Wednesday 20th February 2019

Home » Our Catholic Faith » Currently Reading:

The Sources Of Morality

July 21, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


As demonstrated last week, an important distinction is made in moral theology between an act of man and a human act. Acts of man are “physical or spontaneous actions of a human being that are independent of the free will” (Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, The Faith, p. 155). Examples include natural bodily processes (e.g., digestion, the circulation of blood), instinctive impulses of feeling or emotion, and actions done during sleep or a state of delirium.
Human acts, in contrast, are “those we perform knowingly, willingly, and not through physical necessity, inadvertence, or mere natural instinct” (Fr. Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism, n. 497). One who performs a human act is morally culpable whereas an act of man is not morally imputable.
We also saw last week that all properly human acts, to a greater or lesser extent, consist of a series of interrelated acts of the intellect and the will; these two faculties interact and collaborate throughout the process. Deliberation and judgment are of the intellect whereas natural desire, intention, consent, and free choice (election) belong to the will. Finally, after an election is made, the intellect directs the action and the will executes the command of reason.
For the interested reader, St. Thomas Aquinas provides a relatively straightforward outline of the anatomy of the human act in his Summa Theologiae [STh] (see I-II, Q. 15, art. 3, resp.).
Last week’s column ended with an assertion that there are three general causes that make a human act good or evil. “The object, the intention, and the circumstances,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “make up the three ‘sources’ of the morality of human acts” (CCC, n. 1757).
The Angelic Doctor treats this topic expertly immediately after analyzing the anatomy of a human act, and begins with a simple question: “Whether every human action is good, or are there evil actions” (STh I-II, Q. 18, art. 1), which he answers profoundly.
“Every action has goodness, insofar as it has being,” answers St. Thomas, “whereas it is lacking in goodness, insofar as it is lacking in something that is due to its fullness of being” (STh I-II, Q. 18, art. 1, resp.).
Implicit in this statement is that evil is the lack or privation of a good that should be present; it is the absence of what should be there. As expressed by Msgr. Paul J. Glenn in A Tour of the Summa (ATS): “Human acts that measure up to what sound reason sees they ought to be, are good acts. Human acts that fall short of what they ought to be are, to the extent of their failure to measure up, evil acts” (p. 114).
The Catechism first addresses the object of a moral act which it defines as “a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. . . . The object chosen morally specifies the act of the will, insofar as reason recognizes and judges it to be or not to be in conformity with the true good” (CCC, n. 1751).
As explained by Pope St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor (VS), it is “the primary and decisive element for moral judgment . . . [because it] establishes whether it is capable of being ordered to the good and to the ultimate end, which is God” (VS, n. 79 § 2). The object is “the primary determinant of the moral good or evil of a human act” (ATS, p. 114).
Some objects — contrary to views held by proponents of contemporary ethical theories such as situation ethics, proportionalism, and consequentialism — make human acts morally evil in and of themselves: “The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety” (CCC, n. 1755). In other words, no matter how noble the intention or what ultimate good may result, some acts are “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum); they are always and everywhere wrong to choose.
As explained by Pope St. John Paul II: “Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image” (VS, n. 80 § 1).
Examples of acts that are “always gravely illicit by reason of their object [include] blasphemy and perjury, murder, and adultery” (CCC, n. 1756). The existence of intrinsically evil acts, avows the Holy Father, is emphatically confirmed by the words of St. Paul: “Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10; as cited in VS, n. 81 § 2).
The common idea that “the end justifies the means” is simply contrary to the principles of Christian morality and can never be used to justify heinous acts such as abortion and euthanasia, acts which inherently violate the principle that human life is sacred from the moment of conception until natural death.
Such actions are a form of warped altruism that lead people to justify their depraved actions on the grounds that families and society are relieved of financial burdens or a “loved one” is spared physical or psychological suffering.
The second determinant of the moral quality of any human act considered by the Catechism is intention or purpose or end. Intention “resides in the active person . . . [and is] a movement of the will toward the end: it is concerned with the goal of the activity. It aims at the good anticipated from the action undertaken” (CCC, n. 1752).
Important to note is that a human act with an object that is inherently good can be rendered bad if the intention that motivates it is evil. However, as we just saw, the converse is not true (i.e., robbing the rich in order to help the poor à la Robin Hood, although done for an ostensibly good reason, is still an intrinsically an evil act — theft). As St. Paul proclaims, we must “not do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8).
As an example of the former situation, consider the act of almsgiving. Suppose one gives alms to a beggar, but in an ostentatious manner so that many others are sure to take notice of his “generosity.” The moral object in itself (almsgiving) is objectively good; however, the evil intention of prideful vainglory makes the entire act bad.
An important teaching of our Lord from the Gospel of St. Matthew comes to mind: “When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:2-4).
“Intention is not limited to directing individual actions,” further teaches the Catechism, “but can guide several actions toward one and the same purpose; it can orient one’s whole life toward its ultimate end. For example, a service done with the end of helping one’s neighbor can at the same time be inspired by the love of God as the ultimate end of all our actions” (CCC, n. 1752).
Indeed, the best motive for any act is for the greater honor and glory of God; it can make even morally indifferent acts pleasing to our Father in Heaven. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,” exhorts St. Paul, “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Any Single Defect

The third and final determinant of the moral quality of a human act is the circumstances. They are secondary elements or accidents of moral acts and most commonly consist of one or more of the following: who, what, where, when, by what means, why, and how (see STh I-II, Q. 7).
“They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts,” states the Catechism. “They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility” (CCC, n. 1753). As expressed by Fr. Hardon, “Along with what I do are the attending circumstances of my actions, which are at once distinct from its object and yet may change or completely alter its moral tone” (The Catholic Catechism, p. 284).
Consider, for example, the act of sleeping to replenish one’s strength and maintain health. In itself, this is a morally good act. Suppose, however, the specific situation is a soldier on guard duty who deliberately falls asleep — the morality of an otherwise good action becomes disordered because of the circumstances.
Or consider the difference between a grand jury witness who lies while under oath in a murder trial compared to a surprised adolescent who spontaneously blurts out an unpremeditated lie to get out of an embarrassing situation. The guilt of the witness is aggravated and even materially altered (it is no longer only lying, but perjury); the guilt of the mortified child, in contrast, is lessened due to impulsiveness and the less serious nature of the falsehood.
In summary, the Catholic tradition teaches that the morality of an act depends on all three sources of morality: the object, the intention, and the circumstances.
The Angelic Doctor offers an important axiom formulated by Pseudo-Dionysius (Christian theologian/philosopher of late-fifth/early-sixth century) which aptly captures this basic truth: “Evil results from any single defect, but good from the complete cause” (STh I-II, Q. 18, art. 4, ad 3).

+ + +

(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

Share Button

2017 The Wanderer Printing Co.

Twitter Feed

Load More...

Pope picks liberal cardinals Cupich, Marx, Tagle for featured talks at Vatican Abuse Summit

ROME, February 18, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Germany, and Cardinal Antonio Tagle of the Philippines will be featured speakers at the Vatican’s upcoming summit on clerical sex abuse titled, “The Protection of Minors…Continue Reading


RAPID CITY, S.D. ( – A bishop is calling a Catholic apostolate “evil” for being critical of Cdl. Blase Cupich. Bishop Robert Gruss of Rapid City, South Dakota issued a statement to be read from all parish pulpits the weekend of Feb. 9–10 condemning…Continue Reading

The Christian Faith: The only valid and the only God-willed religion

The Truth of the filial adoption in Christ, which is intrinsically supernatural, constitutes the synthesis of the entire Divine Revelation. Being adopted by God as sons is always a gratuitous gift of grace, the most sublime gift of God to…Continue Reading

Roberts joins Supreme Court’s liberal wing in blocking Louisiana abortion law

Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Supreme Court’s liberal wing on Thursday in temporarily blocking a Louisiana law that would have placed restrictions on abortion clinics, in the high court’s first major ruling on abortion since the confirmation of Associate Justice…Continue Reading

Supermodel Takes On Catholic Poland With Sex Education Campaign

Supermodel Anja Rubik could be a symbol of any modern, progressive European country. After joining a campaign to defend women’s rights, she started tackling school sex education and published a book for teenagers that sought to counter the teachings of…Continue Reading

Cardinals endorse campaign to stop homosexual networks in Church

February 5, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Cardinal Gerhard Müller – the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – commented on a recently launched campaign to Stop homosexual networks in the Catholic Church as organized by the Swiss organization…Continue Reading

Back on Twitter, Bishop Tobin rebukes Catholic pols who support abortion rights

PROVIDENCE — After a months-long hiatus, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence has returned to Twitter to pointedly remind Rhode Island’s Catholic legislators — and the state’s Catholic governor — of his “track record on dealing with pro-abort…Continue Reading

US bishop rebukes Virginia Governor for ‘staggering’ infanticide remarks

ARLINGTON, Virginia, January 31, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – The staunchly pro-lifeCatholic Bishop of Arlington, Virginia, has strongly rebuked pro-infanticidecomments made earlier this week by Virginia Democratic Governor Ralph Northam. Bishop Michael Burbidge today called Northam’s comments a “staggering admission” that reveals just “how far abortion…Continue Reading

Pope Francis: ‘We must provide sex education in schools’

ROME, January 28, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Pope Francis is advocating sex education in schools, saying he believes children “must” be taught “objective” lessons about human sexuality that aren’t “soaked with ideological colonization.” During an inflight press conference on his return…Continue Reading

Trump blasts Virginia Democrats for defending infanticide

January 30, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – President Donald Trump lambasted Virginia Democrats for supporting abortion up until, during, and even after birth, calling Delegate Kathy Tran’s comments on her bill permitting abortion even as a woman goes into labor “terrible.” Virginia…Continue Reading

Catholic Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo Vows to Sign Bill Legalizing Abortions Up to Birth

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo is pushing a radical pro-abortion bill in her state while claiming to be Catholic. The legislation, which contradicts the teachings of the Catholic Church, would legalize abortions for basically any reason up to birth. A…Continue Reading

Undiscovering Columbus: Notre Dame President Puts Explorer Under Wraps

The University of Notre Dame has capitulated to several left-of-center causes and ideologies that threaten its reputation as the premier Roman Catholic college in the nation. The most recent submission to contemporary ideologies is the decision to cover the murals…Continue Reading

Untitled 5 Untitled 2

Attention Readers:

  Welcome to our website. Readers who are familiar with The Wanderer know we have been providing Catholic news and orthodox commentary for 150 years in our weekly print edition.

  Our daily version offers only some of what we publish weekly in print. To take advantage of everything The Wanderer publishes, we encourage you to su
bscribe to our flagship weekly print edition, which is mailed every Friday or, if you want to view it in its entirety online, you can subscribe to the E-edition, which is a replica of the print edition.
  Our daily edition includes: a selection of material from recent issues of our print edition, news stories updated daily from renowned news sources, access to archives from The Wanderer from the past 10 years, available at a minimum charge (this will be expanded as time goes on). Also: regularly updated features where we go back in time and highlight various columns and news items covered in The Wanderer over the past 150 years. And: a comments section in which your remarks are encouraged, both good and bad, including suggestions.
  We encourage you to become a daily visitor to our site. If you appreciate our site, tell your friends. As Catholics we must band together to rediscover our faith and share it with the world if we are to effectively counter a society whose moral culture seems to have no boundaries and a government whose rapidly extending reach threatens to extinguish the rights of people of faith to practice their religion (witness the HHS mandate). Now more than ever, vehicles like The Wanderer are needed for clarification and guidance on the issues of the day.

Catholic, conservative, orthodox, and loyal to the Magisterium have been this journal’s hallmarks for five generations. God willing, our message will continue well into this century and beyond.

Joseph Matt
President, The Wanderer Printing Co.

Untitled 1

Interview With Cardinal Burke . . . Discriminating Mercy: Defending Christ And His Church With True Love


  By DON FIER (Editor’s Note: His Eminence Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and Founder of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis., graciously took time out of his busy schedule to grant The Wanderer a wide-ranging interview during a recent visit to the Shrine. Included among the topics…Continue Reading

Developing Lives Of Peace After The Heart Of Mary

By RAYMOND LEO CARDINAL BURKE (Editor’s Note: His Eminence Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke delivered the address below at the 32nd Annual Church Teaches Forum, “The Message of Fatima: Peace for the World,” Galt House, Louisville, Ky., July 22, 2017. The address is reprinted here with the kind permission of Cardinal Burke. All rights reserved. This is part one of the…Continue Reading


Today . . .

Dubia cardinals to bishops at Vatican abuse summit: ‘Will you also be silent?’


VATICAN, February 19, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Cardinal Raymond Burke and Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, the two remaining dubia cardinals, wrote an open letter to the Presidents of the worldwide Bishops’ Conferences meeting in the Vatican for the Summit on sexual abuse. “The plague of the homosexual agenda has been spread within the Church,” they write, “promoted by organized networks and protected by a climate of complicity and a conspiracy of silence.” The Church hierarchy, however, wishes…Continue Reading

Vatican sex abuse cover-up unravels as prosecutors home in on bishop protected by Pope Francis

February 18, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Argentinean prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation for alleged sexual abuse against a bishop and close personal friend appointed and protected by Pope Francis, according to the attorney general’s office of the province of Salta, Argentina. The target of the investigation is Gustavo Zanchetta, who was named bishop of the diocese of Orán by Pope Francis in 2013. Zanchetta suddenly fled his diocese and resigned from his office in July…Continue Reading

McCarrick laicized by Pope Francis


Vatican City, Feb 16, 2019 / 01:41 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered this week the laicization of Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop emeritus of Washington, and a once powerful figure in ecclesiastical, diplomatic, and political circles in the U.S. and around the world. The decision followed an administrative penal process conducted by the CDF, which found McCarrick guilty of “solicitation in the Sacrament…Continue Reading

Daleiden decries gov’t ‘collusion’ with Planned Parenthood in body parts case

SAN FRANCISCO, California, February 12, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Pro-life advocate David Daleiden decried what he said was “collusion” that he witnessed happening in court yesterday between California’s deputy attorney general and abortion organizations.

Bishop Schneider: Abuse summit will be ‘doomed’ if it doesn’t address homosexuality

KAZAKHSTAN, February 8, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan said that the upcoming Vatican abuse summit is “doomed to failure” if the “predominant role” of homosexuality in the crisis is not addressed. “If the upcoming Summit on Clerical Sexual Abuse in the Vatican will not address the issue of the moral relativism and the non-belief in the perennial validity of the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue as the deepest cause of clerical…Continue Reading


Neither Left Nor Right, But Catholic . . . The Exhumation Of The Equal Rights Amendment

By STEPHEN M. KRASON (Editor’s Note: Stephen M. Krason’s Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic column appears monthly [sometimes bimonthly]. He is a professor of political science and legal studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the…Continue Reading

God Counts The Tears Of Women

By DONALD DeMARCO The Talmud states that God counts the tears of women. This is a beautiful statement and underscores the compassion that God has for all women. Moreover, it is a compassion that should be shared by men, for the same text warns men that “they do not cause their wives pain.” Rabbi Chaim…Continue Reading

Abortion And The Green New Deal… De-Developing And Dehumanizing The United States

By TERENCE P. JEFFREY (Editor’s Note: Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor in chief of Creators Syndicate — — distributes his column. All rights reserved.) + + + Do you know who said the following? “If you further decided to buy a small car that would last 30 years, be easily repairable and…Continue Reading

Has Trump Found The Formula For 2020?

By PATRICK J. BUCHANAN (Editor’s Note: This column was released February 8, before further developments in Virginia.) + + + His State of the Union address, say the two networks, met with the approval of 76 percent of all viewers — 97 percent of Republicans, 82 percent of independents, and 30 percent of Democrats. Seventy-two…Continue Reading

Pope Francis . . . Names Cardinal Farrell To Be Camerlengo

By HANNAH BROCKHAUS VATICAN CITY (CNA/EWTN News) — Pope Francis Thursday, on February 14 nominated a new camerlengo, Irish-American Cardinal Kevin Joseph Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, and a former bishop of Dallas. The responsibilities of camerlengo include overseeing the preparations for a papal conclave and managing the administration of…Continue Reading


Our Catholic Faith (Section B of print edition)

Be Like God And Love Your Enemies

By FR. ROBERT ALTIER Seventh Sunday In Ordinary Time (YR C) Readings: 1 Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23 1 Cor. 15:45-49 Luke 6:27-38 In the second reading today St. Paul teaches there are two Adams, the first Adam is of Earth, the second, Jesus, is from Heaven. St. Paul points out that the natural came first, then the spiritual, so…Continue Reading

A Leaven In The World… “Men Are Not Women” And Other Inconvenient Facts

By FR. KEVIN M. CUSICK Of course men are not women, you might respond — it’s a matter of fact. You can certainly say that for yourself if you so choose, but you cannot say it for everyone. Not anymore. The politically correct absconding from the use of reason is exploding into a political and social lobby of ever-increasing proportions.…Continue Reading

Catholic Replies

Editor’s Note: Some words of wisdom from Fr. George Rutler in the parish bulletin of The Church of St. Michael in New York City: “The other day, intemperate journalists accused youths from a Catholic high school in Covington, Ky., of making racial threats against an elderly Native American during the March for Life. Videos proved that there was no truth…Continue Reading

Cardinal Zen In New Book… Vatican’s China Strategy Was All About Compromise And Surrender

  By MAIKE HICKSON Joseph Cardinal Zen, For Love of My People I Will Not Remain Silent, Ignatius Press: 2019,; paperback, 153 pages. (LifeSiteNews) — Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen has strongly criticized in a new book the Vatican’s recent dealings with China, stating that the “strategy was wrong,” adding that it was “all about compromise and surrender.” He has…Continue Reading

The Trustworthiness Of God

by FR. ROBERT ALTIER Sixth Sunday In Ordinary Time (YR C) Readings: Jer. 17:5-8 1 Cor. 15:12, 16-20 Luke 6:17, 20-26 In the first reading today the Prophet Jeremiah declares cursed those who trust in human beings while turning their hearts from the Lord. Blessed, on the other hand, are those who trust in the Lord, whose hope is the…Continue Reading

Catholic Heroes… St. Kuriakose Elias Chavara

By CAROLE BRESLIN India has almost as many people (1.37 billion) as China (1.42 billion), which has three times the land area. Of the population of India, under three percent are Christian. In Kerala, a state on the southwest coast of India, nearly 20 percent are Christian. Perhaps the greater proportion is a result of St. Kuriakose Elias Chavara, who…Continue Reading

Catholic Heroes… Blessed Jacoba Of Settesoli

By CAROLE BRESLIN Two millennia of Catholicism have produced saints from all walks of life: rich and poor — and the wealthy who became poor, such as St. Francis of Assisi who renounced his inheritance, St. Anthony of Egypt who gave his wealth away, and St. Thomas Aquinas who became a poor monk. There have also been those who lived…Continue Reading