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Class 11

Our reason has been informed by divine law, though it can be read off of nature, or can be infused by grace. The principles written into nature are the measure of action. We can perceive these with difficulty, understand them and issue judgments. We can set aside these principles and then act against them. The sin is the action, not the setting aside of the principles. This sin is a deficiency of free choice, because the will ignores the reason. Moral acts can be divided into good and bad acts, in or not in accord with objective principles. Morally indifferent acts exist only theoretically. There are some moralists who propose a double distinction: good-evil, and right-wrong. These suggest that there can be acts which are both good and wrong. Such a double distinction is denied by Veritatis Splendor (75), though an act may be morally wrong and without culpability (when one amputates the wrong leg). This is only true when the agent doesn’t willingly perform an action. The only relevant distinction is between something is technically right or wrong and practically right or wrong. A will which isn’t right is evil. To summarize, the relationship of the act to the will is that when an act is outside the will it is outside the realm of morals. When we relate the act to the reason, we ask whether it is a good or an evil act.

The sources of a moral act

Catholic moral reflection since the end of the middle ages centers upon the intention, object, and the circumstances. For an act to be good, all three sources must be good. If any of the three is defective, the act is evil. What do we mean by the object of the act? This is difficult to pinpoint. It is most important for the moral qualification of the act. The manuals introduced a distinction Saint Thomas knew but didn’t use: the finis operis (the end of the act, what is done directly) and the finis operantis (the end of the agent). Giving money to the poor is the finis operis, whereas the finis operantis is the motive behind the giving of the alms, which may vary. The finis operis is the proximate end of the action, the finis operantis the remote end of the action. The finis operantis is the internal act of the will, the finis operis is the external act of the will. There is a diagram the manuals used to print.

The will has its internal act, the end or the intention, whereas the will glances to the object and takes not just the finis operis but the object, the taking of the wallet and the assessment of it, done with reference to the norms. The object is not just the mere event, the finis operis, but the finis operis with the assessment of it undertaken by the reason of the agent. The reason considers the light it has received, from the natural and revealed law and the direct movement of the Holy Spirit. There’s a difference between knifing someone as a surgeon or as a robber. The difference isn’t physical: it is the reason of the surgeon. The object of the act is a good act. Perhaps in a different historical epoch, before or later, it might not be the best solution, and the object would then be evil. The assessment of the act is subject to change depending upon the circumstances. The will of the agent as he chooses the object deliberately is always the choice of the object and not just the finis operis. It’s not just the physical event. Rather, it’s the intelligently understood subject matter with which the subject matter is concerned. The teaching of the Church that it’s always wrong to choose an evil act for a good intention stresses that the object already has an evil qualification.

The intentions, the ends, may be various and may accumulate. The surgeon may want to earn money, develop skill, support his family, teach a junior doctor, serve the patient and help him, etc. The object has to be good as seen by reason. There may be a case when reason assesses the object is good, but the intention is not, like pride. Morally the act wouldn’t be good. The object chosen may involve pain and suffering to the recipient, but the object could be one of justice. It may be necessary to choose ontic(finis operis) evil, pre-moral or physical evil, in an act, but it is never permissible to choose acts which are morally evil. The distinction between the physical act and the moral qualification shouldn’t be confused.

The supreme importance of the object

We are told we are given two evils to choose between: either kill the child or let the mother die. This is a false argument. We must never choose a moral evil, neither lesser or evil. We must always choose good. It is better to suffer martyrdom than to do a moral evil. Veritatis Splendor says the morality of the human act depends fundamentally on the object rationally chosen by the deliberate will (78) in order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is necessary to place ourselves in the perspective of the acting person. How does the agent see the action?

This point, clearly Thomistic, wasn’t often taken into account in the manualist tradition. The stress on the object in these manuals was to emphasize the normative influence of law. It looked at norms rather than the development of virtues to assess a situation and to act morally. The object in the old books looked to conformity with the norm. This led to a feeling that the object of the act was to conform entirely to the norm which fell from heaven. The teaching of Veritatis Splendor was clearly in the camp of virtue ethics. The doctor decides, not the ethicist.

It is the perspective of the acting person which is operative; the agent perceives the light and issues a judgment. It is always wrong not to follow the judgment of reason or conscience. An erroneous judgment of conscience is binding. Reason is decisive. The reason of the agent has the last word. In the analysis of these situations we cannot have a purely objective perspective. We cannot analyze these acts merely factually from afar. The normative ethics failed to perceive the aspect of the acting person. This is an important matter in the formation of conscience so that the reason can make proper judgments and follow those judgments. We have to form people to have confidence in the judgment of reason and form the reason to adhere to truth. There is also the problem of the rationalizing reason, which tries to justify an action. Ultimately the voice of reason, allied to the finis operis, forms the object of the act. The reason calls the shots in the light of the norms. The reason in studying the act must study it per se and not per accidens. We must look at the act essentially, and look at the remote and proximate ends. It is the agent who sees one end as remote and another is proximate. So the finality of the act must be taken into account. To give a pain-killer which may cause death is not the same as giving it to cause death. The object, the what for, of the action is different. In the case of a pain-killer with a risk, it doesn’t mean he’s choosing an act which is intrinsically evil. He’s choosing a risky act which is nevertheless good. This is different from giving a drug to kill. In the judgment of acts, they are assessed not merely in general but by the object, which includes the consideration of the reason with the finis operis. The reason as it perceives the finis operis and assesses it forming the object profits from the light of the moral law. The reason has received the capacity to assess the finis operis from our Creator.

The reason may perceive directly the evil, or the possible scandal, or the Church teaching alone that it’s wrong. If the human reason is unsure about an action, even more should it have recourse to the moral law. The object that involves something forbidden by the divine law is in itself evil, even if they don’t know why. Their knowledge is sufficient on the basis of the authority of the law, or the Church. If they choose the use of contraceptives they accept an act which their reason points out to be evil. If they have some arguments to support the teaching of the church, then the judgment of their reason would be clearer. We don’t have to know all the arguments behind — an inkling is enough to qualify the finis operis. There is room for rational reflection and the personal discernment of value and the ways values may be undertaken. The precepts can be worked out in many ways. The moral law aids us in the acquiring of the maturity to make better judgments and points out evil acts. The negative approach of the Decalogue leaves open the positive approach to growth in love.

Some deny the possibility of defining intrinsically evil acts, that in no way one can claim that the norms don’t apply. We have to accept the input of those norms. The object of the act can be materially or formally related to the consciousness. The reason often doesn’t perceive the discordance or accordance of the norm with the act. This is the distinction between material and formal heretic; the latter knows he’s disagreeing with the Church’s position; the material heretic doesn’t. So the reason materially or formally might not follow the norms and the distinction is important.

The Intention

We now turn to the end or the intention. Our Lord teaches us that our intention is to be pure, that we’re not to parade our good deeds before men. The end is the object of the internal act of the will. The object of the exterior act of the will we’ve called the object. The man who steals to buy drugs has the using of drugs as his end. Stealing is the object; the end is the use of the drug. The object and intention are distinguished in that the object signifies the proximate end and the intention the remote end. The remote versus the proximate end depends on the perspective of the agent. So there’s a flexibility between the object and intention, on the basis of the complex moral dilemma being analyzed. The end may cause an indifferent object to become good or evil. The end may cause a good object to become better or good, or an evil object to become more or less evil. But the end cannot make an evil act good. If an act is objectively evil, it cannot be made good. A good end doesn’t justify or sanctify evil means. A good end sanctifies an indifferent or a good means. We don’t have to have explicitly the glory of God as the end of every good thing we do.[22] This was the error of Baius and Jansen.

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