Fr. Stephen F. Torraco
From EWTN Q&A message board
(original link here)
"Fundamental option" refers to a theory of morals according to which each person gradually develops in a basic orientation of his or her life, either for or against God. This fundamental direction is said to be FOR God if one's life is fundamentally devoted to the love and service of others, and AGAINST God if one's life is essentially devoted to self-love and self-service. As such, the idea of a fundamental option is not new. It was reflected in St. Augustine's teaching that the human race is ultimately composed of two "cities": the City of God, whose members love God even to the contempt of self, and the City of Man, whose members love themselves even to the contempt of God. What IS new is the use of this idea to explain mortal sin. In 1975 the Holy See issued a formal declaration, "Persona Humana," in which certain theories involving the idea of the fundamental option were condemned. "There are those," the document stated, "who go so far as to affirm that mortal sin, which causes separation from God, only exists in the formal refusal directly opposed to God's call, or in that selfishness which completely and deliberately closes itself to the love of neighbor. They say that it is only then that there comes into play the 'fundamental option,' that is to say, the decision which totally commits the person and which is necessary if mortal sin is to exist." The Holy See admitted the description of a person's basic moral disposition as a "fundamental option." What is NOT admissible is to claim that INDIVIDUAL HUMAN ACTIONS cannot radically change this fundamental option. A person's moral disposition "can be completely changed by particular acts, especially as when often happens, these have been prepared for by previous more superficial acts. Whatever the case, it is wrong to say that particular acts are not enough to constitute a mortal sin." Implicit in the heretical theory is the notion that there CAN be serious sins, such as murder and adultery, because these actions are gravely wrong. HOWEVER, the heretical theory suggests, NO MORTAL SIN is committed unless a person subjectively rejects God.
More recently, in his encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" ("The Splendor of Truth"), Pope John Paul II renews the Church's condemnation of this heresy. On the one hand, the Holy Father affirms that there is no doubt that Christian moral teaching, even in its biblical roots, acknowledges the specific importance of a fundamental choice which qualifies the moral life and engages freedom on a radical level before God. It is a question of the decision of faith, of the obedience faith (cf. Rom 16:26) "by which man makes a total and free self-commitment to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God as he reveals." This faith, which works through love (cf. Gal 5:6), comes from the core of man, from his "heart" (cf. Rom 10:10), whence it is called to bear fruit in works (cf. Mt 12:33-35; Lk 6:43-45; Rom 8:5-10; Gal 5:22). In the Decalogue, one finds, as an introduction to the various commandments, the basic clause: "I am the Lord your God..." (Ex 20:23, which, by impressing upon the numerous and varied particular prescriptions their primordial meaning, gives the morality of the Covenant its aspect of completeness, unity and profundity. Israel's fundamental decision, then, is about the fundamental commandment (cf. Jos 24:14-25; Ex 19:3-8; Mic 6:8). The morality of the New Covenant is similarly dominated by the fundamental call of Jesus to follow him, thus he also says to the young man: "If you wish to be perfect...then come, follow me" (Mt 19:21); to this call the disciple must respond with a radical decision and choice. The Gospel parables of the treasure and the pearl of great price, for which one sells all one's possessions, are eloquent and effective images of the radical and unconditional nature of the decision demanded by the Kingdom of God. The radical nature of the decision to follow Jesus is admirably expressed in his own words: "Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel's will save it" (Mk 8:35).
On the other hand, the Holy Father explains, Jesus' call to "come, follow me" marks the greatest possible exaltation of human freedom, yet at the same time **it witnesses to the truth and to the obligation of acts of faith and of decisions which can be described as involving a fundamental option.** We find a similar exaltation of human freedom in the words of Saint Paul: "You were called to freedom, brethren" (Gal 5:13). But the Apostle immediately adds a grave warning: "Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh." This warning echoes his earlier words: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal 5:1). Paul encourages us to be watchful, because freedom is always threatened by slavery. And this is precisely the case when an act of faith in the sense of a fundamental option is said to be separated from the choice of particular acts, as suggested by the heretical teaching about fundamental option. This teaching is therefore contrary to the teaching of Scripture itself, the Holy Father explains, which sees the fundamental option as a genuine choice of freedom and links that choice profoundly to particular acts. By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God's call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God's will, wisdom and law.
John Paul explains further that a doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition. Such a doctrine revives, in new forms, certain ancient errors which have always been opposed by the Church, inasmuch as they reduce the human person to a "spiritual" and purely formal freedom. This reduction misunderstands the moral meaning of the body and of kinds of behavior involving it (cf. 1 Cor 6:19). Saint Paul declares that "the immoral, idolaters, adulterers, sexual perverts, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers" are excluded from the Kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 6:9). This condemnation, repeated by the Council of Trent, lists as "mortal sins" or "immoral practices" certain specific kinds of behavior the willful acceptance of which prevents believers from sharing in the inheritance promised to them.
Finally, the Pope notes, according to heretical teaching about fundamental option, an individual could, by virtue of a fundamental option, remain faithful to God independently of whether or not certain of his choices and his acts are in conformity with specific moral norms or rules. By virtue of a primordial option for charity, that individual could continue to be morally good, persevere in God's grace and attain salvation, even if certain of his specific kinds of behavior were deliberately and gravely contrary to God's commandments as set forth by the Church. However, 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."