen, knowingly and intentionally, by the will. But the intentional choice of a concrete act differs from the intended end. The chosen act is the intentionally chosen means to the intended end.

Intrinsically evil acts are immoral regardless of circumstances. The moral weight of the reasonably anticipated good and bad effects of the act, no matter how they are evaluated, cannot justify the intentional choice of an intrinsically evil act. The end results of the act do not justify the use of an intrinsically evil act as the means to that end.

Common Misunderstanding

In the three fonts of morality, many authors confuse the first font of intention with the second font of the moral object. The basis for this confusion is the structure of the second font: the human will intentionally chooses a concrete act, and, in doing so, necessarily always chooses the moral nature of the act as determined by its object. The one choice of the will, an intentional (deliberate, voluntary, knowing) choice, includes all three aspects of the act itself: the concrete act (the act in the particular case), the inherent moral meaning of the act (its moral nature), and the end toward which the act is inherently ordered (its moral object).

But the intentional choice of this threefold thing (act, nature, object) is not the intended end of the act. The first font of intention is the intended end, the purpose for which the act was chosen. The moral object is an end which resides in the act itself (finis actus), because the act is intrinsically ordered to that end. The intention is an end which resides in the subject (finis agentis), the person who acts. The person chooses the intended end, and then chooses a particular act. But in choosing that act, he also, at least implicitly, choses its nature and its object, regardless of his intended end (the purpose of his choice).

For example, the sin of euthanasia is essentially murder (the moral nature of the act) with the intention (purpose) of relieving all suffering. The good intended end of relieving suffering does not make the act morally good. The act is intrinsically evil because the human will intentionally chose an act inherently ordered toward the death of an innocent human person (the moral object). The moral object of the act is not the medical purpose to relieve suffering, but rather the death of an innocent. And since that death is the end toward which the intentionally chosen act is inherently ordered, the death of that innocent is a moral evil and the act is intrinsically evil.

The same analysis holds true for any act with a good purpose, even a medical purpose, when the act is inherently ordered toward a moral deprivation as its proximate end.

But the reason for the confusion is that magisterial documents sometimes use the term “intention” to refer to the intentional choice of an intrinsically evil act, and other times to refer to the intended end or purpose of the act. This use of intention in two different ways is not itself an error, since the human will is the source of all three fonts of morality.

Acts have a Nature

An act can be merely an internal decision. An act can be limited to the interior confines of heart and mind. An exterior act includes the interior choice of will and intellect as well as an exterior action. How can a mere physical action have a prohibitive moral meaning, which cannot be removed by a good intention or dire circumstances?

Every human act has an inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God. Acts have this essential moral nature because they are the acts of human persons, who are made in the image of God, who understand transcendent values of good and evil, who choose freely and knowingly, and who have a conscience. Acts have a moral nature because they are the acts of the children of God. And God is inherently entirely perfectly infinitely good.

Therefore, it is false to say that exterior actions or behaviors have no inherent moral meaning, apart from the intended end (the purpose, for which the act is chosen), and apart from the reasonably anticipated consequences. Some acts have an evil moral nature. Such acts are called intrinsically evil because the concrete act is intrinsically ordered toward a morally-direct end which is deprived of some good required by the love of God and the love of neighbor as self. The intentional knowing choice of an act which is inherently morally disordered is always an objective sin, precisely because the act has an evil moral nature and is deliberately knowingly chosen.

What if acts did not have a moral nature? If so, then any act could be morally justified by a good intention or a difficult circumstance — any act, including: murder, mass murder, genocide, rape, slavery, child abuse, torture, etc. Thus, if we abandon the teaching of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium that some acts are always immoral, that is, always wrong to knowingly choose, then even the most reprehensible and inhumane acts become justifiable. And so, we cannot hold that acts are never intrinsically evil. We cannot hold that nothing is always wrong, apart from a consideration of intention and circumstances.

Veritatis Splendor

Now let’s see what Pope Saint John Paul II teaches on the three fonts of morality in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (the Splendor of Truth).

“The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behavior is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour. It is prohibited — to everyone and in every case — to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost, never to offend in anyone, beginning with oneself, the personal dignity common to all.” Veritatis Splendor 52

John Paul II teaches that “a given action” can be prohibited “semper and pro semper” (always and in each instance) because “the choice” of that “kind of behavior” is contrary to the love of God and neighbor. So when the will of a human person chooses a morally disordered kind of behavior, they are committing a sin (at least objectively). And there are no exceptions, regardless of the cost, meaning regardless of the reasonably anticipated good and bad effects of refraining from that action. But the root of the sinfulness of such an immoral “kind of behavior” is the choice of the will, a choice made before God.

So there are no exceptions, regardless of the cost, to the prohibition against knowingly choosing intrinsically evil acts. An example would be the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The act of bombing an entire city is intrinsically evil as a type of mass murder. The Magisterium has clearly condemned this moral type of act (moral nature) and specifically condemned those particular bombings (CCC 2314 and see my discussion here). Therefore, the bombings cannot be justified by appeal to the consequences that would have occurred if the U.S. refrained from striking cities with nuclear bombs.

“there are kinds of behavior which can never, in any situation, be a proper response — a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person.” Veritatis Splendor 52

An intrinsically evil act is a kind of behavior which can never be a proper response, because we are persons made in the image of God. Our dignity is found in our very nature, which includes the ability to understand transcendent truths and to freely choose between good and evil. Our dignity is found in human nature, which is made in the image of God. And that is why the intentional knowing choice of certain “kinds of behavior” is always wrong. The behavior conflicts with the dignity of human persons, created to love God and one another.

“The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behavior prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments.” Veritatis Splendor 52

This teaching is infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Any teaching on faith or morals which the Church “has always taught” is taught universally, and therefore infallibly. And this teaching of the Magisterium is found in Divine Revelation, in both Testaments of the Sacred Bible. Therefore, Catholic authors may not opine that morality should be based on some other system, which would allow exceptions to the prohibition against inherently disordered acts. Such opinions are abject heresy.

“Judgments about morality cannot be made without taking into consideration whether or not the deliberate choice of a specific kind of behavior is in conformity with the dignity and integral vocation of the human person.” Veritatis Splendor 67

The holy Pontiff is referring to intrinsically evil acts, which he described as “a specific kind of behavior” that is contrary to the dignity and vocation of human persons. But notice that it is the “deliberate choice” by the human will of that act, which makes the choice a sin. Some acts, that is to say, some kinds of behavior, are inherently immoral.

“But the negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception.” Veritatis Splendor 67

Any ethical system which proposes that an intrinsically evil act can be justified in some cases, or that an intrinsically evil act can be transformed into another type of act, one that is no longer intrinsically evil, is contrary to definitive magisterial teaching. And it doesn’t matter what the details of the proposal may be. Catholics are obligated by faith to believe that some kinds of acts are always immoral.

“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

Once we determine that an act has evil in its moral object, and therefore it is a type of act called intrinsically evil, the only moral choice is to refrain from that act. For the moral species or moral nature of the act is found in its ordering toward the object. And when the object is evil, the act is intrinsically immoral.

“The weighing of the goods and evils foreseeable as the consequence of an action is not an adequate method for determining whether the choice of that concrete kind of behavior is according to its species, or in itself, morally good or bad, licit or illicit. The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.” Veritatis Splendor 77

No matter how weighty the consequences of an act may be, we may never morally choose an intrinsically evil act. Even if an intrinsically evil act will shorten a war and save millions of lives, intrinsically evil acts remain immoral. And the reason is that acts have a moral nature (or moral species), which makes the act inherently ordered toward good or evil.

In the recent controversy over the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many Catholics argued for the bombings, based on the dire consequences of continuing the war with only conventional weapons. But such an argument is directly contrary to definitive magisterial teaching. And since that teaching is infallible, the argument is heretical.

“There are certain specific kinds of behavior that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.” Veritatis Splendor 78 [Catechism of the Catholic Church 1761]

Every intrinsically evil act is inherently immoral. But it is the deliberate knowing choice of that act by the will which constitutes the sin.

“One must therefore reject the thesis, characteristic of teleological and proportionalist theories, which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its object — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behavior 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

The above quoted assertion can be rephrased as: We must hold that we can determine that an act is morally evil, if we determine that its object is evil. And in such a case, the act is morally evil regardless of intention or circumstances. Of course, if there is only good in the moral object, then the act is not intrinsically evil, and its morality will rest upon intention and circumstances. A morally good act can be a sin if it is done with a bad intention, or in a circumstance where the act will do more harm than good.

“For this reason — we repeat — 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 behavior 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 quote mentions all three fonts of morality: (1) the intention for which the choice was made, (2) the moral species of the act, (3) the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.

Rejection of Veritatis Splendor

I am still seeing articles on morality, published in Catholic online magazines and on Catholic blogs, as well as commentary in Catholic discussion groups, which constitute a complete unabashed rejection of the teaching of Veritatis Splendor on intrinsically evil acts and the three fonts of morality. Of all the papal documents issued since the foundation of the Catholic Christian Church, Veritatis Splendor is the one most thoroughly ignored, rejected, and radically reinterpreted by conservative Catholics. (In close second place is Humanae Vitae, which certain conservative Catholics have radically revised so as to narrow greatly its condemnation of contraception.)

Why do so many conservative Catholic authors ignore, reject, or radically reinterpret Veritatis Splendor? Why do so many conservative Catholic publications approve of articles entirely incompatible with the teaching of Veritatis Splendor? Many conservative Catholics speak out against Pope Francis, which great bitterness and animosity. But they have rejected the teaching of Veritatis Splendor even more so.

The conservative Catholic subculture has decided that the teaching of Veritatis Splendor on intrinsically evil acts and the three fonts of morality is too hard to accept. They wonder whether the Pope Saint who wrote it mean something other than what his words clearly teach.

[John]
{6:61} Therefore, many of his disciples, upon hearing this, said: “This saying is difficult,” and, “Who is able to listen to it?”

{6:64} It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh does not offer anything of benefit. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
{6:65} But there are some among you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who were unbelieving and which one would betray him.
{6:66} And so he said, “For this reason, I said to you that no one is able to come to me, unless it has been given to him by my Father.”
{6:67} After this, many of his disciples went back, and they no longer walked with him.

[Mark]
{9:8} And as they were descending from the mountain, he instructed them not to relate to anyone what they had seen, until after the Son of man will have risen again from the dead.
{9:9} And they kept the word to themselves, arguing about what “after he will have risen from the dead” might mean.

Schism

Why is a conservative schism currently unfolding? It is because conservative Catholics have decided to replace the teaching authority of the Church with the majority opinion in the conservative Catholic subculture. It is because conservative Catholics have decided that they alone are competent to distinguish good from evil. And that is why Veritatis Splendor has been so thoroughly rejected. Its teaching is difficult, and many conservative Catholics do not feel obligated to submit their minds and hearts to any teaching contrary to their own understanding.

by
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 Certain Kinds of Behavior are Always Wrong to Knowingly Choose

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    But the reason for the confusion is that magisterial documents sometimes use the term “intention” to refer to the intentional choice of an intrinsically evil act, and other times to refer to the intended end or purpose of the act. This use of intention in two different ways is not itself an error, since the human will is the source of all three fonts of morality.

    Maybe this is just one (of many) defects of the English language.

    • Ron Conte says:

      No. The will is involved in all three fonts, so the word “intention” or a word with similar meaning, can be applied to each font, but in different ways. The will proceeds, in each font differently, toward three different kinds of ends: the intended end, the moral object, and the end results (consequences).

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