Intentionality in Morality

By Mr. Joseph Walkowski

​The readings for this weekend are befittingly timely, as I have been devoting many recent hours writing of the importance of charitable intention when exercising any virtuous act. I specify acts solely of virtue because good intentions do not cause sin to no longer be sinful (see Abelard’s idea of intentionalism); selfish intention, however, can negate the goodness of an act that appears to be benevolent.

We see the dangers of disordered intentions, for example, when we read in Numbers of Balaam, a headstrong prophet who was willing to even declare the curse of God upon the Israelites, for his desire for riches eclipsed his alleged faithfulness to God(xxii; cf. 2 Pet. ii. 15b (Knox): “Balaam the son of Bosor, the man who was content to take pay in the cause of wrong”). Though the Lord allowed Balaam to make utterance upon the Israelites, it was permitted only that he could bless these holy peoples—not curse. The prophet set out on the task but his intentions were filled with greed and the Lord proceeded to reproach him, for “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit” (Prov. xvi. 2). While traveling, the donkey that bore the prophet “spoke with a human voice, to bring a prophet to his senses” (2 Pet. ii. 16b). I share this story when teaching about pious intentions in all actions because I see a parallel in myself: I know that there are many who are persistent in stubbornness, so I hope that one or two Truths of God might be spoken through me—a simple ass—to soften such hearts.

Bear in mind that, for the sake of this meandering writing, I am using “intention” as was defined by S. Thomas Aquinas: As “an act of the will, presupposing the act whereby the reason orders something to the end” (Sum. Theol., I-II, Q12, A1, ad. 3).

Now, a majority of moral theology can, in some respects, be simplified to the following form:


1. Do you know if an act is sinful? a) If you know it is, avoid it. b) If it is not sinful or, even better, is pleasing to God, it is a morally safe route to take. c) If you are unsure, turn to the Church and the saints for the answer.

2. If you are unsure but do not care to know if an act is sinful, you cannot claim absolute ignorance and are liable for carrying out the act—good intentions cannot justify your voluntary sin of neglect.

3. If, after seeking counsel from the Church and Her saints, you are told with certainty that an act is not “ordered towards God”, then you must not carry out the act. a) If, however, the topic is said by multiple authorities to be a “gray area”, you are in the realm of Catholic probabilism at that point, and I would encourage you to meet with a well-formed spiritual director.


Since the Jews of the first century were not wholly obligated to (1c), S. Paul tells us that they were partly ignorant in their crucifixion of Our Savior, “for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. ii. 8). The modern Christian, however, cannot claim this same ignorance. When we listen to Matthew’s Gospel for this Sunday, we learn much of the will of God: What ought and ought not to be done, what is and is not sinful, and so on. We cannot blissfully choose to disregard these words of Christ, though, as they are of great importance to our spiritual strength and joy. A conundrum, it seems, as S. James tells us that “If you don’t do what you know is right, you have sinned” (iv. 17, CEV).

​When I teach on Catholic morality, I emphasize two forms of ignorance. The first is an ignorance of genuine naïveté, such as might be found in an old woman who has lived her life in the secluded foothills of rural China. No one rightly believes that Our God, the Author and Mirror of Divine Mercy, would condemn such a person to the eternal darkness of Hell. However, the fullness of life can not be experienced by this old woman if she lives out all her days unaware of the Lord, Our God. S. Augustine of Hippo came to realize this after decades of (spiteful) ignorance: “With thee is perfect rest, and life unchanging. He who enters into thee enters into the joy of his Lord” (Confessiones, II.X).

​Some might ask if such blindness is in itself sinful, since it seems unjust to hold someone accountable to that for which they are not knowingly culpable. It is true, of course, that “sin is rightly imputed only to that which sins, nor is it rightly imputed unless it sins voluntarily” (S. Augustine, De libero arbitrio, III.XLIX). However, our hearts know of the goodness and laws of God even when our minds do not. Though an innocently ignorant mind may not know that there is more to life, the heart is inclined to the natural law (our innate sense of right and wrong), and thus “A man who does not fulfil the commandments is rightly reprimanded, because it is by reason of his negligence that he does not have the grace by which he can observe the commandments even as to the manner (since he could, even without grace, observe them as to their substance)” (Aquinas, Questiones disputatae de veritate, Q24, A14, ad. 2). Therefore, all members of the human race must ever strive to perfect ourselves in virtue. When we stand before the judgment of God at the end of all things, it will be said to the blissful ignorantsthat “You are not held guilty because you are ignorant in spite of yourself, but because you neglect to seek the knowledge you do not possess” (S. Augustine, op. cit., III.LIII. Cf. S. Alphonsus de Liguori, Theologia Moralis, Vol. I, Bk. I.III, “Second Corollary”, 76). However, we praise the mercy of Our Father, as He will ask those who have lived wholly unaware only to “wipe their feet” in the cleansing fires of Purgatory, that they may rid themselves of their former life and enter into the joys of His Light.

​The second example of ignorance I noted, however, is that which applies to Christians: If we have been baptized in Christ, we likely know the importance of the Gospels. As Catholics, however, we are called to a much greater “level” of adherence to the Gospels, since we have clear and bountiful resources that point us to the loving demands of a life of holiness (in Scripture, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, and the early Fathers of the Church). Thus, the Lord asks us to offer more as Catholics. And the more we are called into a life of more intense prayer and selflessness, the greater the expectations for us will be.

There is a reason that the greatest and most innocent of saints wrote things such as “POOR MEN AND WOMEN who are sinners, I [am] a greater sinner than you” (S. Louis de Montfort, The Secret of the Rosary, “Dedication”): Because the more the Lord blesses us with His gifts of absolute joy and hope, the more we must acknowledge that we are not worthy of such great gifts. With great grace comes great responsibility. Knowing that you cannot now rightly claim ignorance, my dear friends, I invite you to again hear and fall in love with the readings today.

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