All Together Now: What the Catechism Has to Say on Assessing Moral Acts

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states the following regarding moral acts:

The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the “sources,” or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts (CCC # 1750).

Note, therefore, that in assessing a particular moral act we must look not only to what is done, but also to the circumstances under which it is done, and to the intention of the one doing it.

For example, to steal is wrong. However, one’s culpability can be lessened if one is starving and takes food from another person who has more than enough. This does not make stealing good or virtuous, but it can lessen the blame, at times reducing it to a minimum. Acting out of grave fear (such as death), or acting when under great duress, pressure, or strong influence of the passions and the force of evil may, at times, lessen guilt. Further, invincible ignorance, error, or confusion about the facts of a situation or how the moral law applies may, at times, lessen guilt.

Another example would be failing to attend Mass on Sunday or a Holy Day of Obligation. Of itself, such an omission is taught to be a grave sin (see Catechism # 2181). This is so because of the gifts one misses (e.g., Holy Communion and instruction in the Word of God), the duty that is set aside (e.g., the obligation to praise and thank God), and the failure to fulfill the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath. However, three feet of snow, or serious illness, or the care of the sick, can be circumstances that would reduce guilt or the obligation to attend significantly if not entirely. Further, given the ignorance of many due to poor catechesis and the hindrances of secular culture (which often requires work and other activities), a person’s guilt may be less than mortal in missing Mass. Thus, while failing to attend Mass without a serious reason remains a grave sin, it does not necessarily follow that everyone who missed Mass this past Sunday is in a state of mortal sin.

So in assessing a moral act, as the Catechism and long-standing Catholic teaching assert, we cannot as a general rule look merely to what is done, but must also assess, in so far as possible, the intention of the one doing it, and the circumstances under which it was done.

However, as the Catechism states quite clearly, as does the moral tradition of the Church:

It is an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress, or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it (CCC # 1756).

It is very common today for moral assessments to focus merely on the intentions and feelings of the person involved. What is actually being done seems less significant; as long as a person “means well” or feels that the act is right then it is OK for them and we should make no further moral discernment.

But as the Catechism states, such criteria are not enough. Moral uprightness consists in doing well, not just meaning well, or feeling good about one’s actions. Intentionality and circumstances are not wholly insignificant, especially when it comes to assigning a level of culpability, but they cannot be the only determining factors in assessing the morality of an act. We must look at the act itself as the primary consideration in assessing its morality. We cannot simply say that something is good, it must actually be good.

Let me provide a few examples in which the actual, concrete act is essential and, in a way, overrules whatever feelings or intentions we have:

  1. Intentions alone do not turn locks, keys do. Every day I move between the buildings that make up our parish complex. Going in and out of buildings requires the use of keys. Now many of these keys look alike. As I approach the Church door, I take out my keys and put what I think is the Church key into the lock. I do this with best of intentions. I think that I am doing what is right. I feel that what I am doing is right. But if I actually put the rectory key into the Church lock, despite my good intentions, despite the fact that I think and feel that I am doing what was right, the lock won’t turn.

All the good intentions, thoughts, and feelings in the world will not make that lock turn. I actually have to do what is right to get the proper result. The right key has to go in the right lock to get the right result. What I actually do is the determining factor. Feelings, thoughts, and intentions cannot win the day.

  1. Good intentions alone do not get me there, following the directions does. To get to your house you tell me to turn right on Park Ave., but instead I turn left. I may think that you said left. I may sense or feel that I’m going in the proper direction. I may intend to be doing what is right. But none of that is going to change the fact that I’m heading in the wrong direction and won’t get to your house until I actually do what is right.
  2. Accidents happen, but there’s still a mess. There is a can of paint on the floor in the hallway. I kick the can of paint over and paint spills all over the floor. Whether I did so intentionally or not does not change the fact that there’s now paint all over the floor that needs to be cleaned up. What I intended is important in determining how blameworthy I am. If my act was purely accidental (perhaps I was unaware that the hallway was being painted and could not see the can as I rounded the corner) then my culpability is probably very low if not nonexistent. But if I knew that there was painting going on and failed to exercise proper caution, then I kicked the can of paint over through carelessness and so bear some blame. Now suppose that I saw the can of paint and (perhaps out of anger) deliberately kicked it over; in this case my blame is full.

So intentions, knowledge, and feelings are important in assessing a person’s culpability. But these things cannot render a bad thing good. Regardless of my intentions, thoughts, or feelings, there is still a big mess to clean up. The objective truth is that there is paint all over the floor. Simply saying that I had good intentions or didn’t know any better doesn’t make the mess go away.

Rectitude is tied to reality. Too many people today use flawed or incomplete reasoning in assessing the morality of acts. While good intentions, how a person feels about his actions, and what he thinks or knows, can all affect culpability, they cannot make a bad thing good. They cannot make an evil act upright. They cannot remove the harm or negative result of an incorrect, bad, or evil act: there is still paint to clean up; there is still a U-turn to be made; there is still a proper key to find. Reality sets in.

So, there is a lot of flawed moral reasoning today around the issue of intentionality, feelings, and thoughts. Important though these factors are, they cannot undo reality. They cannot alone and apart from the act itself form the basis for judging its uprightness or wrongness.

Such factors are important, though, in dealing with people who have sinned, struggle with sin, or are in sinful situations. Assisting a person in extricating himself from such situations is an essential act of mercy. Condemnations that look only to the sinful act without regard for the circumstances or intentions (even if flawed) may fail pastorally to help people. Sympathy, understanding, and love for the sinner are often essential in bring healing to him and in helping him to do better and get better.

However, having no regard for the sinfulness the act itself is not a proper pastoral stance either. Doing so would be like a doctor denying the existence of disease and limiting himself to reassuring people or telling them that they were good and decent people. Meanwhile, the disease (which does actually exist despite his denials) continues to grow and get worse. Such a doctor lacks true compassion and is guilty of malpractice. Such is also true of those who would deny that sin is sin. Despite their false reassurances the actual damage that sin and error cause continue, because good intentions cannot make a bad act good, or an error true. Lies, flattery, and illusion are never good pastoral practices.

There may be some who have sought to read the recent synodal exhortation apart from the Catholic framework from which it emerges. This is an error. One cannot and should not interpret the Pope’s appeal for good pastoral practice apart from the long-standing Catholic understanding of how to assess moral acts. It is this tradition from which the Pope speaks. Intentions and circumstances are important, especially as regards culpability. They are an important part of pastoral practice. Pastors and confessors must work carefully with each penitent, guiding him to ever greater fidelity and conformity to moral truth. It is a delicate work that requires patience and persistence. It requires a compassion that considers the person’s intentions and circumstances, but does not ignore the act itself or “recast” it based simply on good intentions or difficult circumstances. Morality consists in doing well, not just meaning well. We are summoned to actually do what is right not just think or feel right. True compassion leads people to greater conformity to God’s design.

10 Replies to “All Together Now: What the Catechism Has to Say on Assessing Moral Acts”

  1. The most controversial statement in the document, footnote 351:

    “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’ (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ (ibid., 47: 1039).”

    in no way contradicts this passage from FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO, paragraph 84 (

    ‘Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”[180]’

    When a papal statement can be interpreted in agreement with handed on teaching, going back to the teaching of Jesus, our Lord, the faithful are obliged to interpret that teaching as in agreement with the handed on teaching.

    Did I get anything wrong there?

    1. I think you are right and that 351 has to be read in the light of Familiaris C. and presumes it.

  2. To add another word picture: A few years ago while thinking and praying the Rosary what came to me in regards to “feelings” was what a friend had shared with me in reference to being a pilot and the instructor of pilots. When pilots learn to fly in fog, the clouds, the soup as it were, they’re taught to rely on their instruments. There are several instruments that can be cross checked with other instruments to ensure they are functioning properly. Pilots tragically from time to time stop trusting their instruments and go off their feelings. The danger with this my friend told me is that you can feel like you’re flying straight and level and in fact be sharply heading directly towards the ground. Apparently this does happen.

    When visibility is significantly reduced (We walk by faith) and you can no longer see the horizon as a reference point you must rely on your instruments (God, Son of God, The Word of God, The Teaching of Jesus Christ , Faith and Morals) cross checking them with other instruments to ensure the instrument In question is working properly especially if you “feel” like you’re not flying straight and level. That is if you want to live – if you want to survive.

  3. If we were to read Amoris Laetitia within the Catholic framework, then we would see how much the document totally misses the point when it frames the issues in terms of “culpability,” “bad acts,” etc. (the word does not occur in Familiaris Consortio), or to characterize Church teaching as a bunch of “rules” or “ideals,” much less refer to the good news of Christ’s teaching on marriage as being “excessive idealization” that is far removed from reality.

    Nor does that Catholic framework seek to offer excuses for moral shortcomings. I don’t need the Church to excuse my failings, I need the Church to help me overcome them. Neither does that framework, by the way, condemn or stone people in difficult situations, as was implied (and it also does not berate people who embrace Church teaching as their salvation for themselves and for others). What those teachings do, in fact, is to offer the light of truth which frees people.

    As one who personally fits within at least three of the irregular and wounded situations affecting marriage and family today, Amoris Laetitia does not offer me hope or encouragement, it does not uplift me. Instead, it discourages me. It is the 1970s all over again. It also ticks me off because there are some SERIOUS problems facing marriage and family and instead of addressing them, we had the Synod and this document deal instead with nonsense like this — which fails to even get the point and, far from actually helping people, will make things worse for them.

    Since the exhortation must be read within the Catholic framework in any event in order to properly interpret it — since reading the document on its own will not accomplish a proper interpretation — in all good conscience I cannot recommend this document to anyone. Instead of light, what it offers is twilight — and a perpetual twilight at that with its apparent call for a never-ending pastoral process and dialogue.

    Read Familiaris Consortio instead. Read Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Families, read his theology of the body and commentary on it. Read the Catechism, read Deus Caritas Est, read Humanae Vitae.

    1. See my reply elsewhere. I don’t disagree that a lot of the back and forth is murky. All the more reason to other documents as well that you cite since many of the issues in Amoris L. presume principles in those other sources. Sadly many do not have time to do this and therefore much is said back and forth that is erroneous or exaggerated. Hence my concerns abut discretion in another reply here in the thread

  4. What about the principle of non-contradiction? In the synodal exhortation, it states that one can be in an “irregular” marriage (a/k/a adulterous) and still be in a state of grace? How is this possible? Also, what’s wrong with guiding those in sinful relationships to get annulments instead of the naive recommendation to live as brothers and sisters? The sin is still there by scandal to the children of the relationship and to the community. Very confusing.

    1. Pastorally the goal in 99% of the situations is the tribunal, esp. here in America where a (somewhat) efficient Tribunal system is up and running. As to how a person can be in a state of grace who is in an irregular marriage, culpability can be limited by things such as ignorance, fear, and so forth. There are people who come to us in a substantial state of disrepair from a culture in substantial disrepair. We cannot always conclude that every person has what it takes to be in a state of mortal sin (full consent of the will, adequate knowledge) even when they have committed what is objectively a mortal sin. Read for example what the catechism says on masturbation:

      By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.”138 “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.”139

      To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability. (Catechism 2352)

      Now none of this means one who sins in this way need not go to confession. But a confessor ought to take into account what the catechism states and, especially with those who have a compulsion in this regard, may find it helpful to set up a reasonable schedule of confession for such a person to help them avoid despair, but also to take seriously the objective disorder that masturbation is.

      In a similar way, not everyone is or has been in an irregular marriage in the same way. Some have become aware of their situation only after returning to the Church from a long absence. Others acted more knowingly and didn’t care. To Look at both these couples and say “Mortal Sinner for all these years” is to ignore circumstances and intention. That said both couples ARE in an irregular situation and it does not follow that either couple should come forward to communion. But the Priest must have careful shepherd them through the proper resolutions (usually tribunal) or advise of spiritual communion etc.

      I realize this IS difficult and all the more reason that I regret that such conversations are being held so widely in the public. I did not start it and would not have started it. I think the open discussions of the synod fathers was imprudent. These are the sorts of discussions clergy need to have in discrete convocations where a lot more understanding of general norms of moral theology etc can be presumed. Sadly many are overhearing a conversation that is easily misunderstood

  5. “These are the sorts of discussions clergy need to have in discrete conversations…” This is so true. You are so very right.

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