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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.