Speaking of Christian mercy, we are referring to acts which are morally good. Theology not only describes human acts, but also gives the criteria for their moral evaluation. Action (also human thought) plays an extremely important role in every human life for it shapes and forms one’s personality and attitudes, and influences the development of one’s spiritual life, or does the opposite – humi- liating or degrading a person, and inhibiting his or her development as a human being and as a Christian. It is actions that speak about who a person is; they influence one for good or evil; they reveal one’s similarity or dissimilarity to the image of the Son of God. Every action leaves a trace in man, multiplying or reducing the good; this is why human choices, decisions and actions are so extremely important.
The Lord Jesus made entering into the kingdom of heaven conditional on morally good human actions. He placed them higher than the prophecies and performing miracles in His name. He said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7: 21), that is, the one who performs good deeds in accordance with the will of God. His call to perform good deeds comes across even more powerfully in the scene of the Last Judgement (Mt 25: 44-46).
The moral evaluation of human actions (rational and done in freedom) is made firstly in the conscience. In it, man discovers a law “which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that” (GS 16). Conscience shows the moral value of human acts and does that with the power of authority, which disapproves or gives a sense of satisfaction. The Second Vatican Council speaks of conscience as “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man” (GS 16), where God meets with man. While saying that conscience is a place for dialogue between God and man, that “God’s voice echoes in his depths” (GS 16), one must have in mind only a well-formed conscience, that is, formed on the truth of God’s law, which constitutes universal and “objective norms of morality” (GS 16). Conscience in fact does not create its own moral norms independently, but reads objective moral norms and applies them to concrete acts in human life. It is not enough to say that one acts according to conscience, one should add: conscience formed in accordance with objective moral law.
The criteria developed by the Church’s doctrine are also useful in the moral evaluation of human acts. These criteria include: the object of an act, its intention and the circumstances. An act is morally good only if all three criteria are consistent with objective moral law, the law of God.
Criteria for moral evaluation
Human acts, by which is meant conscious and free human decisions and actions, can be qualified as morally good or evil: “The morality of human acts depends on:
– the object chosen;
– the end in view or the intention;
– the circumstances of the action.
The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the ‘sources’, or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.” (CCC 1750).
These are the criteria in the light of which we can decide whether human actions are good or evil.
1. The Object
“The primary and decisive element for moral judgment is the object of the human act, which establishes whether it is capable of being ordered to the good and to the ultimate end, which is God.” (VS 79). The object of an act is the objective value towards which an action is set by its very nature. For example, the object of prayer is the glory of God, thus a prayer by its nature seeks to give glory to God; whereas the aim of a lie is to mislead the listener.
The object of an act may be good, evil or indifferent, depending on whether it is in accordance with objective moral standards. An action which is good by its object is one which is consistent with the true good of a person (the good is defined by objective moral standards), and is subject to the ultimate end and supreme good, God Himself. The teaching of the Church also speaks of acts which are ‘intrinsically evil’: “They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person” (VS 81). These acts are always evil because of their object, regardless of the intentions of the person acting and the circumstances. The Second Vatican Council in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes mentions a long list of such acts: “whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed” (GS 27).
Today, in the case of many such actions, where the object is in fact evil, there is often an attempt at justification under the banner of freedom, good intention or mercy wrongly understood. For example, euthanasia is contrary to the biblical truth on the good of man contained in God’s commandments. Causing the death of the terminally ill is an evil act by its object itself, because it is evil to kill a man. If the object of an act is evil, then the act will never be good, and will not be merciful, even if thousands of people were to call it so, in an attempt to justify their position by “an apparent good,” or even “mercy” towards the sick or the old (“they will not feel pain”, “they will no longer suffer”, or “they have the right to die with dignity”). In such thinking there is no question of a good deed, nor, therefore, of true Christian mercy, because the truth about God and about the true good of man has been set aside.
“As for acts which are themselves sins, Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives, they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?” (VS 81). Nevertheless, in our times, in which the sense of evil and sin is fading, we often hear voices attempting to reverse the objective order of values and call evil good (euthanasia, abortion, or homosexuality, etc.). However, “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice” (VS 81).
Finally, there are acts indifferent by their object, that is, neither good nor evil, whose moral value is given by the intention or circumstances. The object of an act can be morally neutral, but not the act. For example, a walk is morally indifferent by its object, but taken for the sake of one’s own health or for the sake of the health of the person one is caring for – is a morally good act. Food or drink is morally indifferent by its object, but the abuse of food or drinks in some circumstances – is an act morally evil.
The intention of an act is an important element in evaluating moral human acts. It consists in directing one’s human will to the end, it concerns the end of an action. “An intention is good when it has as its aim the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end” (VS 82). (…) An intention causes an act that is indifferent by its object to become good or evil (e.g. visiting friends, when the intention is to please them, wish them all the best, or console them – is a good act, but when it is undertaken with the intention of having a row – it is an evil act). An act which is good by its object – by the intention, becomes more or less good (as with “the widow’s mite”) or evil (e.g. acts of prayer or almsgiving – by its object each of these is good, but when offered to win praise they must be considered evil). An act which is evil by its object – by the intention becomes less evil, but never good (cf. CCC 1753). Here the rule of thumb applies: the end does not justify the means. Pope John Paul II recalls this teaching of the Church: “human activity cannot be jud- ged as morally good merely because it is a means for attaining one or ano- ther of its goals, or simply because the subject’s intention is good” (VS 72).
“The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act” (CCC 1754). Circumstances may increase or decrease the good or evil of an act. For example, a theft in a shop is a lesser evil than in the church, because the latter is a sacrilege; missing the Mass is judged differently in cases of illness, travel or other circumstances.
Circumstances may also cause an act indifferent by its object to become good or bad, and a good act by its object can become better or evil (e.g. prayer at the expense of duties); but an evil act by its object under the influence of circumstances will never become a good one (e.g. a lie will never become a justifiable and morally good act whatever the situation). “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” (CCC 1754).
Seven circumstances must be taken into account in assessing the moral value of an act. The factors correspond to the fundamental questions: Who?, What?, Where?, When?, How?, In which way?, and Why? (this last substantially corresponding to an intention). The circumstances of the person performing an act are important, as can be seen in the case of corruption: corruption is the greater, the more important the position in society held by the person who sins. For example, given the same act, greater corruption of a child is caused by the father than by a friend, by a priest than by a lay person. The circumstances of time and place also influence the moral value of an act (e.g. a party during ordinary period as opposed to during Lent; fasting on Fridays as opposed to fasting on other days of the week).
A serious mistake of modern times is ‘situationism’ which claims that a situation, that is the circumstances surrounding actions, determines whether they are good or evil. Very often people try to justify evil acts by claiming specific circumstances. One often hears that that is how things are these days – everyone steals so I can steal; or everyone lies so nothing bad will happen if I do not tell the truth. Meanwhile what is truly intended is that circumstances should enhance the conscious realization of goodness in accordance with objective moral norms.
(…) For an act to be an act of mercy – it must be morally good, that is, entirely consistent with the truth of God’s commandments. To repeat: good must be present in the object of an action, in its intention and in its circumstances. An act is morally good if all these elements are consistent with the will of God revealed to man in moral law, and thus consistent with the ultimate goal of man. If human actions meet the requirements of the law of God and lead to our eternal salvation, they must be regarded as good; however, they are bad if they differ from the commandments and turn us aside from achieving our eternal salvation. If our acts are to be acts of mercy, then they must consider and realize the true good of the person as stated in the commandments, and thus express willing subordination to our eternal goal, namely God Himself. The point is that what we do for others should stem not only from the subjective truth about the good of a person, but have in mind his real good; and its real basis should be the objective and universal truth of God’s law, which prohibits conduct contrary to the good of every human being, both temporal and eternal. The point is that the mercy shown must have at its heart love to the person, love for their true good.
Complete text: Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, Wartość moralna czynów ludzkich (Moral Value of Human Acts), in: Piękno i bogactwo miłosierdzia (Beauty and Richness of Mercy, pp. 28-41), Kraków: Mise- ricordia, 2004.
Translated by Orest Pawlak