The Three Fonts of Morality

A human act is a knowing choice made by a human person. Every human act is an exercise of free will, making a choice based on knowledge in the intellect. Each choice is an act. All acts are subject to the eternal moral law of God. Some acts are interior; they are confined to the heart and mind. Other acts are exterior; they include some type of physical action. A human act is sometimes called a concrete act, because the act knowingly chosen by free will is an objective reality; it is not a mere abstraction. And it takes a particular form in each case. But every act is subject to the eternal moral law of God.

The Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the basis for the morality of each and every act is three-fold: the three fonts of morality. A font is a source or basis or cause for the morality of an act. An act is immoral if any one or more of these fonts is bad. An act is moral only if all three of the fonts are good.

The three fonts of morality are:
(1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances.

1. Intention — Every act of a human person has an intended end chosen by that person. The intention is the purpose or reason for choosing the act. It is the goal that motivates the person to act. The intention resides in the person (the agent of the action).

It is always wrong to act with a bad intention. But if the only thing making your act sinful is your intention, change your intention.

2. Moral Object — Every concrete act has an inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God. This meaning is the nature of the act in terms of morality; it is the moral type (genus, species) of the act. The moral object determines the morality of each type of act. Every particular act is intrinsically ordered toward an end called its moral object. This ordering constitutes the moral nature of the chosen act; it determines the moral type of the chosen act. Any act intrinsically ordered toward an evil end is intrinsically evil. Any act intrinsically ordered toward only good in its moral object is intrinsically good.

This font includes the choice of the act itself, with its essential moral nature, as determined by the moral object. By choosing any act, the human person necessarily also chooses the moral nature of that act and its object. The act, its nature, and its object are inseparable. For every human act has a moral meaning before the eyes of God, and that meaning is determined by the ordering of the act toward good or evil.

God never approves of any act inherently ordered toward evil, nor does He ever condemn, in and of itself, any act inherently ordered toward only good. It is always wrong to choose an act that is intrinsically evil because such an act is immoral by its very nature, independent of intention and circumstances. If an act is intrinsically evil, the act is wrong in and of itself. In such a case, to avoid sin you must choose a different type of act, an act with only good in its object.

3. Circumstances — Every act of the human person takes place within a set of circumstances: past, present, and future. But since your act cannot change the past, nor affect the present situation (except in the next moment), the morality of the circumstances is determined by the reasonably anticipated consequences of the act.

It is always wrong to act if you reasonably anticipate that your chosen act will do more harm than good. If so, you must either refrain from acting, or choose an act with good circumstances. Sometimes, circumstances will change, allowing the act to be done without sin. Other times, you can choose an act that will change the circumstances, removing or substantially diminishing the bad consequences. But if the circumstances remain bad, you cannot choose such an act.

Magisterial Teaching

The three fonts of morality are the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Magisterium, not merely a theological opinion.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The morality of human acts depends on: — the object chosen; — the end in view or the intention; — the circumstances of the action. The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the ‘sources,’ or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.” [n. 1750]

The CCC says “object chosen” because, by choosing any act, the person necessarily also chooses the moral nature of the act, which is determined by its moral object. The one choice includes act, nature, and object.

The font of intention is also called the “end in view” because the person chooses to act with that goal in mind; this intended end is what motivates the choice of the act.

Compendium of the Catechism: “The morality of human acts depends on three sources: the object chosen, either a true or apparent good; the intention of the subject who acts, that is, the purpose for which the subject performs the act; and the circumstances of the act, which include its consequences.” [n. 367]

The Compendium explains further that the intention is the purpose which motivates the person to act. Thus, the intended end is the reason for choosing the act. The purpose or reason for choosing the act is the font of intention (first font), not the font of the moral object (second font).

The explanation of the three fonts in the USCCB Catechism is also helpful:

USCCB Catechism: “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.” [p. 311-312.]

The USCCB Catechism refers to the font of the moral object as “the objective act” because any particular chosen act has an objective moral meaning based on its ordering toward its object. So this font could well be termed the objective act, with the understanding that the essential moral nature of the act is determined by its object.

The intention is called “subjective” because the intention resides in the subject, the person who acts. The intended end is the goal freely chosen by the human person. By comparison, the moral object resides in the act itself. The objective act is freely chosen, but the moral nature of the act is independent of the human person. Every act has its own inherent goal, the end toward which the act is intrinsically ordered, regardless of the intended end of the person who acts. By intentionally choosing any particular act, the person necessarily also chooses, at least implicitly, its nature and its object.

There is a Latin terminology, used in moral theology, to express this distinction between the type of end that determines the morality of the first font (intention) and the type of end that determines the morality of the second font (object). The term for the first font is “finis agentis”, the end of the agent. The agent is the person who acts. The intended end is freely chosen by the human person. The term for the second font is “finis actus”, the end of the act. The act is freely chosen by the human person, but in choosing any act, the person necessarily chooses its inherent ordering toward its own end, the end of the act. It is not possible to choose an act without also choosing, at least implicitly, this intrinsic ordering toward the moral object. A choice of the act is a choice of its ordering toward that end. That intrinsic ordering is the moral nature of the chosen act.

The “finis actus” is also called the “finis operis” (the end of the work or deed). The “finis agentis” is also called the “finis operantis” (the end of the worker or doer). Many errors in moral theology arise from a confusion of these two types of ends.

Summary

The three fonts are: intention, moral object, circumstances.

The first font is of the person. The intention or intended end is chosen by the person who acts. It is the reason or purpose for acting. The intention resides in the person who acts (finis agentis). It is always wrong to act with a bad intention.

The second font is of the act. The chosen act has an inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God; this meaning is the nature of the act in terms of morality. But this essential moral nature of the act is wholly determined by its object. It is always wrong to deliberately choose an act with an evil moral object because such an act is inherently ordered toward moral evil; it is an intrinsically evil act.

The third font is of the person and the act. The person chooses an intended end (a goal) and an act (a means to that goal) with the reasonable anticipation of good and/or bad consequences. The proportionality of these consequences determines the morality of this font. It is always a sin to act, if you reasonably anticipate that your act will do more harm than good.

Any single bad font makes the choice of that act a sin. Why then are intrinsically evil acts the only acts said to be always immoral? If the only thing making your act a sin is your own bad intention, you can change your intention. The intention resides in you, the subject; it is under your control. If the only thing making your act a sin is the anticipated bad consequences, you might be able to change the circumstances with a different action. Or you might wait until the circumstances change before acting.

But when the moral object is evil, the act is wrong by its very nature (in and of itself). There is no way to transform an evil act into a good act by your intention or by altering the circumstances. Thus, only acts with an evil moral object are said to be intrinsically evil and always immoral.

Pope John Paul II: “These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed ‘intrinsically evil’ (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that ‘there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object’.” [Reconciliation and Penance, n. 17.]

The Magisterium teaches that certain acts are immoral, even with the best of intentions, even in the most dire of circumstances. These acts are wrong by their type (by their genus or species); they are wrong by the very nature of the act. It is always objectively a sin to choose an inherently immoral type of act. When the human will freely and knowingly chooses an act inherently ordered toward an evil end (the moral object), the will is choosing moral evil. Such a choice is always sinful.

The moral object is the sole determinate of the moral nature of the act itself. So in all cases, when the moral object is evil, an act ordered toward that evil end is inherently disordered; the act is morally disordered by its nature (genus or species). If so, then such an act is always wrong to knowingly choose. The Church teaches this doctrine; it is not mere theological opinion.

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

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

Advertisements
Gallery | This entry was posted in ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Three Fonts of Morality

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    Could you give an example of changing the intention of an act, which is a sin, so that it is not a sin, while changing neither the act or the circumstances.

  2. Matt Z. says:

    I love this teaching, thanks!

Comments are closed.