BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (178): Which elements of an action should we examine in order to judge its morality?

Rev José Mario O Mandía

Last time, we saw that the objective standard by which an action, thought, or omission is judged as good or bad is the moral law.

We also said that the subjective standard for judgment is each person’s conscience. Each person applies the objective norm to his own actions with the aid of his conscience which, as we have seen, is nothing other than his own intellect when it evaluates the goodness or evil of an action.

The next question is, which aspects or elements of an action should the conscience (subjective standard) examine in the light of the moral law (objective standard)? There are three aspects.

(1) First, there is the act itself (also called the “object of the action” – finis operis in Latin), which, upon deliberation by the intellect, our free will chooses to carry out. The object is what the action by its own nature tends to, independently of what the agent intends to achieve with his action and the circumstances surrounding it. Thus, God asked our first parents after they had sinned: “What is this that you have done?” (Genesis 3:13).

(2) Then there is the intention, or motive (finis operantis in Latin), of the one doing the action. We ask, “Why did I do it?”; “For what purpose?”

(3) Finally, we also have to consider the circumstances surrounding the act. These circumstances can include who did it, to whom, where, when, how, how long, how much, with what means … (cf. CCCC No. 367).

These three elements are called sources of morality because the goodness or evil of the action stems from them. Of the three, the main determinant is the object of the action.


Looking exclusively at the object (without taking intention or circumstances into account), we can classify human actions into:

(1.1) good (such as praying, doing a good turn to others);

(1.2) evil (lying, stealing); or

(1.3) indifferent. For instance, walking (in itself, with no other qualifications) and sitting down (in itself) are “indifferent” (morally “neutral”) acts. They become evil or good once we add the intention and the circumstances.

What this classification tells us is that there are acts that are in themselves good or evil, regardless of a person’s intentions or the circumstances in which he did them.

As St John Paul II taught, “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’ (Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, No. 17).” (Veritatis splendor, No. 80)

St John Paul II singles out St Paul VI’s teachings on the intrinsic evil of contraceptive practices: “‘Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general’ (Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae, No. 14)” (Veritatis splendor, No. 80).

(Image: Tumisu at Pixabay)