There are three fonts of morality: (1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances. In order to be moral, each and every knowingly chosen act must have three good fonts. If any one or more fonts is bad, the act is immoral. Every act with an evil moral object is intrinsically evil and always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.
Direct versus Indirect
1. Does direct abortion become indirect when the prenatal's life cannot be saved?
This question pertains to the moral object of the intentionally chosen act. The moral object of direct abortion is the killing of an innocent human person. This evil moral object makes the act, by its very nature, intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. The moral object of an intrinsically evil act is always related to that act such that the act is intentionally chosen (deliberate, voluntary). Also an intrinsically evil act always has a morally-direct relationship to its object, such that the moral object is the proximate end toward with the act is inherently ordered.
So now we can rephrase the question: If the abortion is direct when the prenatal's life can be saved, does the same intentionally chosen act become indirect when the prenatal's life cannot be saved?
Some commentators speak as if a change in intention or a change in circumstance can affect the moral object, so as to change the object from evil to good. However, this position is contrary to the clear and definitive teaching of the Magisterium.
Therefore, only if the moral object is good can we say that the abortion is indirect. But in the case presented in this question, the only change from the case of direct abortion is that the prenatal's life cannot be saved. Is this fact in the moral object, or in the circumstances?
In a case of euthanasia, when a patient is terminally ill and near death, it is still an intrinsically evil act of murder to directly kill him. If the physician were to kill a terminally-ill patient by crushing his skull, the act would be direct and intrinsically evil. Even if the physician acts for a good purpose, or in dire circumstances, the act remains inherently ordered toward the end of killing an innocent person. Even if the act of the physician is less violent, such that he only injects the patient with a drug of a type that will kill the patient, the act is murder.
The fact that the prenatal's life cannot be saved, even that the prenatal is hours or minutes away from death, does not change the inherent moral meaning of the act. The prenatal is still being directly killed by an intentional choice -- regardless of the intended end or the circumstances. The prenatal's skull cannot be crushed by the physician, nor can the prenatal be killed by an injection of a drug or a saline solution. In either case, such an act is inherently ordered toward the proximate end of killing the prenatal.
2. Does direct abortion become indirect when it is the only way to save the mother's life?
Again, this question can be rephrased to ask whether the saving of the mother's life changes the moral object of the abortion, which would otherwise be direct due to an evil moral object.
The moral object of a direct abortion is the killing of an innocent human person. The fact that another innocent person's life can be saved by killing the younger of the two persons does not change the prenatal from innocent to guilty, nor does it change the fact that the intentionally chosen act is intrinsically directed toward the proximate end of killing that prenatal.
If you can save 100 innocent lives by directly taking one innocent life, the killing of that one person is nevertheless murder. The good end of saving 100 lives does not justify reaching that end by means of an intrinsically evil act of murder. Similarly, the direct killing of the prenatal in order to save the mother's life remains an act of murder. The intentionally chosen act has not changed. The circumstance that the mother's life cannot be saved does not change the act; it is the same exterior act, with the same proximate end, the killing of the innocent prenatal.
Some commentators speak as if the intentionally chosen act has no moral meaning apart from the intention of the will directing that act to a particular end. This position is contrary to the clear and definitive teaching of the Magisterium on the basic principles of morality.
The exterior act, deliberately (intentionally, voluntarily) chosen by the human person, is not by itself morally neutral. The moral species of the act, which is its essential moral nature or inherent moral meaning, cannot be separated from the choice of the human will of a certain action or behavior. The exterior concrete act, with its inherent moral meaning, is analogous to the human body with its interior unseen soul. Body and soul are one person. The separation of the soul from the body is death. So when a moral analysis separates the inherent moral meaning from the chosen action or behavior, that moral analysis is dead.
3. Does direct abortion become indirect when the prenatal's life cannot be saved and it is the only way to save the mother's life?
Intrinsically evil acts never become moral due to a change in degree. For example, a lie in a small matter is a sin, just as a lie in a grave matter is a sin. A change in degree is a circumstance; it is not the moral object. An act that is not intrinsically evil in a smaller degree is not intrinsically evil in a greater degree. An act that is intrinsically evil in a greater degree is still intrinsically evil in a smaller degree.
Despite the way that these cases of direct and indirect abortion are presented by the media and by certain commentators, the risk to the mother's life and to the prenatal's life in any pregnancy is generally a matter of degree. Every pregnancy carries some risk to the life of the mother and to the life of the prenatal. And even in cases of high risk to the life of the mother and the prenatal, the outcome is not absolutely certain. But the immorality of intrinsically evil acts is absolute.
The claim that direct abortion becomes indirect when the prenatal's life cannot be saved, but the mother's life can be saved, necessarily implies that any degree of risk to the life of the mother and to the life of the prenatal would justify killing the prenatal. This leaves us with the absurd opinion that, in one degree of risk to the life of the mother, the act is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, but in a greater degree of risk, the same act becomes good and moral. Such a conclusion is necessarily implied by the position of certain moralists.
Therefore, the answer to all three questions above is that direct abortion is not transformed into indirect abortion by the intention or circumstances, even if the mother's life is the only life that it is possible to save, even if both persons will die if a direct abortion is not performed.
Other Intrinsically Evil Acts
Certain commentators approach the issue of direct and indirect abortion, and the issues of sterilization and contraception, by redefining the basic principles of morality so that act which seem, to the sinful secularized Christian, to be moral become somehow justified. Of course, these same supposedly fundamental principles of ethics are not applied generally, to all intrinsically evil acts. They are only applied to the acts that the commentator wishes to justify.
Let's consider what happens when we apply this newly-devised principles to other intrinsically evil acts.
4. Is adultery justified in order to save a life?
A man is imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War 2. He will certainly be put to death if he cannot escape. His wife has sexual relations with a guard at the camp in order to convince him to release her husband secretly. If she does not commit this act, her husband's life cannot be saved. Is adultery justified to save a life? Is her act the intrinsically evil act of adultery?
If we apply the newly-devised basic principles of ethics used by certain moralists, we would conclude that the act becomes moral when it is the only way to save an innocent life. But if we apply the basic principles of ethics taught by the Magisterium in Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we must conclude that adultery is intrinsically evil, and always gravely immoral, and never justified by intention or circumstances.
5. Is contraception justified to save a life?
The position of certain moralists on direct and indirect abortion necessarily implies that adultery becomes moral, or that it becomes somehow not adultery, in dire circumstances, such as to save a life.
Certain commentators take the position that contraception may be moral within marriage with a good intention, a non-contraceptive intention, such as to protect life by preventing disease transmission. Contraception supposedly becomes moral by being done for an intention that is not contraceptive, or in a circumstance in which an innocent life is protected from harm. However, this position, like the above discussed position on abortion, implies a change to the fundamental principles of ethics, not merely a different judgment on the application of the usual basic principles.
If contraception is no longer intrinsically evil when the person does not intend a contraceptive end, then adultery would become moral when the person does not intend the end of adultery, but instead intends the end of saving a life. This conclusion, necessarily implied by the new version of the three fonts of morality that some commentators propose, is contrary to the clear and definitive teaching of the Magisterium on adultery. And must but not all of these commentators themselves would admit that adultery is not justified to save an innocent life. Nevertheless, the change to the basic principles of ethics (which they will claim is not a change, but the correct understanding) necessarily implies conclusions that are contrary to magisterial teaching and contrary to reason.
In addition, the position that the use of condoms in marriage is justified to prevent disease transmission also necessarily implies one of two false conclusions: 1) either an act can be intrinsically evil in one degree and moral in another degree, or 2) the use of condoms in marriage is always justified.
In the first case, the use of condoms to prevent disease transmission is a matter of degree. If one spouse has a disease that can be transmitted by sexual relations, there is a risk of transmission with each sexual act, but it is not certain. Moreover, condoms are not 100% effective at preventing pregnancy. And a woman can only become pregnant during a limited number of days each month, whereas disease transmission is possible on any day. Therefore, there is a certain degree of risk of transmission even with the use of condoms.
In the second case, the spouses cannot be certain that each is free from any disease that can be transmitted by sexual relations. Neither is the faithfulness of both spouses a guarantee against the possibility of sexually-transmissible disease. For certain diseases, such as hepatitis, can be contracted by one of the spouses without extramarital sexual relations, and can be passed on to the other spouse by marital relations. Therefore, there is always a degree of risk of disease transmission. So if a commentator does not accept the first conclusion, that intrinsically evil acts can be moral or immoral depending on degree, then his justification of the use of condoms in marriage would imply the second conclusion, that all married couples may use condoms at all times since there is always some degree of risk of disease transmission.
So whoever claims that the use of condoms is not intrinsically evil when there is a high degree of risk of disease, implies that either the same type of act is intrinsically evil with a lesser degree of risk, or that the use of condoms is always justified because there is always at least a small risk of disease transmission. But both of these conclusions directly contradict the teaching of the Magisterium that contraception is intrinsically evil, and that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral.
Genocide, Racism, Slavery, Torture
We can apply the same thinking to other intrinsically evil acts. Certain commentators and ethicists have devised a new approach to ethics, or at least a revision to the magisterial doctrine of the three fonts of morality, that can be used to justify an intrinsically evil act. They claim that the act is no longer intrinsically evil when the intention is not directed toward an evil moral object (but with no regard for the moral species of the act), or when the circumstances are dire. Their position pertains to the fundamental principles of ethics, not merely to their application in particular cases. And so we can apply these same newly-devised principles to other intrinsically evil acts, and then determine whether such principles correctly determine whether or not an act is intrinsically evil.
Does genocide become moral when the intention is good or the circumstances are dire? Can one ethnic group be killed, and is that killing somehow indirect, if it is the only way to save another ethnic group?
Does racism become moral when the intention is good or the circumstances are dire? Can one ethnic group be treated unjustly on the basis of race, if it is the only way to accomplish a good end?
Does slavery become moral when the intention is good or the circumstances are dire? Can a person or group be enslaved, if it is the only way to save innocent lives or to avoid some dire consequence?
Does torture become moral when the intention is good or the circumstances are dire? Can an innocent person be tortured if it is the only way to save many lives from an impending terrorist attack?
The answer to all of the above questions is: Certainly not!
Yet the position of anyone who justified abortion or contraception on the basis of intention and circumstances necessarily implies that any and all other intrinsically evil acts can be justified by the same approach. But of course, they only use their new system of ethics when they desire to justify an act, an act widely justified by sinful secular society. When it is a question of another intrinsically evil, an act widely condemned by sinful secular society, they never apply these same new principles of ethics. For they realize that these proposed new principles are not principles of ethics at all, but merely a convenient excuse to justify only those acts that seem good to them, from their own sinful secular point of view.
A New Version of Proportionalism
This new approach to morality proposed by many various commentators in order to justify contraception, or to justify direct abortion (claiming that it is indirect) is merely a new version of the old heresy called proportionalism. Proportionalism ethicists, such as Lisa Sowle Cahill, used to argue that no type of act is always immoral, not contraception, not abortion, not various sexual acts. They claimed that the morality of an act depends only on intention and circumstances, not on moral object. This error was definitively condemned by Pope John Paul II in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor in 1993.
But recently, the heresy of proportionalism has reemerged in a new form: in the claim that the moral object is determined by intention and circumstances. In place of the claim that no act is intrinsically evil and therefore always immoral, they now claim that intrinsically evil acts are transformed into a different type of act, one that now has a good moral object, due to the intention or the circumstances. But this error, too, was condemned by Pope John Paul II and by the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Whoever contradicts the above quoted teachings commits the sin of heresy.
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator
9 January 2011
For a full discussion of intrinsic evil and the moral object, see my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics