Basic Principles of Ethics (rejected by some conservative Catholics)

Three Fonts

Morality concerns human acts. Each exercise of will and intellect, that is, each knowing deliberate choice, is an act, and is subject to a judgment of conscience and the final judgment of God. The acts of human persons are either good or evil; they are either sinful (illicit) or moral (licit; permissible). Some acts are virtuous, deserving reward; other acts are sinful, deserving punishment. Acts which are neither virtuous, nor sinful, are nevertheless morally permissible as long as they are not sins.

Each act is judged as to its morality based on only three things, called the three fonts or sources of morality. These fonts spring up from the knowingly chosen act, and are the sole reason that the act can be judged to be moral or immoral. No act takes its morality from another act. Each act is judged to be moral or immoral based on the three fonts that spring up from, and apply to, that single act.

The three fonts are as follows:

1. intention — the intended end; the purpose or reason for choosing the act; the intention for which the choice was made. This end resides in the subject, the person who acts (finis agentis). If the intended end is evil, then the choice of that act, with that intention, is always a sin — until and unless the intention changes.

2. moral object — the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. The intrinsic ordering of the chosen act towards the object constitutes the moral nature of the act; the moral object is an end which resides in the act (finis actus), not in the person who acts.

An evil object means that the chosen act is inherently ordered toward evil, making the knowing deliberate choice of the act always objectively sinful. Such acts are termed intrinsically evil. Nothing can make the knowing choice of an intrinsically evil act moral. The only moral choice is to choose a different type of act, one that is inherently licit.

3. circumstances — the totality of the foreseeable consequences of the act for all persons concerned. The reasonably anticipated good and bad effects of the act are weighed according to the moral law. If the act is reasonably anticipated to do more harm than good, then the choice of that act is always a sin — until and unless the circumstances change.

Fonts and Ends

Each font proceeds from the human will toward its own type of end: intended end, moral object, and end results. The three fonts are merely three different types of ends. Why should the morality of an act be determined by three ends? Is it not sufficient for the will to be good?

The reason that morality is determined by ends is that God created all that exists, but most especially human persons made in His image, to be ordered toward God as the final end and greatest good of all things. We poor fallen sinners are not gods; therefore, our will, by itself, cannot be the definition of good or evil. Instead, all that we do must be capable of being ordered toward God, and toward fulfilling (or at least not contradicting) the greatest commandments: love God above all else, and love your neighbor as yourself.

So then, to be moral, the knowingly chosen acts of human persons must be ordered toward only good: only good in the intended end, only good in the moral object, and only good in the consequences of the act. And the goodness of each font is judged by the commandments to love God, neighbor, self.

The three fonts of morality are taught by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Veritatis Splendor, and other sources. The USCCB Catechism has a particularly approachable, and still technically correct explanation:

“Every moral act consists of three elements: the objective act (what we do), the subjective goal or intention (why we do the act), and the concrete situation or circumstances in which we perform the act…. All three aspects must be good — the objective act, the subjective intention, and the circumstances — in order to have a morally good act.” (United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, July 2006, p. 311-312.)

The USCCB catechism is correct. The moral object does not exist on its own. Rather, the font called object consists of the knowingly chosen concrete act, its moral nature, and its object. The moral object determines the morality of that font, but the font is structured to include “what we do”, that is to say, “the objective act” chosen by the human person. Every knowing deliberate choice encompasses three things: the chosen concrete act, the moral nature of that act, and the object which determines the morality of the choice. By choosing any act, the human person necessarily also chooses, at least implicitly, its nature and object.

Intrinsically Evil Acts

Intrinsically evil acts are always wrong to knowingly choose. They are morally wrong by the very nature of the act. For the nature of every act is nothing other than its inherent ordering toward a proximate end, called the object. An evil object means that the nature of the act is inherently morally disordered. The knowing choice of such a morally disordered (or intrinsically evil) act is always objectively sinful.

However, it is not the attainment of the moral object that makes the act good or evil, but the knowing deliberate choice of the concrete act, which is ordered toward good or evil by its nature. If a person chooses an intrinsically evil act, but the act fails to attain its evil object, the choice was nevertheless objectively sinful. And if a person chooses an intrinsically good act, but the act fails to attain its good object, the choice was nevertheless objectively moral.

Now, the Magisterium clearly and definitively teaches that when an act is intrinsically evil, that act is always immoral regardless of intention or circumstances.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. 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. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” (CCC, n. 1756)

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).

Pope Pius XI: “But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good.” (Casti Connubii, n. 54.)

Pope John Paul II: “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 62)

Pope John Paul II: “In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture…. 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?’.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 81)

Neither can intention or circumstances transform an act that is intrinsically evil into another type of act, one that is moral or good.

Pope John Paul II: “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, n. 81.)

Two Ways to Reject This Teaching

1. On the left, many liberal Catholic authors simply reject the idea that some acts are always wrong. They acknowledge that certain acts are usually gravely immoral, but they reject the idea that any act can be, in principle by its very nature, immoral without taking into consideration intention and circumstances.

2. On the right, many conservative Catholic authors pay lip service to the doctrine of the object, that an act with an evil moral object is intrinsically evil and always immoral. But for any intrinsically evil act they wish to justify, they claim that the act in a particular case is not to be considered intrinsically evil. It has been transformed by intention or circumstances or its proximity to another act into a different kind of act, one that is not intrinsically evil. This radical reinterpretation of the moral law is able to justify nearly any intrinsically evil act, by clever rhetoric, by relabeling the act with some other term.

As a result, we see conservative Catholic priests and theologians arguing in favor of contraception, abortifacients, abortion, lying, grave sexual sins, mass murder (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), etc. Once you take away the fundamental ethical principle that some acts are always wrong to knowingly choose, the rest of morality crumbles to the ground.

Yes, the vast majority of conservative Catholics, writing on ethics, either entirely ignore the three fonts and the moral object, or they radically reinterpret Church teaching on intrinsic evil, so as to approve of popular grave sins.

Which is worse, the liberal attack on the doctrine of intrinsically evil acts, or the conservative one? The latter is worse, because it masquerades as the teaching of Jesus Christ and His Church, when it is accurately termed a diabolical teaching, as it can be used to justify many exceedingly wicked sins.

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

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5 Responses to Basic Principles of Ethics (rejected by some conservative Catholics)

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    Acts which are neither virtuous, nor sinful, are nevertheless morally permissible as long as they are not sins.

    No debate, it’s just that the last seven words are redundant.

  2. Matt Z. says:

    Thanks for making this teaching so clear. Although, I would say the liberal attack is much more dangerous because it is much more deliberate. The conservative view is more in blind ignorance(although some are in denial to their own sinful views/lifestyle) , while the liberal attack knowingly goes after the change of doctrine & dogma to conform to their own sinful views/lifestyle, or the culture at large, or an evil agenda. Cardinal Marx wants to bless same sex unions/marriages!?!?!

    • Ron Conte says:

      I think it is two sides of the same coin. Cardinal Marx approves of same-sex unions. Conservatives have decided to greatly narrow the condemnation of contraception to apply solely within marriage. It’s just as harmful.

  3. Jay says:

    Ron I don’t know if any conservative who says sex outside of marriage is OK in the first place. That’s not what a conservative would say.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Right. They say that contraception outside marriage is … various claims other than that it is intrinsically evil and gravely immoral. And you can’t respond by saying, well, you shouldn’t have sex outside marriage, so there should be no contraception use outside marriage. The reason that doesn’t suffice is that many persons have sex outside marriage, and the Church has a responsibility to teach the whole moral law — not only the moral law for those who avoid grave sin, or certain grave sins. Example: the CCC teaches that rape is gravely immoral, and the rape of a child is graver still. The fact that someone sins gravely does not exempt them from other provisions of the moral law, and does not prevent the Church from teaching which other acts or aspects of an act make it more gravely immoral. And the Church must consider what Catholic hospitals may and may not do, morally, when dealing with unmarried persons who have sex perhaps with contraception. The Church has to consider what governments may and may not do with regard to programs affecting the general population on contraception.

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