Morality of behavior hinges on three elements
I was pleasantly surprised a few years ago when visiting our parish CCD class. A young boy simply said: “You have to be good in order to be happy.” I told him that St. Thomas Aquinas would be pleased to hear him say this. But how do we make good choices in life? The simple answer is that we need to learn how God wants us to live, and then do that – “Thy will be done.” Our Divine Savior revealed God’s will to mankind by word and example. Jesus commanded His apostles to teach this revelation to all nations. The Church over the ages has set forth clear teachings to instruct the faithful in the way of Christ’s truth.
On the question of the morality of our actions, the Church has given very specific guidance in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on how to judge what we should do, and not do. In paragraphs 1750-1754 we learn the constitutive elements of the moral evaluation of human acts: “The morality of human acts depends on: the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; the circumstances of the action.” Object, intention and circumstances: These three elements determine the moral evaluation of any human act.
Regarding the object the Catechism states: “The object chosen is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. It is the matter of a human act. 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. Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience.” By a choice of our will we seek some good in our life. The question is: is it a true good, something pleasing to God? God gave us our reasoning so that we might discover what is pleasing to him in the variety of possible choices we make in life. Once discovered, we should act in conformity with that good, seeking the help of God’s grace.
Regarding one’s intention, the Catechism states: “In contrast to the object, the intention resides in the acting subject. Because it lies at the voluntary source of an action and determines it by its end, intention is an element essential to the moral evaluation of an action. The end is the first goal of the intention and indicates the purpose pursued in the action. The intention 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.” We seek what we think will produce good in our life, but that alone does not make our choice good in itself. It is a good choice if we seek what is objectively good.
Our intention cannot change an evil act into a good act simply by claiming that we have the best of intentions when doing something that is evil by its very nature. The Catechism states: “A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means.”
Regarding circumstances the Catechism states: “The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.”
The task at hand for each of us is, with the help of God’s grace, to conform our lives to God’s law and to the example His Son Jesus Christ set for us.
FATHER GERALD MURRAY is pastor of Holy Family Church, New York, NY. He holds a doctorate in canon law from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and appears as commentator on religious topics on TV and radio, including EWTN, Fox News, Fox Business, MSNBC, NY1, Radio Maria, Relevant Radio, Fox News Radio and the Voice of America. He writes a monthly column for “The Catholic Thing” website. He served in U.S. Navy Reserve Chaplain Corps from 1994 to 2005.