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?
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.