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Chapter 2: Free Choice, Self-Determination, Community, and Character

Question G: How are an individual’s choices related to one another?

1. There are large choices and small choices.10 Some large choices bear upon such acts as accepting a status, entering a relationship, undertaking a way of life: the choice to get married, the choice to be a priest, and so on. Small choices usually bear directly upon a particular course of action which involves specific behavior: the choice of where to take one’s vacation, for instance.

2. While large choices and small ones are plainly different, the dividing line is not clear and distinct, for there are also intermediate choices. For instance, between the choice to get married (large) and the choice to celebrate their anniversary in a certain way (small), a married couple must make intermediate choices, such as the choice to live in a certain neighborhood.

3. It seems natural to say that by large choices one chooses to be this or that, while by small choices one chooses to do this or that. But this view is mistaken, because being and doing are not really distinct. In one’s largest choices one chooses to do something, while in one’s small choices one chooses to be the sort of person who does that sort of thing.

4. Sometimes choices are made without reference to one another. A small choice can settle a particular issue which has no bearing on anything else with which one is concerned. Even large choices, which perhaps should be related to each other, can be made in isolation. For example, some Christians choose their profession without considering its possible relevance to their act of faith.

5. Large choices place one in the position of having to carry them out by many small choices. In other words, large choices open possibilities which must be settled by small ones; large choices are undertakings which small ones implement. Thus, smaller choices articulate and, as it were, nest within larger ones. For example, a married couple’s choices to celebrate their anniversary in a certain way and to live together in a certain place both nest within their choice to get married, although the two subordinate choices do not nest within one another.

6. Some choices are incompatible with others. One sort of incompatibility, already mentioned in question E, is the conflict between two choices which cannot exist together in the same person. For instance, a choice to spend one’s vacation in a certain way cannot last if one changes one’s mind and spends it in a different way. Again, a choice to reform one’s life cannot stand with a subsequent choice to sin again. Another sort of incompatibility is the tension which arises in a person who makes a choice inconsistent with what is appropriate to implement a previous choice. For example, a choice to gamble the savings one needs for an expensive vacation is incompatible in this way with a choice to take the vacation. Again, the choice to commit adultery is incompatible in this way with one’s marital commitment. In such cases, the incompatible choices coexist, but they are in tension.

7. Certain large choices which organize one’s life are called “commitments.” They will be treated later (9‑E). But it is worth noting here that faith, insofar as it depends on our choice, is a commitment. The choice to accept Christian faith opens up certain possibilities, excludes others, and affects one’s whole life.

10. Some theologians hold that one’s fundamental “option,” which gives one’s life its basic moral and spiritual orientation, is not a large choice at all, but rather an actuation of a freedom more basic than freedom of choice (although somehow mysteriously related to it). Theories of fundamental option will be examined in detail in chapter sixteen. But one point may be noticed here. Even the free choice by which one accepts the gift of faith is sometimes considered only a superficial expression of something deeper: Pierre Fransen, S.J., Lumen Vitae, 12 (1957), 208, 217, 224, and 231. This position is hard to reconcile with Scripture, where faith is presented as the foundation of one’s right orientation toward God, and nothing is said of any more basic option underlying it. That the human act accepting the gift of faith is a free and deliberate consent is taught expressly by Vatican I and II: DS 3009–10/1790–91; DH 2.