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Chapter 16: The Distinction Between Grave and Light Matter

Question C: How do current theories of fundamental option try to account for the distinction between grave and light matter?

1. The human person is self-determining, and this self-determination accounts for the structure and unity of one’s life. Chapter two treated self-determination as a necessary aspect of free choice and showed how choices can organize life by constituting the moral self and community. Although proponents of current theories of fundamental option do not understand free choice as it is understood here, they are aware of self-determination and its existential implications, and they invoke fundamental option to try to account for them.

2. Thus they find in the person’s potentially self-determined identity a principle by which to distinguish acts which are radically important from those which are not. Radically important acts are ones which establish, develop, significantly alter, or reverse one’s fundamental option. Acts which do not relate in one of these ways to the fundamental option are thought to have only marginal importance. Proponents of current theories of fundamental option claim this difference of importance has an important religious significance for a Christian. They believe one’s fundamental option should be a total self-disposition toward God, either by loving him or, if one does not explicitly know him, by committing oneself to a morally upright life.

3. On this approach, grave matter is the sort of thing which is likely to be an occasion for making or reversing one’s fundamental option. Actions not likely to affect one’s basic orientation toward or against God are light matter. “Grave” and “light” are thus used with regard to good acts as well as bad. Many fundamental-option theorists speak of grave and light virtuous acts.

4. Most proponents of fundamental option hold that even a free and deliberate choice of grave matter involving immorality need not always break one’s friendship with God. Inasmuch as they distinguish fundamental option from an ordinary choice, they are reluctant to admit that any specific kind of act, even assuming it to be done with sufficient reflection and a free choice, is always incompatible with the love of God. Something traditionally considered a mortal sin is, they hold, likely to be incompatible with a fundamental option toward God, but the incompatibility is not inevitable.14

14. Probably the clearest attempt to explain grave matter as that which is likely to provide an occasion for making or reversing a fundamental option: Josef Fuchs, S.J., Theologia Moralis Generalis, pars altera (Rome: Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, 1968/69), 15–18 and 137–52, especially the emphasized conclusion (140–41).