How To Decide Right from Wrong

The Catholic Church has certain clear teachings on which acts are moral, and which are immoral. For example, good acts include: prayer, self-denial, and the works of mercy. Bad acts include theft, lying, murder, contraception, abortion, and the various sexual sins. Certainly, when the Church has a teaching on particular acts, the faithful are bound by that teaching.

The problem is that most believing and practicing Catholic have no idea how to determine the morality of an act in any particular case, unless it is one of those acts recommended or condemned by the Church. No idea whatsoever. And to make matters worse, they think that ethics consists in the Church deciding each case, and issuing a ruling or teaching. They have reduced ethics to a set of juridical decisions, from which one would try to deduce the correct behavior in one’s own situation (much like the decretals in regard to Church regulations).

But such a system is not consonant with the actual teaching of the Church on morality. The Church does not teach that the faithful are unable to discern right from wrong on their own. The Church does not teach that ethics consists in following the decisions of the Church on each moral question. But neither does the Church leave each individual Catholic to follow his own unguided conscience.

Instead, the Roman Catholic Magisterium teaches basic principles of ethics, which can be applied to any and all moral questions, in order to determine the correct (ethical) behavior. And these teachings on the basic principles of ethics are then supplemented by particular decisions of the Magisterium on ethical matters, which the Church Herself decides in the same way, by applying the basic principles of ethics.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the encyclical of Pope Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, teach a system of ethics which goes back to Saint Thomas Aquinas, in its particulars, but which also has roots in Biblical teachings and in the teachings of early Church Fathers, especially Saint Augustine. This system is called the three fonts of morality.

The three fonts or sources of morality determine whether any human act, that is to say, any deliberate knowing choice, is moral (permissible without sin) or immoral (sinful to knowingly choose). If any one or more fonts is bad, the act is objectively immoral. Only if all three fonts are good is the act morally licit.

The three fonts are intention, object, circumstances.

1. Intention — the intended end; the purpose for which the act it chosen. This intention motivates the act. All that one intends, in the purpose for which the act is chosen, must be good.

It is always wrong to act with a bad intention.

2. Object — the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. The object reveals whether the chosen act is good or evil by its moral type or moral “species”. An act with an evil object is intrinsically evil, and therefore always wrong to knowingly choose. Some acts have more than one object; all objects of the act must be good for the act, otherwise the act is inherently immoral. Any evil in the object of the act makes the act intrinsically evil.

It is always wrong to choose a bad type of act.

3. Circumstances — the totality of the reasonably anticipated consequences of the act for all persons affected. The possible good and bad consequences of the act are weighed, in terms of morality.

It is always wrong to act, when you reasonably anticipated that your act will do more harm than good.

Each font is a type of end. Each end is judged, as to whether it is good or bad based on the love of God above all else and the love of neighbor as self.

Every believing and practicing Catholic should know this doctrine, and should be capable of applying it in any and all situations, so as to be able to do good and to avoid doing evil.

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

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4 Responses to How To Decide Right from Wrong

  1. Emanuel Costa says:

    That’s a great reminder. Often, I have asked myself about how a person can know whether his action is immoral or not, this post answered my question. Thanks.
    P.S.: If you don’t mind, I would like to ask you if there is a reason other than the bureaucracy of why consecrated women and laypeople don’t take part in Roman Curia or another high ranking Vatican office. Thanks again

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Bishops of the Church, by virtue of ordination to the Episcopate, have the help of God when teaching the Faith, so they are a better fit for many roles of leadership than a priest, deacon, religious, or lay person.

  2. Matt Z. says:

    If you were to just estimate, how many total intrinsically evil acts might there be?

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