The False Fundamental Option
In his landmark encyclical Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”) St. John Paul II condemned the erroneous moral doctrine of the fundamental option.
Some falsely believe that the fundamental option sets up a division between one’s basic orientation for or against God and one’s concrete moral acts. This false teaching allows one to commit gravely evil acts without (supposedly) committing a mortal sin because the person can claim he does not want to reject God.
This essay is not about that false moral system. Rather, it is about what is true in regard to the fundamental option. I think we need to take this truth into consideration when trying to help people whose behavior is at odds with the natural and divine law.
The True Fundamental Option
“There is no doubt,” the saintly pontiff wrote, “that Christian moral teaching, even in its Biblical roots, acknowledges the specific importance of a fundamental choice which qualifies the moral life and engages freedom on a radical level before God.” I think he means that the person freely chooses God, and in doing so, he also freely chooses the moral law that has God as its author. So, in this act of faith, “man makes a total and free self-commitment to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God as he reveals,’” as the First and Second Vatican Councils taught (§66).
This act of faith, St. John Paul II goes on, “which works through love, comes from the core of man, from his ‘heart’, whence it is called to bear fruit in works” (§66).
Israel and the Church
Israel made this fundamental decision for God in ratifying the Covenant on Mount Sinai. We make it in the New Covenant by choosing to follow Christ. As John Paul II explains,
The morality of the New Covenant is similarly dominated by the fundamental call of Jesus to follow him — thus he also says to the young man: ‘If you wish to be perfect . . . then come, follow me’; to this call the disciple must respond with a radical decision and choice. The Gospel parables of the treasure and the pearl of great price, for which one sells all one’s possessions, are eloquent and effective images of the radical and unconditional nature of the decision demanded by the Kingdom of God. The radical nature of the decision to follow Jesus is admirably expressed in his own words: ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it’ (Mk 8:35).
Thus, when a person says yes to Jesus’ call to “come, follow me” and acts accordingly, he or she is exercising “a fundamental option” (§66). The act of faith rightly does not become separated from “the choice of particular acts” (§66) but, in fact, the concrete acts flow from the obligations of love that flow from the act of faith.
Emotions and Passions
An old friend left the Catholic faith in his late teens. He told me that he went to Confession in high school because he was breaking the sixth commandment. Finally, in weighing his weak faith and his strong desire, he gave up Catholicism.
I think this teaching about the real fundamental option is important when it comes to friends or family who have left the faith because their affections and passions are directed in ways contrary to the natural and divine law. For whatever reason, the person’s emotions and passions are so powerful that the person feels he would die in some way if he had to give up the acts that fulfill those desires. It is better, it seems, to give up God. Thus, such a person will seem to have no interest in God and his Church due to those affections and passions.
It would seem that there is no hope for that friend to turn away from those disordered goods.
But what if that person first returns to the fundamental option of saying yes to God? This means he—maybe actually for the first time—would hear the Gospel and recognize in it a good far superior to the “good” the person has been experiencing: a true treasure and pearl of great price.
Reformation of Affections and Passions
Once a person says yes to God, then he can begin to compare his behavior to God’s law—which he now cares about—and can begin changing those outward actions, which he now wants to do (or at least wants to want to do).
With the help of grace and the little steps taken in the exercise of the theological and moral virtues, this friend can little by little begin transforming his affections and his passions in a new way and begin to exercise that freedom to do good.