The Fundamental Option: A Pernicious Choice

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. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.