Within Catholic moral theology any particular action can be judged as intrinsically right or wrong according to two criteria–natural law and divine revelation. We judge an action purely on the action itself without considering circumstances or motivation.
So, for example, telling a lie is wrong. It is always wrong. It is never right. A lie is a lie is a lie. It is always wrong to lie.
It is wrong by virtue of natural law because natural law tells all human beings that there is such a thing as truth and falsehood. We know, simply by the nature of language itself, that one statement can be true and another false. We know by the nature of communication itself that communication relies on telling the truth and that a lie breaks that essential trust upon which the very nature of language itself relies. We also know from divine revelation that a lie is wrong. ” You shall not bear false witness.” says the Lord.
We therefore conclude that a lie is wrong.
In saying that we have made an objective judgement: This action is wrong.
However, judging whether an action is wrong is not the same thing as determine the guilt of the person. The guilt of culpability of a person is a different matter, and that judgement is much more difficult, and very often both impossible and un necessary.
To continue with the example of a lie, we can say that a lie is always wrong. However, if Mrs Florsheim (who I know has self esteem problems) comes along wearing the most hideous hat I have ever seen and she says brightly, “Do you like my new hat?” I might say, “I love it! What a beautiful chapeau!”
I have told a lie. It is wrong. However, the circumstances and motivation of that wrong action mean that my culpability is very low–so low as to be non existent perhaps. The circumstances (woman with low self esteem) and motivation (I lied so as not to hurt her feelings) do not make the lie right. It is still a lie. It is wrong. However, the bad effect of the lie and my guilt remain insignificant.
Still with me?