TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 16: The Distinction Between Grave and Light Matter

Appendix 1: Flick and Alszeghy on fundamental commitment

In 1960, M. Flick, S.J., and Z. Alszeghy, S.J., published an article which has greatly influenced discussion of fundamental option.45

The authors begin by pointing out that everyone seeks self-fulfillment, but also seeks goods which will be realized in others. Thus, to be an end of affective life is not to be the end of the whole affective life. A strong personality has a single, all-embracing end of his or her whole life; for example, the revolutionary or the mother of a family centers virtually everything around one basic interest. Activities which do not contribute are merely incidental, hardly part of life. To have some such fundamental orientation of life is not the exception but rather the rule; most people have a more or less definite orientation, of one or another sort, which constitutes a form of life for them. It provides an organizing norm to which their particular activities are related.46

Psychologically, the fundamental option is prepared by childhood and adolescent experience and matured in the subconscious mind. It need not be expressed in a distinct, explicit act, but can be in a particular, significant deed which is a turning point in an individual’s life. Once made, the fundamental option tends to shape every subsequent act; it tends to last through life. Yet it can be reversed. The fundamental option tends to be confirmed as it is made explicit and worked out in particular situations, particularly when it requires difficult acts. However, it can be changed either by a sudden, tragic break in a person’s life, or by a gradually maturing process of conversion.47

The love of God, Flick and Alszeghy go on to assert, can be such a fundamental option. The love in question is willing God’s goodness with charity, not simply to enjoy God for oneself, but to will his goodness for his own glory and its expression in creation. One can love another person genuinely without this love becoming a fundamental option, but such is not the case with God. One either tries to use God or one must subordinate one’s whole being and life to him. To love him is to dedicate oneself to his will, not merely to direct an act to him as ultimate goal. This is an act of personal liberty, yet it need not be conceptually distinct from a choice on some particular issue.48

The authors claim the authority of St. Thomas for the view that this option must be made by a child at the outset of its moral life. They argue that the self-orientation of the child can be gradually prepared and can be implicit in a decision by which the child accepts God’s will, not for some extrinsic reason (such as wishing to please mother) but because of a love which is willing to direct the whole self to God. The child who is not brought up in a religious context also makes a fundamental option for or against God, according to Flick and Alszeghy, but in this case the option is implicit in the acceptance or rejection of moral norms as making an objective and absolute demand to which one must submit. The child who takes the stance that moral demands are merely a set of factual obstacles and restraints to be dealt with realistically—avoided and neutralized and used as one can to suit oneself—takes an immoral stance and opts against God. The child who recognizes and responds to the claim of moral demands to personal reverence and submission implicitly acknowledges in the moral law its divine source and opts for God.49

The authors go on to argue that one or the other absolutely fundamental option is inevitable. Either one accepts the glory of God (at least implicitly in accepting moral claims) as one’s principle, or one takes one’s own interest or that of another creature with which one identifies oneself as one’s highest law. The former option renders one morally good and makes one tend to do what is right in every instance; the latter option, while it leaves one free in each instance to do what is right, guarantees that in some instances one will choose what is morally evil. The habitual option for God is inconsistent with a grave transgression of moral law; such a transgression remains possible, but it would mean changing one’s fundamental option. However, Flick and Alszeghy state, the habitual disposition can coexist with acts which do not agree with it.50

What sort of acts are these? According to the authors, they are acts which either are not fully deliberate or are not of their nature such as to engage the whole person. They are acts which, even if they do not agree with the prior fundamental option, still “are not of such degree as to alter the prevailing tendency toward it. This is why the fundamental option, of its nature, does not exclude venial sins.”51

I turn now to criticism of the views proposed in this influential article.

The sociological and psychological evidence Flick and Alszeghy cite to indicate that people have some basic interest or fundamental orientation in life is beside the point. A revolutionary might be wholly dedicated to a cause; most people are not like this. The mother of a family can have a single focus for her emotional life, her family; many people are not like this. More important, while both the revolutionary and the mother can be morally upright and oriented toward God, both also can be vicious people. Since that concerning which sociology and psychology provide evidence can be determined without that with which Flick and Alszeghy are concerned being determined, it is clear that the two things are different, and the existence of the former does not establish or help clarify the latter.

If people understood all the implications of their choices, it might follow that one’s initial, morally good or bad choice would establish one’s general stance toward moral norms and their divine source. However, people often do not understand the implications of their choices. Usually a person can genuinely respect and submit to some norms of morality, respect others as valid claims but violate them in practice, and treat still others as mere factual nuisances.

People implicitly commit themselves to much more than they consciously choose. A choice determines the person who makes it with respect to certain goods and conditions subsequent acts of spontaneous willing with respect to possibilities which involve these goods. Morality as such, however, is not a specific good. A person can do acts of kindness in a very unselfish way, thus affirming implicitly the transcendence of the principles of morality to self, yet act with destructive self-indulgence, thus affirming implicitly a power of absolute self-disposal. What is more, a Christian can remain oriented toward God by a genuine act of faith while alienated from him by mortal sin (see DS 1544/808, 1578/838). Human persons generally (there are exceptions) are far too ambivalent to support the belief that everyone has a fundamental option which establishes a single, comprehensive life-orientation.

Flick and Alszeghy certainly are correct in thinking that one who loves God with charity has a principle by which the whole of life is oriented toward human fulfillment. But charity is not a human act; rather it is the gift of divine love. Although fundamental in Christian life, the love of God is not a fundamental option, and so it has no contrary as any true option does.

Much of the Christian theological tradition suggests this erroneous root of contemporary fundamental-option theories, namely, the supposition that love of charity is a disposition of our freedom rather than a gift poured forth in our hearts by the Spirit. On this view, charity is a preferential love for God over created goods.52 However, as Vatican II teaches, the true opposition is not between created goods as such and divine goodness, but rather between created goods perverted by sin and divine goodness (see GS 37). The latter embraces in perfect harmony the true fulfillment of every creature, and this harmony is destined to be accomplished in the ultimate fulfillment of all things in Jesus. Hence, no option between God and creature, between God and self, is necessary.

The alternative to love of God is the privation of sin, which is not a unitary principle which can organize anyone’s life and be chosen for its own sake. One sins not on principle, but for the diverse residual goods one can experience through each different sinful act. Thus, there is no positive reality contrary to charity which can organize the life of a sinner as charity animates and organizes the life of a saint.

Flick and Alszeghy, like many theologians who write on fundamental option, were working out of a very impoverished understanding of human acts.53 They tended to think of acts as passing events. For them, one of the unique aspects of a fundamental option is that it is an enduring disposition. But every choice of itself is lasting, since a choice is a spiritual actuation, not a physical or psychological event or process.

While Flick and Alszeghy claim the support of St. Thomas for the position that a child must make a fundamental option at the outset of its moral life, the article to which they refer in Thomas is concerned with a much more limited question: Whether venial sin can exist in someone with original sin and without mortal sin (see S.t., 1–2, q. 89, a. 6). Thomas thinks not. His explanation is that until a child reaches the age of moral responsibility, it cannot commit any personal sin. When it does, it first deliberates about itself. If it directs itself to a due end, then grace is given and original sin removed; if it does not order itself to a due end, to the extent possible at that age, it sins mortally, since it does not do what it can toward the good. Thus, without mortal sin there will be no venial sin in one still in the condition of original sin.54

Thomas here is considering only the case of a child who is not baptized and brought up in the faith. He is not discussing the case of the child in grace, who begins to deliberate in the light of faith, by an act of faith willed out of love of God and by spontaneous willing of relevant human goods. Moreover, Thomas is taking for granted his theological theory of the end of the human person, a theory which must be criticized (see 34‑A). According to a more adequate account of human fulfillment and of the primary principle of morality, a child without grace by its first choice could do something reasonable or not, morally good or morally evil, but if it did evil, the evil might be very slight.

Since reason does not know any single, all-fulfilling end, the child could not possibly order itself to such an end. Thus, one need not wonder what sort of issue the pagan child of seven ventures its soul upon. Its early acts very likely have little order to one another; some are consistent with integral human fulfillment and others not, but none so sophisticated or broad in scope as to settle the orientation of the child’s life as a whole.

45. See Maurizio Flick, S.J., and Zoltan Alszeghy, S.J., “L’opzione fondamentale della vita morale e la grazia,” Gregorianum, 41 (1960), 593–619. The problem with which they were primarily concerned was why people without the help of grace cannot long avoid mortal sin.

46. Ibid., 577–99.

47. Ibid., 599–600.

48. Ibid., 600–601.

49. Ibid., 601–3.

50. Ibid., 603–6.

51. Ibid., 604.

52. Probably the main source of this view was the Neoplatonic element (treated in chapter 13, appendix 1), in St. Augustine’s thought about sin: Frederick L. Miller, “The Fundamental Option in the Thought of St. Augustine,” Downside Review, 95 (1977), 271–83. Augustine, however, was too faithful to Scripture to suggest that one only commits mortal sin by a formal rejection of God, or that one might continue to love God while rejecting the divinely given order of created goods to one another.

53. For a richer and more adequate discussion of human action in its aspect of self-determination, see Wojtyla, op. cit., 105–48.

54. Summa theologiae, 1–2, q. 89, a. 6; Flick and Alszeghy (op. cit., 601) erroneously refer to q. 90, a. 6.