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The Fundamental Option: A Pernicious Choice Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 27 July 2014

In the theological turmoil that followed the Second Vatican Council, the theory of the “fundamental option” is among the most pernicious developments. Fundamental option separates specific moral actions from a more general – fundamental – orientation of life. It holds, therefore, that specific sins do not bear on the status of one’s soul, or on the destination of one’s soul after death. All that matters for salvation, in this view, is that one “fundamentally” lives for God rather than evil.

One theological casualty of fundamental option theory is mortal sin, which has long been defined by the Church as a grave wrong committed with full knowledge of the attendant evil and deliberate consent of the will. Instead, the theory holds that mortal sin is not a specific action, but an orientation that lies at the deepest level of freedom within an individual who rejects God. But given the gravity of such a rejection, the theory holds that such an orientation is nearly impossible for those of sound mind. If an individual makes the fundamental option for God, then his actions, no matter how grave, cannot be mortal sins – or damnable offenses – because, at root, the person means well.

Fundamental option’s separation of action from orientation, along with its revision of mortal sin, was roundly condemned by St. John Paul II in paragraphs 65-70 of Veritatis Splendor:

the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic
intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is
always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. . . .To separate the
fundamental option from concrete kinds of behavior means to contradict the substantial
integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul.

Yet like every heresy before it, fundamental option theory today still has adherents and proponents long after its condemnation. (History shows that the biological solution, rather than the magisterial decree, ultimately puts heresies to bed.) But it is the subject matter of fundamental option that gives it an especially pernicious and sinister color. Fundamental option is, at root, about salvation, and its proponents believe they know better than the Church, when it comes to how we are saved.

Consider, for a moment, a theology professor teaching a room full of college students on a Friday afternoon. The professor knows how many of his students will spend their weekend nights. By virtue of his office, he can present the Church’s position on morality, sin, freedom, and sexuality. What the students do later that evening will be their own choices, but if the professor does his duty, they will make their choices in full knowledge of what God has called them to be. And knowing this, with the help of God’s grace, may be enough to save some souls from perdition.

But this particular professor instead expounds his own theory, the theory of fundamental option. He explains to the students that what they do tonight or tomorrow has no impact on the status of their souls or on whether they will go to heaven or hell. He adds that a mortal sin is not possible in a single, isolated act, no matter how serious it may be. All that God cares about, he tells them, is that the general fabric of their lives is in tune with Him.

This professor has just given these students license to behave in any manner they wish on campus that night, and every night, without regard for consequence in the eyes of God. And, by his own arrogance, he has placed an attractive allurement on the wide gate and easy road that leads to destruction.

In the same encyclical, St. John Paul explains what the professor should have taught about mortal sin: “man does not suffer perdition only by being unfaithful to that fundamental option whereby he has made ‘a free self-commitment to God.’ 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.”

The sheer menace of fundamental option and its patent disregard of Church teaching spark some pressing questions. What would possess someone who should know better to teach this most dangerous and most destructive distortion? What benefit does the teacher gain by proffering a bogus path to salvation? Surely he knows that he himself will not be the arbiter of his students’ eternal fates. Why, then, teach his own theory of salvation when he could teach the means taught directly by the Judge Himself?

We will resist the temptation for psychoanalysis, for it seems, in dealing with fundamental option’s dark shadow, we are staring into what St. Augustine called the mysterium iniquitatis (the mystery of evil). And in the face of evil, rationality is forced to retreat in light of rationalization’s self-centered power.

As a result of original sin, we think we know what is best for our salvation and that of others. We must all pray that when it comes to talk about salvation, we follow the example of St. John the Baptist: Christ and His Church’s teachings must increase, and we must decrease.

 
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary. New York.
 
 
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Comments (18)Add Comment
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written by Kay, July 27, 2014
How well I remember the distorted teaching of many clergy prior to our marriage. Then as now, people believe that a couple who doesn't want children "right a way" can use birth control without sin because as "good Catholics", they intend to have children "eventually".
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written by Chris in Maryland, July 27, 2014
Great essay...and a superb ending.

Thank you Professor B!
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written by Manfred, July 27, 2014
This is a very timely article, Mr. Bonagura, and my only quibble is you place the responsibility of teaching this on the shoulders of your "theology professor". The reason Catholic education has collapsed is that it no longer has anything to say!
In my pre-Vat II Catholic(truly) high school and college education, moral theology was taught in textbooks! The students could read what the Church, i.e., Christ, taught themselves. As an FSSP priest told me, the serious leaders in the Church are alarmed as many Catholics are going to Hell who in normal times would not be going to Hell. The fundamental option, and now Cdl Kasper's (Bergoglio's?) approach on Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics who have not sought or been given an annulment, are contributing mightily to this devastating horror ravaging the uninformed sheep of the flock.
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written by Rich, July 27, 2014
God said it through Jeremiah a long time ago:"The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways, According to the results of his deeds" (Jeremiah 17:9).

Our problem today is we -- (even and perhaps especialloy theologians) think we can debate God and get away with it. I think now of His comment to Job in Job 40:8 Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified?

Whatever or whoever the source of error, the Holy Spirit still says: Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. 8For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Galatians 6:7-8)
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written by Augustine Thomas, July 27, 2014
Someone better block Prof. Bonagura from speaking! He said ''heresy', the only unpardonable sin for New Catholics.
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written by Dawn , July 27, 2014
This theological error must be the genesis of the "principle of totality," which says that each and every conjugal act doesn't have to be open to life as long as the couple intends to welcome children at some point.
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written by LAM, July 27, 2014
The wedge of moral relativism, the fundamental option, has contributed to the contraceptive mentality that permeates Catholic marriages, singles, the priesthood, religious life and Catholic education. Its bitter fruits are the divorce epidemic with subsequent unprecedented psychopathology in youth, particularly males; the failure to teach the truth about sacrament of marriage in Churches and homes; the epidemic of STDs and, ultimately, same sex unions.

The preparation for the Synod on the Family in the fall should include a request to Catholic families for forgiveness from national Episcopal conferences, major religious communities, Catholic educators, etc. for the severe damage done to spouses and their children by their failure to have the courage to teach the Church’s truth.
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written by Richard Bellman, July 27, 2014
What a fine and timely essay! One might ask, what good is the fundamental option for the playwright, the poet, the novelist, the reader who agrees with T.S. Eliot that we become individuals only in (or thru) those intense moments of moral choice? Where is the drama in the "fundamental option"?
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written by Charles E Flynn, July 27, 2014
If there were a Theological Products Safety Commission (TPSC), it would issue a recall of the Fundamental Option theory, on the grounds that it is soul-endangering.
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written by Beth, July 27, 2014
to LAM: I said as much to a priest in confession (he is now a bishop). My argument was that I was ticked that the bishop had demanded all volunteers in the diocese to fill out a background check and attend a class; from lector to eme to the lady that plants the flowers out front. I find it quite disingenuous that there is such 'heartfelt' concern for the physical safety of our children when we (adults and children) have been and continue to be abused spiritually and intellectually by the teachings of the 'fundamental option' and now Common Core in our so-called Catholic schools.
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written by Bellman's Porter, July 27, 2014
Mr. Bonagura, the following question is absolutely crucial: "What benefit does the teacher gain by proffering a bogus path to salvation? Surely he knows that he himself will not be the arbiter of his students’ eternal fates. Why, then, teach his own theory of salvation when he could teach the means taught directly by the Judge Himself?"

Apropos Richard Bellman's question above:
"One might ask, what good is the fundamental option for the playwright, the poet, the novelist, the reader who agrees with T.S. Eliot that we become individuals only in (or thru) those intense moments of moral choice? Where is the drama in the "fundamental option"?"
I strongly recommend a reading of J.F. Powers novel Morte D'Urban with both Bellman's and Bonagura's questions in mind. There we may find a dramatization of what would possess one (Fr. Urban) with authority to "endorse" bogus paths to salvation, and bogus ideas of salvation, in spite of the fact that he knows better.
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written by Patrick J. Sheahan, July 27, 2014
There seems to be a presumption from commenters that an individual when he is alone with God, in his/her dark moment of mortal sin, won't ask for forgiveness and seek out confession so as to be right with God.
God forgives. However I sense that most of you would rather He condemned those of us who can admit that we are sinners.
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written by Richard A, July 28, 2014
@Patrick Sheahan, what actual basis do you have for your uncharitable sense that most commenters here would prefer condemnation for "those of us who can admit that we are sinners"? The point of fundamental option teaching, made by the author and affirmed by the commenters, is that there is no sin that needs to be admitted. If we can admit that we are sinners, we have not bought into the fundamental option bogus teaching.
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written by Chris in Maryland, July 28, 2014
Patrick Sheahan - no strawman tactics please. Simply stay on the topic, if you have an opinion about it.
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written by Patrick J. Sheahan, July 28, 2014
My understanding of the fundamental option theory is that it minimizes people's awareness of mortal sin and the danger it poses to their souls. And it should be a prolonged pattern of sinful behaviour.
But if we believe that God searches our hearts and seeks us out then we are always welcomed to return to our Saviour and seek mercy and forgiveness, especially in our moments alone with God. We can't hide our sin from God no matter what the fundamental option theory might teach. There is always a longing to be for God not against.
Manfred,Kay and LAM's comments seem to be venting against those they see as being guilty including the clergy.
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written by senex, July 29, 2014
Starting with the first comment by Kay, I would like to remind all that postponing children is not in se immoral (i.e. a mortal sin). See Pius XII's allocution to midwives of September 1951. Likewise, if postponing children is sinful, then natural family planning is sinful. The key considerations in this area are both means and reasons for postponing. It is the poorly written Humanae Vitae that proscribes all postponement, whether with or without the pill that causes the confusion in the pews and beyond. The fundamental option is not called into question if Pius XII and the NFP actions are lawful.
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written by LAM, July 29, 2014
Cardinal Schönborn's wisdom can enrich this discussion.

In 2009 Cardinal Schönborn said, "frightened of the press and of being misunderstood by the faithful," Bishops distanced themselves from the Church's teaching. In the talk he said "I think that it is also our sin as bishops, even if none of us were bishops in 1968, we have not had, or did not have, the courage to 'swim against the tide' and say yes to Humanae Vitae."

The Cardinal particularly criticised two of the many 1968 bishops' conference declaration on Humanae Vitae, which all stressed the importance of the individual conscience. He singled out the Maria Trost Declaration, whose signatories included Cardinal Franz Koenig, the late archbishop of Vienna, president of the Austrian bishops' conference and a Father of the Second Vatican Council, and Konigstein Declaration, whose signatories included Cardinal Julius Doepfner, the late archbishop of Munich, president of the German bishops' conference and another Council Father. Cardinal Schönborn accused the signatories of "weakening the People of God's sense for life so that when 'the wave of abortions' and increasing acceptance of homosexuality followed, the Church lacked the courage to oppose them".

Requests for forgiveness for the harm done is appropriate.
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written by LAM, July 29, 2014
In 1990 the Philippine Bishops issued an apology to the nation's Catholics for having failed to encourage their flock to adhere to Humanae Vitae. They wrote: "Afflicted with doubts about alternatives to contraceptive technology, we abandoned you to your confused and lonely consciences with a lame excuse: 'follow what your conscience tells you.' How little we realized that it was our consciences that needed to be formed first."

Let's us pray that their humble example will be recognized by the Synod on the Family and will become a model for many other national bishops conferences in requesting forgiveness from Catholic families, as well as for major religious communities and Catholic universities.

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