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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).

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(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.)

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