Fundamental Option and Salvation

The CDF in Persona Humana (1975) and Pope John Paul II in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (1984) and in Veritatis Splendor (1993) reject the theological theory of a fundamental option insofar as such a theory is understood or interpreted in a manner that denies the traditional doctrine concerning mortal sin, whereby any one conscious and deliberate grave violation of the moral order, which is rooted upon love of God and neighbor, is enough to separate a person from God.

There are those who go as far as to affirm that mortal sin, which causes separation from God, only exists in the formal refusal directly opposed to God's call, or in that selfishness which completely and deliberately closes itself to the love of neighbor. They say that it is only then that there comes into play the fundamental option, that is to say the decision which totally commits the person and which is necessary if mortal sin is to exist; by this option the person, from the depths of the personality, takes up or ratifies a fundamental attitude towards God or people.

In reality, it is precisely the fundamental option which in the last resort defines a person's moral disposition. But it can be completely changed by particular acts, especially when, as often happens, these have been prepared for by previous more superficial acts. Whatever the case, it is wrong to say that particular acts are not enough to constitute mortal sin.

According to the Church's teaching, mortal sin, which is opposed to God, does not consist only in formal and direct resistance to the commandment of charity. It is equally to be found in this opposition to authentic love which is included in every deliberate transgression, in serious matter, of each of the moral laws.
… A person therefore 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 (Persona Humana, n. 10, emphasis added).

Two distinct principles are here affirmed. First, the orientation of one's life is not a decision made in abstract from the concrete choices to act in the here-and-now. That to which one ultimately orients of one's life (one's final end) must be, at least virtually, the end of every voluntary human action. If an action is in fact incompatible with one's end, the voluntary performance of that action is implicitly a redirection of one's life towards some other end, with which that choice is compatible. Thus a person who once made a decision to life for God, and then, for the sake of money or pleasure, gravely violates the order of charity, is implicitly redirecting his life towards money, pleasure, or, more likely, towards some broader and vaguer goal, such as "the kind of life I decide on" (in this case one makes oneself, rather than God, the ultimate measure of one's life).

Secondly, Persona Humana affirms not only that one's fundamental orientation can be changed by concrete choices, but that one individual concrete choice of something gravely disordered can change one's orientation. (Note, however, that it does not very clearly affirm that one individual choice totally on its own can change one's orientation, though it suggests it by the wording "especially when, as often happens, these [particular acts] have been prepared for by previous more superficial acts."

Later Statements

The same principles are affirmed in Reconciliation and Penance, n. 17: (1) "Mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God's love for humanity and the whole of creation; the person turns away from God and loses charity."  The concrete choice to do things that are incompatible with having God as one's final end, can alter one's orientation to the final end. (2) "Thus the fundamental orientation can be radically changed by individual acts." A single act may suffice for this change of orientation.

And again, in Veritatis Splendor, n. 68:

Man does not suffer perdition only by being unfaithful to that fundamental option whereby he has made "a free self-commitment to God" (Dei Verbum, 5; cf. Persona Humana, n. 10) . With every freely committed mortal sin, he offends God as the giver of the law and as a result becomes guilty with regard to the entire law (cf. Jas 2:8-11); even if he perseveres in faith, he loses "sanctifying grace", "charity" and "eternal happiness" (cf. Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 17)

Veritatis Splendor, n. 70, quotes the section of Reconciliatio et Paenitentia that we quoted above, reaffirming this teaching.

Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi

Pope Benedict in Spe Salvi takes a position that sounds quite similar to the theory of a fundamental option. He is speaking directly about salvation or damnation, but in accordance with the teaching of the Church that "to die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1033), what he says has implications about mortal sin.

Persona Humana says, "There are those who go as far as to affirm that mortal sin, which causes separation from God, only exists in the formal refusal directly opposed to God's call, or in that selfishness which completely and deliberately closes itself to the love of neighbor" (emphasis added).

Pope Benedict XVI says in Spe Salvi:

With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. [While this does not actually imply that an individual choice doesn't, or doesn't frequently alter one's "life-choice", it does suggest it to some extent.] There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. [This sounds very much like the position of the theologians mentioned in Persona Humana.] This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033-1037). On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbors—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfillment what they already are (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1023-1029).

46. Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter?
47…
In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgment we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi – emphasis added)

The Pope seems to be saying that those persons who have not descended so far as to have "totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love," and who "have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves," have not definitively rejected Christ, but are living in such a way that he is still their final end, though their orientation towards this end is covered up (contradicted?) by numerous concrete choices they make and actions they perform, and that they will be saved, though "as through fire." Unless we posit a moment of revelation and conversion in the very instant of death or afterward, this would imply that the "great majority of people" is not in a state of mortal sin.

Do any of my readers know of passages from Pope Benedict XVI/Cardinal Ratzinger that would shed light on his understanding of a fundamental option/life-choice?

In a coming post or posts I'll try to delve into some of the difficulties from a Thomistic perspective.

3 thoughts on “Fundamental Option and Salvation”

  1. Both John Paul II and Benedict at one time or the other commented on the possibility of Judas not being in hell…along with Rahner and Von Balthasar doing so by implication…(hence the possibly empty hell desired by the antecedent will of God though Aquinas stated that "the antecedent will of God does not always take place"). Augustine and Chrysostom both were certain Judas was in hell and they did not violate the revelation requirement of Trent on the matter of judging because to them (and to me), Christ's words on Judas were way too dire to be said of anyone who eventually would reach glory….(.."better for that man had he never been born"). So while the last two Popes may be against fundamental option people, it is not as though they are verging on rigorism or are traditional on Judas.

    I remember Aquinas in the ST saying: "The fornicator does not intend to depart from God but to enjoy carnal pleasure the result of which is that he departs from God."
    That catchy sentence has something true within it against the fundamental option people but also it has something too simple.
    The premarital fornicators in the Old Law escaped what Aquinas called the symbol of mortal sin: the death penalty…void now for personal sins, the death penalty laws of the OT remained for Aquinas the indicator of mortal sin for Christians…hence not one jot or tittle was voided by Christ really at the deep level of the law.
    Instead though the apprehended premarital couple, as punishment and mercy mixed, were to be married ( Dt 22:28-29) and must never divorce while all other Jews were allowed to divorce given the hardness of their hearts according to Christ about that permission (and since they did not have the sacrament of Matrimony in the way that the baptized do).
    So the old law fornicating pre-marital couple were not given the death penalty as the adulterer was or the gay active couple were and the question there for me is: was God saying that in the case of romance gone too far, was there a lack of perfection in the intellect such that grave matter was not grave matter subjectively even if objectively? Aquinas spoke of imperfection in the act of the will making a mortal sin venial not per se but due to the imperfection via imperfect consent but isn't the concept of sincere erroneous conscience pointing to imperfection in the intellect's judgment of what is grave and what is not.
    Popes had slaves and Popes tortured via laws on torture and those things were called intrinsic evils by John Paul II in a non infallible context. So Popes did things that a later Pope called mortal sins. If he is right, did they sin mortally thereby or did they have sincere erroneous conscience due to the intellect as to the matter being non grave?

    Half way between the fundamental option and Rome's reaction to it might be the "sincere erroneous conscience" which is absent in such discussions.

    Without that concept, we can judge people much more easily and that is not good because we are not called to be pharisees though often it seems that way.
    Pope Nicholas V for example gave Portugal the right to "enslave perpetually" any new natives who resisted the gospel and to take their possessions in Romanus Pontifex and in Dum Diversas …which is what Spain also did to the silver of Peru for 200 years when Pope Alexander VI reaffirmed the same permissions for Spain in one of his Inter Caetera.

    Were both Popes clearly public mortal sinners since it was grave matter clearly to us or is it possible they sincerely believed that as Pope, that they had the power to dispose the persons and property of the infidel world? With Alexander VI it gets more complicated because he was corrupt in the area of sexual behavior and greed for the aggrandizement of his family's possessions and rank within Europe. That makes it harder to see him as being sincerely erroneous on allowing others to steal from South America in the name of religion. But it is possible even for him in this other area of imperialism… of really thinking that he had a right over infidels which he did not have but Unam Sanctam seemed to give him that right in the "two swords" theory therein.

  2. I don’t think our Pope is advocating fundamental option theology as he would be acutely aware of its formal rejection in Veritatis Splendor. In fact, if you look at footnotes 37 and 38 of Spe Salvi he references the CCC on Heaven and Hell. Some of these CCC sections cited by the Pope clearly state the traditional Catholic doctrine regarding mortal sin (for example, CCC 1033 and 1035). Footnotes 37 and 38 occur in Section III of Spe Salvi on the Last Judgment. I hope this helps.

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