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Chapter 16: The Distinction Between Grave and Light Matter

Question B: What are the current theories of fundamental option?

1. In recent years, some Catholic theologians have taken a position along the following lines. Even on our side, the relational bond of the Christian’s soul to God is not constituted by an ordinary act of free choice; a person in friendship with God is disposed toward him not simply by a particular act but in his or her whole being. This comprehensive orientation is a fundamental option, which is somehow different from and much deeper than any ordinary choice.3

2. From this the proponents of this view conclude that no ordinary choice of itself can reverse one’s fundamental option. Where sufficient reflection and full consent are lacking, a sin is imperfect even as a choice. In other cases, although the sin is perfect as a choice, the bad will which it involves might not be sufficient to reverse the whole thrust of one’s being.

3. Beyond this general framework, current fundamental-option theories take two different forms. One treats fundamental option as a basic commitment. Commitment is thought of either as an extraordinary choice or an aspect of many choices. This approach begins with a fact: Many people do make central commitments which organize their lives. From this fact proponents proceed to the conclusion that everyone must make a most fundamental commitment, for or against God (for, by explicit love of God or a commitment to live the moral life; or against, by an opposite love or commitment). The basic commitment is supposed to establish a predominant thrust or momentum, such that occasional acts incompatible with it usually cannot radically alter or reverse it.4 (This approach is expounded more fully in appendix 1.)

4. The second form regards fundamental option as something more mysterious than a basic commitment: a total self-disposal, attributed not to free choice but to another freedom, often called “fundamental freedom” or “basic freedom.” Most who take this approach overlook the existential dimension of free choice and attribute self-determination to fundamental option.5 Some do realize that freedom of choice and self-determination are linked together. But, supposing them nonidentical, they think one can freely choose in a way inconsistent with one’s fundamental option without altering that option.6

Joseph Fuchs, S.J., talks about a “basic” or “transcendental” freedom, contrasted with what he calls psychological freedom of choice: “Basic freedom, on the other hand, denotes a still more fundamental, deeper-rooted freedom, not immediately accessible to psychological investigation. This is the freedom that enables us not only to decide freely on particular acts and aims but also, by means of these, to determine ourselves totally as persons and not merely in any particular area of behaviour. It is clear that man’s freedom of choice and his basic freedom are not simply two different psychological freedoms. As a person, man is free. But this freedom can, of course, be considered under different aspects. A man can, in one and the same act, choose the object of his choice (freedom of choice) and by so doing determine himself as a person (basic freedom).”7

John W. Glaser, S.J., summarizes the thinking of a number of authors in the following typical formulation: “According to this theory, man is structured in a series of concentric circles or various levels. On the deepest level of the individual, at the personal center, man’s freedom decides, loves, commits itself in the fullest sense of these terms. On this level man constitutes self as lover or selfish sinner. This is the center of grave morality where man makes himself and his total existence good or evil.”8 With this “core” freedom, Glaser contrasts “peripheral” freedom which is “shallower” and does not have the “same degree of stability as core freedom.” On this basis, Glaser thinks a person can with core freedom be constantly committed to doing God’s will, yet with peripheral freedom quickly fluctuate between affirmation and rejection of God’s will in particular acts.9

Fundamental freedom sometimes is said to belong to individuals as persons, not as agents; the assumption is that personhood is something much more than agency. One way of putting this is to say that the person is subject, not object, and that fundamental freedom disposes the subject in respect to everything objective at once. Timothy E. O’Connell writes as follows of fundamental freedom’s unique act—the fundamental option: “It is the decision to accept or reject reality as I find it. The central core of myself, the ‘I’ which is my personhood, is confronted with a reality that transcends all categories. It is confronted with the reality of my world, my situation, my body, my feelings, my attitudes and prejudices. In fact it is confronted even by the condition of the possibility of that reality: namely, God. And from the perspective of my own core, the subjectivity that I am, this cosmically inclusive objectivity presents itself for decision. A simple, singular decision: yes or no. The freedom of the human person, then, is not categorical freedom at all. Rather it is a freedom that transcends all categories, it is ‘transcendental freedom.’ ”10

Karl Rahner, S.J., explicitly asserts that one is not aware of when one takes one’s fundamental stance.11

5. One can gather several properties of this supposed fundamental freedom from the descriptions offered by its proponents. First, it is thought to be exercised at the very core of the human person; therefore, it is the locus of self-determination and so of grave moral responsibility. Second, particular possibilities to be adopted by choice are not its object, but rather the relationship of the whole self to God or to morality as such. Third, exercising fundamental freedom is not an action in any ordinary sense of the word. There is an option in some sense, but an option to take a stance or assume an attitude rather than do anything whatsoever.12

6. While insisting that free choice and fundamental option are not the same, proponents of fundamental freedom do not clearly explain how the two are related.13 They usually suppose that one’s fundamental option is outside one’s conscious awareness; unlike one’s free choices, it cannot be located in consciousness. For this reason, fundamental option remains mysterious.

This mysteriousness is very helpful to the theory that free choice can be consciously and busily deployed in one direction (for example, sexual self-indulgence) while fundamental freedom is unconsciously and peacefully deployed in another (loving submission to the will of God).

Fundamental-option theories in general are appealing for three other important reasons. First, they reject a legalistic emphasis on correct performance and focus instead on the person’s general orientation. Second, they focus attention on Christian life considered as a unified and developing whole, rather than on particular choices considered in isolation. Third, they seem to explain how people act out of character at times without permanently changing their character.

3. A clarification of the central idea of fundamental option, based in particular on the work of Louis Janssens: Eugene J. Cooper, “Notes and Comments: The Fundamental Option,” Irish Theological Quarterly, 39 (1972), 383–92; another, based on several other authors: Felix Podimattam, O.F.M.Cap., “What Is Mortal Sin?” Clergy Monthly, 36 (February 1972), 57–67. A sympathetic summary of current theories of fundamental option: J. A. O’Donohoe, “Sin (Theology),” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 17:610–11. A critique: Theodore Hall, O.P., “That Mysterious Fundamental Option,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, 78 (January 1978), 12–20; (Feburary 1978), 29–50; also see Joseph Boyle, Jr., “Freedom, the Human Person, and Human Action,” in Principles of Catholic Moral Life, ed. William E. May (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1980), 237–66.

4. Bernard Häring, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, vol. 1, trans. Edwin G. Kaiser, C.Pp.S. (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1961), 352–64, developed a fundamental-option theory along these lines, precisely to account for the difference between grave and light matter, by reducing light matter to that which is likely to belong to an imperfect act (362). The underlying assumption—not spelled out in so many words (357–62)—seems to be that the love of charity is a choice and that only a conscious, explicit choice to disobey God is a mortal sin.

5. Although it does not deal with the distinction between grave and light matter, a seminal article which influenced much later thinking clearly illustrates this point: Pierre Fransen, S.J., “Towards a Psychology of Divine Grace,” Lumen Vitae, 12 (1957), 208. He distinguishes freedom of choice, which he calls “free will,” from “fundamental liberty.” The former is experienced: “We know by experience what I have called free will, that liberty by means of which man can to a certain degree order his life. He gets up, he eats, he reads a book rather than go for a walk, he refuses an invitation, he is obstinate, persistent, or accepts an excuse. Even children very early possess this possibility of choice. It is freedom in the usual sense of the word. All the same, it may be asked whether as such it merits the name of liberty. Animals have it also, if we can judge by their behavior . . ..” Thus Fransen confuses freedom of choice with mere physical freedom and contingency of behavior.

6. See John W. Glaser, S.J., “Transition between Grace and Sin: Fresh Perspectives,” Theological Studies, 29 (1968), 263–65.

7. Josef Fuchs, S.J., Human Values and Christian Morality (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1970), 93.

8. Glaser, op. cit., 261–62.

9. Ibid., 265.

10. Timothy E. O’Connell, Principles for a Catholic Morality (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 62.

11. Karl Rahner, S.J., Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, trans. William V. Dych (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 93–106; “Theology of Freedom,” Theological Investigations, vol. 6, Concerning Vatican Council II, trans. Karl‑H. and Boniface Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon, 1969), 190–93. Rahner, however, does not so sharply separate fundamental freedom from free choice, for he recognizes self-determination and moral responsibility in free choices (Foundations, 93–101) and accurately presents the importance of free choice in the Christian tradition: “Freedom,” Encyclopedia of Theology, 544–45; Hearers of the Word, rev. ed., J. B. Metz (London: Sheed and Ward, 1969), 104–8. Rahner’s theory of fundamental option is related primarily not to moral principles but to theological anthropology; for him fundamental freedom of the will corresponds to the preconceptual orientation of intellect to God: “Theology of Freedom,” 178–86. The limitations of Rahner’s metaphysics lead to difficulties, however. He identifies the right deployment of fundamental freedom with charity and at the same time with the (metaphysically posited) underlying orientation of the finite person in his or her transcendence with respect to every finite being—“The ‘Commandment’ of Love in Relation to the Other Commandments,” Theological Investigations, vol. 5, Later Writings, trans. Karl‑H. Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon, 1966), 445–51; “Theology of Freedom,” 180. Hence, “no” and “yes” to God are not parallel (Foundations of Christian Faith, 102); the “no” always presupposes the more basic “yes”; thus it becomes a mystery whether and how a really basic “no” to God is possible (102–6). At times, Rahner sounds Kantian in denying the access of consciousness to the real working of freedom; he explains phenomenal free choices as a synthesis of original (fundamental) freedom and imposed (empirical) necessity (96–97 and 104; cf. “Theology of Freedom,” 193–95). Unfortunately, just to the extent that Rahner approaches Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal, with necessity (and inevitable guilt) consigned to the former and freedom identified with the very reality of the latter, his position suffers from the incoherence of Kant’s attempt. See Lewis White Beck, A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 191–94; John R. Silber, “The Ethical Significance of Kant’s Religion,” in Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), lxxxvi–cvi. If Rahner and other proponents of fundamental option who are more or less influenced by Kant do not hold Kant’s whole position and so do not have precisely Kant’s problem of the two standpoints and their relationship, nevertheless, like Kant, those who hold for fundamental freedom do have the problem of explaining the relationship between it and particular free choices, and they no more solve this problem than Kant did. Just as with Kant himself, their theory both raises the difficulty and renders it insoluble in principle. For a fuller critique of Rahner’s philosophy: Cornelio Fabro, La svolta antropologica di Karl Rahner (Milan: Rusconi, 1974), esp. 178–94.

12. Richard A. McCormick, S.J., “Personal Conscience,” in An American Catholic Catechism, ed. George J. Dyer (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 189–93, presents a compact statement of the version of fundamental-option theory he accepts. Unlike those who take a more Kantian approach to fundamental freedom, McCormick thinks fundamental liberty is self-determination in and an aspect of concrete human choices, and he says such fundamental self-disposition is conscious (189). Yet he makes a radical distinction between freedom of choice and fundamental freedom in maintaining that grave matter together with full freedom of choice is not enough for mortal sin, and that regardless of deliberate free choice, no venial sin can be fully free since in venial sin “only peripheral freedom is involved” (192). Thus McCormick leaves the relationship between fundamental option and particular free choices no less mysterious than do other proponents of fundamental freedom.

13. Fransen, op. cit., 209, thinks that the fundamental option continually interacts with the “perceptible and conscious actions of every moment”; only in the fundamental option are the interiority and human significance of exterior activity; it is “therefore like the soul of our daily action.” O’Connell, op. cit., 63–64, says the fundamental option is the deeper meaning of some, perhaps one in a hundred, ordinary decisions; he also talks as if acts were symptoms of one’s fundamental option. Fuchs, op. cit., 101–4, refers to the relationship, but never says what it is.