The theory of the fundamental option is a difficult topic to discuss, for many reasons – the primary one though is that it describes something that is very close to the true state of things, and yet does so in a way that is both misrepresentative of those truths, and very attractive to modern minds; another is that it has a direct emotional relevance to all of us (or at least someone we know). I shall address the first point towards the end of my post, but before I take a look at the second, I will briefly outline the essence of this theory, so that it is clear from the start what I am (and am not) talking about. To set the historical context though, first voice must be given to Karl Rahner, who can be said to be the originator of this theory in its fullest form:
‘Freedom never happens as a merely objective exercise, as a mere choice “between” individual objects, but is the self-exercise of the man who chooses objectively…This self –realisation is a task he cannot avoid and, in spite of all the differences within the concrete material of his self-achievement, it is always either a self-realisation in the direction of God or a radical self-refusal towards God…This act is indeed realised and can be exercised only by means of those individual acts of man which can be localised in space and time and which can be objectified with regard to their motives. Yet this basic act cannot be simply identified by an objective reflection with such an individual act; it does not represent the merely moral sum-total of these individual acts nor can it be simply identified with the moral quality of the last of the free individual acts exercised (before death).’
From Theological Investigations, Vol VI (1974), pp.185-6, Darton Longman & Todd Ltd.
His essential meaning then, if I read it rightly (although I am never hugely confident of reading Rahner correctly!) is that each one of us has a fundamental disposition towards God or away from Him, and this disposition cannot be measured in terms of any individual moral (or immoral) acts committed, or even the accumulation of several moral decisions made during a period. For instance, I could steal a sandwich, or commit adultery, perhaps more than once in succession, but this would not necessarily alter my fundamental option towards God, and furthermore, according to this theory, there is no way of knowing whether it has been altered or not. This ties in quite nicely with the contemporary idea that even though so-and-so may routinely lie, cheat on their tax returns, or have affairs, they are ‘basically a good person’ – a way we have of reassuring ourselves that we and those we love, despite the fact that our culture has officially disavowed itself of the concepts of sin and guilt, can have a clean conscience about such things.
This latter point is why the fundamental option is so difficult to discuss – I have family and friends who are either explicitly atheist/agnostic or Christians who have lapsed and/or decided that the objectivity of certain moral injunctions is up for debate. I am sure this is the case for many others too. So, when we hear that a theory provides support for the idea that despite our actions and theirs going against the prescribed moral codes of the Church and the natural law, that we are basically good people, it is unavoidably attractive. Add to this that it seems to correlate rather nicely with certain sayings of Jesus (c.f.; Matthew 15:19-20) and the case starts to seem most alluring indeed. But, and this is a big but, it clearly goes against the traditional and consistent teaching of the Church regarding mortal sin, and the effect that it has on the state of the soul. So, the question arises – who do we believe; the Church or Rahner and (more particularly) those who have developed his theory in an even more radical direction, allowing the acceptability of acts officially designated as grave matter by the magisterium? Also, and this is the more pastorally pertinent question, though not unrelated to the first – which is really the more reassuring of the two positions?
The basic issue with this theory is that it places a separation between acts and acting person. Whilst I would certainly not want to claim that proponents of the fundamental option think that ‘anything goes’ – it is clear from their writings that they believe one’s fundamental option can eventually be altered, though when this occurs, only God knows – in practice it does allow people to believe that despite committing what the Church has called ‘intrinsically evil’ acts, their love for God (which is basically what Rahner means by a ‘self-realisation towards God’) remains. Yet, the teaching of the Church regarding mortal sin states that it ‘destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him’ (CCC 1855) and ‘necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation’ (CCC 1856).
Here we see one problem straightaway – fundamental option theory undermines the Sacrament of Confession. If mortal sin does not violate our relationship with God, then why would reconciliation with Him be necessary (in fact, one could probably chart the rise of such alternative theories in moral theology within the Church with the decline in visits to the confessional)? Indeed, according to the theory, if one cannot know when one’s fundamental option has been altered, the need for confession devolves into a matter of mere emotion and subjectivity. It matters not then whether grave acts have been committed, but how one feels about things; and if consciences have been compromised by an habitual transgression, then the weight of guilt is not felt at all, the confessional remains empty, and the soul remains turned away from God.
But, the cry goes up, is the soul really turned away from God? Aren’t we still basically good decent people? Putting to one side the whole problem of our overlooking too readily our own faults and judging too readily those of our neighbour, I would suggest returning to the words of Jesus, who reminds us that ‘the tree is known by its fruit’ (Matthew 12:33), i.e.; the fundamental option theory falls down on its own premises – yes, man can only be judged by what is in his heart, his fundamental orientation towards God, but this orientation is known and proved by the very acts he commits. Saint John the Evangelist captures the essence of this doctrine also when he says ‘if we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth…by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments’ (1 John 1:6; 2:3). This is perfectly consonant with the Church’s teaching on mortal sin – that one’s works are an expression of that fundamental orientation towards God within, and are the evidence of it, or of a lack of it.
So, the committing of mortal sin does indeed act as an indicator of whether or not we really love God, but can it really mean that there is no love of God in us at all, that our relationship with God is violated, as the catechism says? Saint John Paul II discussed this very issue in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, and concluded that:
‘In point of fact, man does not suffer perdition only by being unfaithful to that fundamental option whereby he has made “a free self-commitment to God”. With every freely committed mortal sin, he offends God as the giver of the law and as a result becomes guilty with regard to the entire law (cf.Jas 2:8-11); even if he perseveres in faith, he loses “sanctifying grace”, “charity” and “eternal happiness”. As the Council of Trent teaches, “the grace of justification once received is lost not only by apostasy, by which faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin…such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God’s love for humanity and the whole of creation: the person turns away from God and loses charity.’
Veritatis Splendor, Sections 68 & 70.
The Church’s position can’t really be put much clearer than that – it is from out of our ‘fundamental option’ that one chooses to commit particular acts, and by doing so, one shows that deep down, we don’t really love God quite as much as we thought we did, nor respect his law.
The question remains though, what do we say to ourselves and those around us who have loved ones that have quite definitely, and sometimes repeatedly, violated the moral law? To commit ourselves to the official teaching of the Church, which is very clear on this matter, and which has an authority greater than any school or movement in moral theology at any given time, must mean that we condemn these people to being in a state of separation from God, and therefore in danger of damnation. This, for those of us who love them, is intolerable. However, the catechism again here comes to our aid (highlights are my own):
‘Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin. Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offence. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offence, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.’
Unintentional ignorance of the moral law, and even more so of the teachings of the Church (even within it) is, I would argue, rife in contemporary society – this clearly provides a great deal of mitigating circumstance for those whom we are concerned about, if they are really and sincerely ignorant of the seriousness of their transgressions. Also, the mention of ‘promptings of feelings and passions’ as a factor shows a great deal of psychological wisdom on the Church’s behalf in assessing the character of our sins. We can take great solace in the Church’s compassionate assessment of our frailties and penetration into the manifold subjective aspects of the moral decisions we make.
Furthermore, to answer the question I raised earlier regarding the relative pastoral implications of the two positions I have been discussing, I would argue that by taking mortal sin more seriously and in taking into account the psychological realities committing these acts actually involves, the Church lays out a much better foundation for healing people’s souls (which is after all, its primary job, even though some voices would have us think otherwise) and reconciling them to God. Also, in cases when it is plain that people we know and love are repeatedly falling short and drifting away from God, we can know with greater confidence when to offer our help to bring them back to Him (and also ourselves, lest we forget to first take the plank out of our own eyes!)
Recognising the seriousness of mortal sin, the expression of our true relationship to God in committing such sins, and yet providing allowances for particular instances of such based on individual knowledge and understanding, not to mention the Sacrament of Reconciliation itself (the ordinary means of conveying God’s grace with respect to the forgiveness of sins – His grace is, of course, not limited to it), a most wonderful instrument for healing souls and returning them to the path of goodness and happiness, is a much more compassionate alternative to that of the fundamental option theory.
This latter theory undermines the seriousness of sin, as well as the foremost means of dealing with it (Confession), gives people no means to know whether they are in a right relationship with God, and allows them to drift further and further away from Him in the illusion that they are ‘basically good people’, thus letting their consciences become progressively more clouded, and endangering their souls. Its alluring nature is in its superficial similarity to the traditional teaching, and its being rooted in the grasping of a half-truth with respect to our fundamental orientation.
This over-emphasis of one aspect of a particular Church doctrine to the detriment of the balance and integrity of that teaching in its fullness is the hallmark of all heresy, and is why it is so often as attractive and insidious as the fundamental option theory undoubtedly is. The genius and beauty of orthodoxy is to maintain this fullness in all its splendour, and to further refine it in the light of attacks on its authority. In this particular instance, the teaching of the Church on mortal sin reminds us simultaneously of the seriousness of rejecting the divine law, and of the unlimited nature of God’s mercy – that we are dealing here with a God who forgives unconditionally and repeatedly, who knows our weaknesses and understands our frailties, and who will offer us the chance to return to Him again and again, right to the very end.