Intention regarded as virtue?


I had a long discussion with a priest a few days ago. His hobby was Civil War history, especially the history of the South.

His contention was that the people who owned slaves couldn’t really be held accountable for that as a sin, since they didn’t know that it was wrong…

To support this, the priest said that Aquinas had written that if a Muslim goes to his death in jihad truely thinking that he is doing right in the eyes of God, that his intentions will be counted as a virtue.

The priest gave the further example that the ancient Aztecs thought that human sacrifice was a virtue, and did not know that what they were doing was evil.

My contention was that they are at least partly culpable, since all have the law written on their hearts, and have at least an inkling of an idea that what they do is wrong.

How does the priest’s (and Aquinas’ ?!) reasoning NOT lead to relativism?


Objectivism is the belief that there is one fundamentally unchangable set of Truths that are not mutably by private interpretation. Relativism believes that there is no immutable truth, that truth mutates to the desire of the individual. The difference is that while we are Catholics fall under the objectivist heading, our ability to UNDERSTAND that immutable set of truth is what defines our culpability in the eyes of God. You have to know why a sin is a sin against God to be fully culpable for it. How can God, in His infinate Justice, hold you culpable for a sin that you don’t know or understand? This is why Jesus asks God to forgive his persecutors, they did not understand what they were doing and were therefore not culpable for Jesus’ death.


Ok, so, then can we say that suicide bombers are good people, since they are so convinced that they are right that they are willing to die for it? And since they appearently don’t know that suicide and the murder of innocents is wrong, then that isn’t counted against them?

And how is that not relativism? As in “well, relative to what they understood, they are doing right.”


People love to say Aquinas said all sorts of things. As often as not, Aquinas never said them. That point aside, Aquinas is not infallible. The Church is.

The Church teaches plainly that right intention is not sufficient to remove moral culpability for an action. For an action to be morally good, both the intention of the doer and the act itself must be good.

It is not permissible to do evil with a good intention. It is not permissible to do good with an evil intention.

Thus, if I am an Aztec, and I murder someone for a human sacrifice, I have committed an evil act because murder is intrinsically evil. My intention is not relevant to whether or not the act of human sacrifice is evil.

That said, my alleged ignorance about the evils of human sacrifice might mitigate the degree of my culpability, but, again, that alleged ignorance itself does not render the act not-evil.

– Mark L. Chance.


Slaveholders in the pre-Civil war South, and indeed in the entire new world, from the 16th ton 19th centuries, had ample instruction on the evils of slavery and every opportunity to amend their concsiences. From Bartolomea de las Casas to the British anti-slavery society and American abolitionists moralists from every Christian denomination denounced the evils of slavery. There were always co-religionists twisting the bible to support the other side, but it is historically inaccurate to state that slaveholders are absolved because it was not considered morally wrong. As with other issues that conflict with self-interest, people have always managed to pick and choose what morality they will accept.


Just as I suspected…

Maybe I have a lack of imagination, but I just don’t see how people DON’T know when they’re doing evil. I think those ancient Aztecs KNEW deep down that what they were doing was wrong, but hushed those feelings up because they didn’t want to stick out.

The priest I was talking to also claimed that the Catholic Church was the largest slave holder in America during those times.

I hope that isn’t true, or, if it is true, that the Church held slaves to keep them out of the hands of more wicked slaveholders, and thus treated those slaves with dignity…

But I have the feeling that the simple fact of holding a piece of paper that says “I own Joe Slave” would tend to corrupt one’s view of Joe, even if you didn’t want it to.


[quote=bengeorge]The priest I was talking to also claimed that the Catholic Church was the largest slave holder in America during those times.

Once again, people often claim things to be true when they aren’t.

– Mark L. Chance.


The whole issue of blame and judgment is not for us to decide.

Whether the slave owners were sinning is a non-issue for anybody but those doing it and God. It is an issue for the Church which attempts to come up with a checklist of what is “right” and “wrong.” It would be an issue for us if we were in the position of having a legal option to own one. In a political sense but not moral sense, it is important because possible redistribution of wealth (a.k.a. “restorations”) depends on it.

Legalistic arguments can take you anywhere on this, and I can just as easily argue that the Church would be absolutist in condemning slave owners and relativist in excusing them, or the other way around. Watch me try:

  1. Guilty = absolutist:
    If they were told it was wrong and refused to comply, then they are guilty and any excuse that their culpability is lessened by the fact that they didn’t understand it is not an excuse. What if, for example, John Kerry really does believe that abortion is immoral but really does believe in not legislating morality? That does not prevent his bishop from excommunicating him.

  2. Guilty = relativist:
    Quit judging by mere outside appearances and make a right judgment. You who presume to know what is in the heart of another know nothing of your brother than what you observe and what assumptions you make. What part of “do not judge, and you shall not be judged” do you not understand? By the measure you use against them you shall also be judged. You who pay others money by the hour, or room and board, to do your bidding; how are you any different than them? How can we clearly see the speck in their eye when we have a plank in our own? Forgive them for they know not what they do.

Maybe #2 really isn’t so much about whether guilty = relativist, but reinforce my premise that it isn’t ours to judge.

About the terrorists: You have heard it said, “love your enemies.” That means we cannot condemn them in our hearts, as I read it. For all we know they were doing what they were doing out of faith and as brothers in humanity we might be moved to pray that they will not suffer the eternal fires of hell. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. That said, the Church fully authorizes killing as a means of self-defense so we don’t just have to sit there and let them kill us. That is, unless we really wish to absolutely follow Christ to the crucifixion by turning the other cheek. Doing nothing to prevent the terrorists is absolute love, but my false self cries out for physical security and I fully intend to vote for a president who will combat terror, even if it takes others’ lives in the process.



[quote=AlanFromWichita]Doing nothing to prevent the terrorists is absolute love


But your false self cries out for self-defence?

Sounds kinda flippy floppy… sure you’re voting for the right candidate? Ahaha… just joshing around.


Well, confusing post of the day award goes to Alan, from Wichita.


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit