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Chapter 16: The Distinction Between Grave and Light Matter

Question E: What other reasons tell against current theories of fundamental option?

1. Besides failing to explain the distinction between light and grave matter, current theories of fundamental option have logical difficulties. Also, most of these theories seem to conflict with the teaching and longstanding pastoral practice of the Church.

2. Those who think of fundamental option as a basic commitment try to show that everyone makes such a commitment. However, they fail to demonstrate this. One argument proceeds from psychological and sociological descriptions which show that many people make commitments, to the conclusion that everyone makes a most basic commitment. But the fact that many people make commitments which can be either compatible or incompatible with love of God and moral uprightness by no means shows that everyone makes a further, most basic commitment. (This type of fundamental-option theory is criticized more fully in appendix 1.)

3. A second argument begins from the true premise that every morally good or bad act implicitly affects one’s relationship with God. But the argument moves too quickly from this to the conclusion that everyone, in making morally significant choices, implicitly makes a fundamental option which establishes a single, comprehensive orientation. The possibility that some people might have no such integrating orientation is overlooked.

There also are principles other than commitments by which people order their lives. A definite, more or less structured set of desires or interests can order the life of a person who lacks real commitments. For example, a man can direct most of his time and energy to creating opportunities for sensory gratification; a woman can direct most of her time and energy to attaining a position of power and prestige. Such life-styles manifest what the sociologists and psychologists might take to be a fundamental orientation; these are lives of a definite form. But such lives do not require some sort of mysterious, implicit fundamental option for oneself or for the created good. Moreover, if such an option is posited and is thought to be a disposal of the whole self, radical conversion to the opposite option becomes inexplicable.

4. Those who think fundamental option is total self-disposal by a freedom distinct from free choice never make it clear what such opting might be. It is true that free choices are limited—they dispose one only with respect to human possibilities within one’s power—but it does not follow that there is a more fundamental freedom by which one can utterly dispose oneself.

Free choices are not as limited as most proponents of fundamental freedom suppose. Choices are not passing events; they are of themselves lasting self-determinations. Although they are made throughout life, one’s consistent set of free choices can constitute and articulate an enduring self. There is no need for fundamental freedom to explain how a saint by many acts carries out his or her personal vocational commitments, which are made to fulfill the basic commitment of faith. Animated by the gift of charity, such a life is a unified whole, intelligible as a humanly good life and recognizable in the light of faith as the life of a child of God.

A person who has Christian faith but fails to live up to it—perhaps even to think seriously about it—can undergo an experience of radical conversion very similar to the experience of those initially converted to Jesus. But to account for this experience, one need not postulate a fundamental option or personal act of conversion distinct from the act of faith itself. Commitments once made can be reaffirmed and deepened, as most married couples reaffirm and deepen their marital commitment on many occasions throughout their life. Likewise, the conversion of a slack Christian, if it is genuine, most centrally is an intense reaffirmation of the fundamental commitment of life with Jesus: the act of faith. This reaffirmation, especially if made in a penitential context, naturally will have experiential components which lend it an especially intense quality.

The act of faith itself is made by a free choice. Although one’s act of faith is not total self-disposition toward God, it can be the beginning of such total self-disposition. One must proceed from this principle to work out one’s Christian life, to seek perfection by a gradual growth in holiness accomplished by many day-to-day acts.

5. There is no reason to suppose any sinner is ever as fully integrated in alienation from God as a person with a fundamental option directly against God presumably would be.17 Not even the worst sin destroys God, ends all relationship with him, or utterly corrupts the self. On the other hand, while it is true that the love of God poured forth in the hearts of fallen persons does utterly transform them (see Rom 5.5), still this love is not a human act, not self-disposal by an exercise of human freedom (see 25‑A).

6. Those who think there is a fundamental freedom distinct from free choice usually have an impoverished idea of free choice. We do determine ourselves in making free choices (see 2‑H), and we experience ourselves making them (see 2‑D). Although choices and the self-determination included in them are not given in experience as sense data are, still we are aware of choosing.

7. Some who posit fundamental freedom argue that one cannot be aware of self-determination, because the subject and object of awareness must always be distinct. But this claim is a bit of metaphysics falsified every time we are aware of making up our minds about anything.18

8. Another argument often proposed for fundamental freedom is that one cannot oscillate as rapidly between mortal sin and grace as people with a habit of sin oscillate between the choice to commit the sin and a routine of repentance. The argument begs the question. Perhaps such oscillation does occur. Or perhaps the person with the “habit of serious sin” does not commit a mortal sin on every occasion; defects in reflection or consent may render some falls venial. Or perhaps the person with the practice of routine “repentance” does not really repent on every occasion; defects in the purpose of amendment render some acts of contrition insincere.

Some point out that one does not observe rapid oscillation between intimate friendship and deep alienation in human interpersonal relationships such as marriage. This argument by analogy is not cogent. For in marriage a couple are concerned only with certain goods and aspects of their lives, and they are able to conceal many things from each other. At the same time, repeated forgiveness is difficult, although possible with the help of grace. One’s relationship with God is different: Everything affects it, nothing is hidden, and God’s mercy is generously given. Hence, human interpersonal relationships can persist despite deep ambivalence and ambiguity. One’s relationship with God cannot; instead, it is subject to oscillations which would destroy any possibility of relationship between human persons.

9. Proponents of current theories of fundamental option focus on the transcendent, religious aspect of morality. But moral goodness is not just a matter of avoiding mortal sin and staying in friendship with God. The morally good person who is mature should live a harmonious life open to integral human fulfillment. The great nobility of the Christian, as we shall see in chapters twenty-three through twenty-six, lies in cooperating consciously with Jesus in the redeeming work of God. Such cooperation depends upon awareness of one’s basic commitment of living faith, which shapes one’s personal vocation and thereby organizes one’s whole life. If, as many fundamental-option theories require, there were a mysterious and individualistic basic self-orientation, inaccessible to conscious awareness, Christians could hardly undertake consciously to shape their whole lives so as to fulfill their commitment of faith in Jesus.19

This conclusion is perfectly consistent with the teaching of the Council of Trent (see DS 1534/802) that one cannot know with the certitude of faith that he or she has obtained God’s grace. Grace is not a human act; hence, one could be perfectly aware of every human act, no matter how profound an act of self-disposal, yet remain unaware of grace itself.

Moreover, Trent excludes only the certitude of faith. This certitude is superior to every other certitude, including that of immediate experience. Therefore, without denying Trent’s teaching, one could maintain that one is aware by immediate experience of having obtained grace.20 No one has the certitude of faith even about a free choice one is making, which certainly is experienced. Furthermore, Trent is talking of certainty about being in grace; the impossibility of such certainty is compatible with the possibility of being certain that one is not in grace. This point is important, because one’s own act is sufficient for mortal sin, but not for grace. Hence, what Trent teaches by no means excludes what the fundamental-option proponent wishes to exclude. One can be aware of committing a sin which removes one from God’s love.

10. As a practical matter, the significance of most current theories of fundamental option is to allow some acts traditionally considered mortal sins not to be such. Proponents acknowledge the distinction between grave and light matter made by the common teaching of the Church, but they deny that grave matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent really suffice for a mortal sin, one which necessarily subverts a good fundamental option.21 For them, “grave matter” is rather like the Surgeon General’s warning on a pack of cigarettes: These things could kill. Still, most people can smoke a bit without dying from it.22 Likewise, according to most current theories of fundamental option, some people at times can do with sufficient reflection and full consent acts traditionally considered grave matter, without necessarily suffering the specific consequences of mortal sin.23

Some claim support for this position from the Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, published by the Holy See in 1975. This document does state: “In reality, it is precisely the fundamental option which in the last resort defines a person’s moral disposition.” But this sentence is the beginning of a critical evaluation of certain theories. The document continues: “But it [one’s fundamental option] can be completely changed by particular acts” and concludes that “it is wrong to say that particular acts are not enough to constitute mortal sin.” Thus, although the document affirms the reality of fundamental option, it does not support every theory of it, but firmly teaches that a person “sins mortally not only when his action comes from direct contempt for love of God and neighbor, but also when he consciously and freely, for whatever reason, chooses something which is seriously disordered.”24

11. The Council of Trent teaches that we must examine our consciences and confess all the mortal sins we find, according to species and number, and that we may but need not confess venial sins (see DS 1679–81/899, 1706–8/916–18).25 In saying this, Trent obviously takes for granted its own teaching on mortal sin (see DS 1544/808), which certainly reflects the prior, common, scholastic tradition.

12. Clearly it would have been misleading for Trent to teach the faithful the duty of confessing every mortal sin discovered in a diligent examination of conscience if examination of conscience, no matter how diligent, were unable to discover any mortal sin. This would be the case if a real mortal sin required change in a fundamental option in principle inaccessible to conscious reflection. However, the teaching of Trent on penance cannot mislead, for this teaching is solemn and definitive.26

A theory of fundamental option often leads to a threefold categorization of sins. Instead of the distinction between mortal and venial sin, understood in the traditional way, those who hold for fundamental freedom often distinguish between the sin of the wrong option (which can be called “mortal” or “sin unto death” or something else) and the sin which traditionally would have been considered mortal, since it had all three of the traditional conditions (which still may be called “mortal,” or may be renamed if “mortal” is assigned to the sin of wrong option). They usually also distinguish the latter from the sin traditionally considered venial.

In some cases, authors who adopt a theory of fundamental freedom avoid adopting a threefold categorization of sins by treating only sins of wrong option as mortal and considering all other sins, including some which meet all the traditional criteria for mortal sin, as more or less serious venial sins.27

Either of these approaches has the same result: Sins which would traditionally have been considered mortal turn out not to be so; they do not exclude one from the kingdom, separate one from Jesus, evict the Holy Spirit from one’s heart, and so forth.

Someone will object that if the argument based on received teaching is sound, there will be no possibility for new insights which would reclassify any acts or make any new distinctions among sins. But the objection is not cogent. Developments and reclassifications compatible with the definitive teaching of the Church and with constant pastoral practice are not ruled out.

The argument against current theories of fundamental option on the basis of their inconsistency with Trent’s teaching on the sacrament of penance can be clarified by considering some practical implications of these theories.28 I wish to make a good confession, and so I undertake to examine my conscience. I am aware of a multitude of particular free choices, but whatever their moral quality, they are not determinative of my state of soul. What is determinative underlies the whole drift of my life. Presumably, if I had made a basic option against morality and God, I would not be interested in going to confession. Since I am interested, it seems to follow that I have not made such an option. Therefore, I need not go to confession. But perhaps I made a fundamental option of which I have not the slightest suspicion, by a fundamental freedom of which I am not at all aware? In this case, I cannot find it no matter how long I examine my conscience. The result is that, although I may have a vague sense of sinfulness, I no longer can identify guilt with particular wrong choices, and the confession of such choices becomes pointless.29 And so, as the doctrine of fundamental freedom has waxed, the use of the sacrament of penance has waned.

One further point. Proponents of fundamental freedom tend to be optimistic. They generally assume that one’s fundamental option might be good even though one’s free choices meet the traditional conditions for mortal sin. Logically, they ought equally to entertain the opposite possibility. In that case, they would have to admit that just to the extent an evil fundamental option is something very different from an ordinary free choice, one might find oneself in hell without ever having made a definite free choice with sufficient reflection in grave matter, and so without ever having had an opportunity to accept the grace of repentance.30

17. Fransen, op. cit., 214, adopts St. Augustine’s contrast of the two loves—love of self to the forgetfulness and denial of God and love of God to the forgetfulness of self; he considers the good fundamental option to be the option for grace (217, 224). As for bad acts, they are not truly free: “Every action which is truly free, every good action, fully responding to the truth of what we are and should be, frees us further. Every bad action, that is to say, false and deceitful, freely degrades that same liberty. In a certain sense, we are not free; we freely become so. That is our vocation as men, which has to be fulfilled in the totality of each life” (211). With true liberty Fransen contrasts “the mechanical and empty automatism of evil” (228). Thus, while Fransen wished to leave room for mortal sin, his conception of fundamental freedom precludes an evil fundamental option; consequently, in the end the good option seems to be the only one possible. The implication would be that all sins are defective as human acts, a position Fransen surely did not wish to adopt. But he does reduce the core of all sin to pride understood as “the petty vanity of the bourgeois” (214) and speaks of grace as “the cure for our egoism” (216). These views would fit well the denial of any wrong fundamental option.

18. Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1979), 108–15, clearly describes the phenomena of self-determination, which are by no means unavailable to self-consciousness.

19. Fransen, op. cit., considers fundamental an option for grace (217, 224) which “is expressed in faith, hope and charity and is incarnated in a vocation” (231). But he nowhere explains how the theological virtues—and, in particular, the act of faith in which there is a fully conscious free choice—are expressions of the supposedly more basic option. It is perhaps significant that Fransen did not supply evidence for fundamental option from Scripture and the Church’s teaching; the Council of Trent’s account of justification leaves no room for any option on the part of the one justified subsequent to preparatory acts (which surely are not Fransen’s option) yet prior to and more basic than the act of faith which justifies (see DS 1526–32/798–801).

20. Trent’s proposition was carefully framed precisely to allow for the position that one not only can conjecture (as most hold) but can know for certain that one is in grace. See Michel Guérard des Lauriers, O.P., “Saint Augustin et la question de la certitude de la grâce au Concile de Trente,” in Augustinus Magister: Congrès International Augustinien (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1954), 1057–67. The false assumption that Trent teaches “that man cannot have any real and absolute certitude about the state of his own conscience and his state of grace” served as a premise in a 1955 argument of Karl Rahner’s that the “ultimate quality of a free decision” is an “unreflectable” reality: Theological Investigations, vol. 3, The Theology of the Spiritual Life, trans. Karl‑H. and Boniface Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon, 1967), 108. This false assumption together with the fallacious inference from the inability to know grace to the inability to know one’s sins became the basis for the most common theological argument for fundamental freedom.

21. See Eugene J. Cooper, “A Newer Look at the Theology of Sin,” Louvain Studies, 3 (1971), 287.

22. For example, Franz Böckle, Fundamental Moral Theology (New York: Pueblo, 1980), 110–11, agrees with what he takes to be a widespread opinion that there is no way to distinguish in practice between really grave and light matter, so that any labeling has only the character of an “index.” Like other proponents of fundamental freedom, Böckle insists that it cannot be grasped in consciousness, but only by transcendental reflection (106), yet he maintains in the end that “our individual acts should be judged on the basis of our fundamental human attitude” (112), as if this attitude were somehow knowable. I suppose that Böckle might say one can conjecture one’s fundamental attitude by the preponderance of one’s acts, but such a defense not only is circular but also invites people to say to themselves: “I am pretty good on the whole, so I can cheat a little by deliberately choosing what I used to think of as mortal sins without separating myself from the love of God.”

23. O’Connell, op. cit., 80–81. The significance of such fundamental-option theories in allowing what otherwise would be mortal sins is clear in the influential essay of Charles E. Curran, “Masturbation and Objectively Grave Matter: An Exploratory Discussion,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 21 (1966), 97–102. As an ethics of right attitude, such fundamental-option theory is like Pharisaism, which was not overly exacting; see Hugo Odeberg, Pharisaism and Christianity, trans. M. M. Moe (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1964), 29: “Pharisaism is indeed far more lenient in its appraisal of the moral life than is Christianity, and this precisely because it attaches such great significance to the right attitude of the mind. One need not be unduly anxious because of one’s sins against the divine will if one has once determined to do what is right. For God is merciful, indulgent, and gracious, and He Himself supplies what may be lacking on the part of men seeking righteousness in the matter of fulfilling the moral duty.”

24. Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1976), 10–12 (68 AAS [1976] 88–89). With respect to grave matter in the area of sexuality, the document states: “Now according to Christian tradition and the Church’s teaching, and as right reason also recognizes, the moral order of sexuality involves such high values of human life that every direct violation of this order is objectively serious” (emphasis added). A helpful theological commentary: Georges Cottier, O.P., “La sexualité et le péché,” Nova et Vetera, 52 (1977), 241–68, esp. 258–67.

25. Canon 7 is central; it teaches that divine law requires the confession of each and every mortal sin, including secret ones (DS 1707/917). In defining this truth, Trent bases itself primarily upon the Church’s constant tradition, which included a homogeneous development: José A. Do Couto, S.C.J., De Integritate Confessionis apud Patres Concilii Tridentini (Rome: Analecta Dehoniana, 1963), esp. 150–69.

26. The weight of Trent’s teaching in this present argument is not undercut by the well-known fact that the discipline of penance developed in the Church. Nor will it do to neutralize Trent’s teaching by saying the received conception of sin was merely the framework of the doctrine, not the proposition taught. Moreover, if an unknowable fundamental option against God is essential to mortal sin, then Trent’s solemn teaching on the necessity for integral confession could not in principle be fulfilled, and the faithful would have been directed to fulfill a meaningless norm. If, on the other hand, “mortal sin” is redefined so that it is only the phenomenal act which need not separate one from the love of God, then Trent’s teaching on mortal sin is being rejected.

27. See Cooper, “A Newer Look at the Theology of Sin,” 275–307, for a clarification of the way in which this development has occurred; O’Connell, op. cit., 77–82; Bernard Häring, Free and Faithful in Christ: Moral Theology for the Clergy and Laity, vol. 1, General Moral Theology (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 396–410. Häring suggests (402) that he only objects to a recent excessive emphasis on quantitative considerations, and that his own approach is compatible with the Council of Trent. But he openly rejects (408) the teaching reaffirmed by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, loc. cit.

28. See Louis Monden, S.J., Sin, Liberty and Law (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965), 44–62, for a drawing out of pastoral implications; on his view the penitent confesses particular acts only to serve as a sign of contrition, and these acts themselves are at most symptoms of a wrong fundamental option. Monden minimizes the importance of material integrity—the confession of all mortal sins—by pointing to cases in which absolution may be given without it (48). But he neglects the fact that these are cases where integral confession is impossible for some special reason, and the will to confess when and if it becomes possible to do so must be presumed for genuineness of contrition and the reality of the sacrament (see DS 1676/897, 1679–83/899–901, 1706–8/916–18). Also see Häring, Free and Faithful in Christ, 435. O’Connell, op. cit., 81, gives his idea of what a confession would be like if a penitent were adequately sophisticated in theology: “Father, this is what I have done. I don’t know for sure if it was a fully human act, a fundamental option. I cannot even be certain that it was a human act, totally devoid of those impediments which affect the mind and the will. But I know what I did, and I know that it was gravely harmful to my neighbor. I repent it. And I want the forgiveness of Christ, which may already have been given to me and which I may already have accepted, to be incarnated and renewed in this sacrament.” It is perhaps significant that O’Connell limits the appropriately relevant content to serious sins against justice, thus suggesting that many other sins—for example, in the sexual domain—are not part of the content.

29. Charles E. Curran, Contemporary Problems in Moral Theology, 48–68, “reinterprets” Trent to eliminate the aspects of the sacrament of penance—including its juridical structure and the requirement to confess all mortal sins in species and number—inconsistent with the new theory of sin. At least in his early works, Rahner talked of the need for self-examination, precisely that choices might be in accord with love of God: Hearers of the Word, 104–8. Later—for example, “Theology of Freedom,” 193–96—he insists that the fundamental option is in principle inaccessible to one’s self-examination. In essays of about the same time, he treats as a purely hypothetical question whether the theological nature of sin ever is realized at all: “Guilt—Responsibility—Punishment within the View of Catholic Theology,” Theological Investigations, 6:211–12. But, all the same, he continues to write as if guilt might be discerned by conscience in particular acts (210, 213). Thus for Rahner examination of conscience cannot reach to the actual situation of a person’s freedom, but only to the objectively guilty character of actions, which despite their objective character can express a positive response to God: Foundations of Christian Faith, 104. Rahner still treats penance as if the confession of sins were appropriate (422), yet it is clear that all one could confess would be actions having an objectively bad character, whose ultimate moral quality would necessarily remain unknown.

30. Those who hold for a final option might object to this formulation. But a final option is distinct from the forms of fundamental option considered here. It will be treated (18‑F). Fuchs, Theologia Moralis Generalis, pars altera, has the courage of his convictions and cites with approval (142) the opinion that one can make a fundamental option against God in the depth of one’s soul without ever doing a materially grave act. Since fundamental option on his theory is unavailable to conscious reflection (141), the implication is that someone can be on the way to hell and unable by the most sincere self-examination to discover anything which requires repentance.