Where does Catholic act-based morality come from?

Much of how Catholic teaching appraises what is sin is based on the notion of specific acts being “intrinsically evil,” or being wrong by their very nature – despite whatever the circumstances or intentions may be. This is especially true with regards to Catholic teaching on sexual morality. For example, no matter what good intentions spouses may have, sexual acts that do not allow for the creation of new life are objectively evil. Similarly, no matter what goods may come from a homosexual relationship, every sexual act is inherently wrong. Some have criticized this outlook as physicalism, which judges actions mainly on the biological or physical aspects of the action.

Where does this moral outlook comes from? Is it primarily rooted in a certain philosophy the church has adopted? St. Thomas Aquinas? Etc.

Can the understanding of Catholic morality ever change, say, from a act-based to intention based? Or in some other way? At least in some cases? After all, not everything in Catholic morality is judged immoral by the act alone. Mutilation is not in itself wrong, but it can be. Not all killing is wrong – though that is also a physical act, too.

I set this aside for it is not reflecting fully what the Church teaches or Catholic moral Theology would not…for one would have to clarify a good deal. I note this for readers.

It is not “act based” morality. For it tis not only about “acts”…

What your getting at rather is about the “objective nature” of certain thoughts, actions etc. That there can yes be objectively and intrinsically evil thoughts, actions etc.

Such has to do with the objective reality of the object. Not they “physical act” alone - but the “moral object”. The moral reality.

Murder is always evil. Nothing can ever justify it.

Killing may or may not be murder.

But if it is murder it is always evil.

As to the "where " …reason…Divine revelation …and reasoning about reason and Revelation (philosophy, theology)…The Church draws from all both in her Teaching.

Here from the CCC that can be helpful: scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c1a4.htm#1749

“Can the understanding of Catholic morality ever change, say, from a act-based to intention based? Or in some other way? At least in some cases?”

This teaching cannot change; it is the constant teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Morality is based on human acts. Each act includes the intention, the moral nature of the chosen act (determined by its object), and the circumstances. There are no exceptions. I suggest reading Veritatis Splendor.

“Where does this moral outlook comes from? Is it primarily rooted in a certain philosophy the church has adopted? St. Thomas Aquinas? Etc.”

As Pope John Paul II says in Veritatis Splendor, the Church’s moral teaching on the three fonts of morality (intention, object, circumstances) is an explanation of truths found in the Bible:

“The doctrine of the object as a source of morality represents an authentic explicitation of the Biblical morality of the Covenant and of the commandments, of charity and of the virtues. The moral quality of human acting is dependent on this fidelity to the commandments, as an expression of obedience and of love. For this reason - we repeat - the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. Without the rational determination of the morality of human acting as stated above, it would be impossible to affirm the existence of an “objective moral order” and to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception.”

The terminology and the details of how the object of an act determines its moral nature goes back to Saint Thomas. But his work is simply a way of expressing what has always been found in Divine Revelation.

But yes, I am interested in the where – like how this understanding developed. Obviously, if you went back to the first few centuries of the church, they may have said many of the things are evil, but they may not justify that in the exact same way the Church does so today. Where does our language come from? Where has this act-based outlook come from?

But not all Christians understand morality this way, even if they reach similar conclusions about acts. It just seems that a lot of our difficulties in Catholic moral teaching, especially today regarding sexual morality, is tangled in a philosophical theory or a certain interpretation of natural law.

What is “another way” that Christians understand morality?

Catholic Moral theology, particularly as it pertains to the question of intrinsic evil (as per your OP) is not “special” when it comes to sexual matters.

If you dispense with the framework eg. The 3 fonts of morality and the existence of intrinsically evil “acts”, you are left with a model of “anything goes under appropriate circumstances”.

Not a “act -based outlook”…

There is always debate on what truly is a sin and I actually happen to agree with most of what the Church continues to teach on this matter. As you say killing is not always murder. True. Yet we can both agree that killing someone even in self defense is a disorder act?

In the same way when someone mutilates themselves to ease their pain from some disorder they may have, we can agree that it may not be a sin because they didn’t know it was wrong per the teachings of the Church, but the act in of itself is still a disorder action, and should be condemned no?


It is not like it is a new thing that Murder is always evil…or other like matters…but that the terms were developed to “talk about” in the language of the science of theology such matters…

The early Church would not have used the same “theological language” but would have said things such as such is of the “way of death”…

That precise philosophical and theological language - to describe the reality of moral or immoral acts, and thoughts and omissions … developed over the centuries with I would think St. Thomas being of particular import as a contributor…

No I would not use that language there.

You mean surgery? No surgery is not mutilation. It is not a disordered act.

Act needs to be broadly defined. We speak of the morality “of human acts”, and that is the form of expression used in the Catechism. Thoughts qualify as acts.

Sure- but the way the question was asked leads down a different road (physical acts).

How would you use it then? Perhaps I didn’t word it correctly. Would you agree though that killing in of itself is wrong? I do agree that as a last resort only if necessary but should be avoided as much as possible.

Of course surgery in of itself is not mutilation. It depends on the intent. Yet these days, people who have healthy biological bodies wish to have surgeries to live out an active disorder. Wouldn’t this classify as mutilation?

For example, the traditional Catholic moral teaching is that lying is objectively always evil. Even if lying out of motive to, say, make someone feel good, or to help them – like “No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat!” or even “No, Nazi officer, we are not hiding any Jews here.”

But other ways of looking at it is, yes, sin is always an affront to the love of God or neighbor, but lying in those above cases aren’t necessarily so. Lying may generally be wrong, but not there.

And when I say Catholic morality is act-based, I mean that the physical act is the first aspect of morality that is looked to to determine the morality of a thought, word, or deed.

Sexual morality is especially physicalist in nature, where the physical, biological act is looked upon to judge something as objectively wrong.

The* direct killing of an innocent* is always evil. But not all killing is wrong.

Theological language may have developed to understand something that’s consistently been considered the same way. But I think the issue here is that sometimes, the way we develop our language and philosophical system to understand things makes it impossible to *not *be consistent from the past. As in, even if there were reasons to think, say, lying were sometimes not inherently evil, current theological frameworks prevent us from seeing that to be so.

Killing always brings about a physical evil, but the act is not always an immoral act.

Not all killing is a formal sin. But I think the issue here is that, not all killing is even a material sin.

But that is not the case with say, the Church’s teaching on sexual acts.

You are expressing opinion in your remarks on lying. If the act is a lie, then it is always a wrong act.

I don’t understand the rest of the post. What is “physical” act? Note that the physical acts you may witness in a killing - raising a gun, pulling trigger, bullet piercing the other person - tell us nothing about the morality of the act.

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