Stray Thoughts About Fundamental Option Theory

Fundamental Option Theory is the idea that people take a fundamental option for or against God, and that this, not any particular act, determines salvation. Catholic Answers actually has a good writeup.

As the writeup recognizes, and as the Pope did when he condemned this theory, there is something to the circular: in a sense, of course, some sinful actions do not separate us from God if we have a “fundamental option” towards Him–these are known as venial sins. But some do, and they are known as mortal sins. And if the Fundamental Option Theory denies the latter, then it is not compatible with Holy Tradition. And the clear intent of the Fundamental Option people was to be able to say that you can commit a mortal sin and still be saved, with clearly laudable (though ultimately misguided) intent to make saving grace more accessible.

But I think the Fundamental Option people may actually have set themselves up for exactly the opposite. Because from where I stand, it seems clear to me that the Fundamental Option cannot save you, but it can damn you.

The former point first. It’s important to remember that according to the Magisterium, what damns you is not “mortal sin”, it’s unrepentant mortal sin. That is the key. Having a “fundamental option” towards God is precisely to recognize ourselves as sinners in need of grace. If words have any meaning, it seems to me impossible to say that someone who knowingly, willfully and gravely breaks the law of God and then does not repent can have a “fundamental” option or orientation towards God, under any kind of Christian grammar. This is the “circular” aspect of Fundamental Option theory, where it just becomes a restatement of Traditional Catholic teaching, unless it is explicitly construed as undermining the doctrine of mortal sin.

What it does seem to me, however (and this is the latter point), is that it’s possible to imagine someone who never “technically” commits a mortal sin and yet nevertheless has a “fundamental option” against God. I am thinking of people–and we all know one example, I think, and we all are that example, at times–who simply fail at basic empathy. This is particularly true of people who exercise some kind of power. Think of the business manager who only relates to his charges through fear, or bullying, or viciousness, or supererogatory demands. Think of the parent or spouse who, out of bitterness, subtly hurts, the members of his or her family, through constant small acts of selfishness, with no repentance. Think of the person who always seems to relate to others, or talk about others, out of condescension, with cutting remarks, or passive-aggressiveness, and the like. Think of the guy who’s always, but always, mean to waiters and waitresses. Such a person might spend their entire life never committing an act that “rises to the level” of a mortal sin, and yet always, so to speak, failing at basic Christlikeness–choosing a Fundamental Option against God.

In fact, it seems to me to be the substance of Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees. The Pharisee is the one whose actions are in outward conformity to the law, but whose heart is in rebellion to love. The Pharisee, because he takes pride in his fulfillment of the law, and condescends towards sinners, is really worshipping himself, and not God. He has taken a Fundamental Option against God. The Publican and the prostitute will enter the Kingdom first, not because sin cannot destroy sanctifying grace, but because they repent. The Elder Brother of the parable of the Prodigal Son has “done everything right,” yet still has what could be described as a Fundamental Option against the Father. As Tim Keller put it, in that parable, the two brothers are fundamentally alike: they both want the father’s things, but not the father–it’s just that one goes about it by breaking the rules, while the other goes about it by obeying the rules.

All of this is mere speculation. But it seems to me that, if they are taken seriously, the Fundamental Option theorists, in intending to widen the Gates of Heaven, would in fact have narrowed them.

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  • Dan13

    “Think of the business manager who only relates to his charges through fear, or bullying, or viciousness, or supererogatory demands. Think of the parent or spouse who, out of bitterness, subtly hurts, the members of his or her family, through constant small acts of selfishness, with no repentance. Think of the person who always seems to relate to others, or talk about others, out of condescension, with cutting remarks, or passive-aggressiveness, and the like. Think of the guy who’s always, but always, mean to waiters and waitresses. Such a person might spend their entire life never committing an act that “rises to the level” of a mortal sin, and yet always, so to speak, failing at basic Christlikeness–choosing a Fundamental Option against God.”

    But wouldn’t a person like this be wholeheartedly violating Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” and thus be committing a mortal sin?

  • BTP

    Very helpful — it wasn’t obvious to me what the problem with the idea was.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    This is the first time I’ve heard of Fundemental Option theory, and it certainly doesn’t ring true. But I can’t say any theory as to what gets you into heaven really rings true. Biblically it’s all based on a bunch of vague parables, which seem at times to contradict each other. Does a whole salvation get based on the timing of whether one confessed a mortal sin before dying? Seems rather random and unfair. I accept Church teaching, but in my heart of hearts i don’t think anyone truly knows what gets you into heaven. The only practical advice I see is repent and do the very best you can. And then repent again. Isn’t that what Christ said, repent and sin no more.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    Basic empathy is a mechanical process in the human brain, it can even be seen on an FMRI; but some of us are born without it (I know, because I am one- I’m autistic). I’d like to think actively practicing the virtues of charity, compassion, and generosity can make up for a lack of empathy- and concentration on the corporal works of mercy can keep mortal sin somewhat at bay, if for no other reason than due to a lack of time.

    • Episteme

      I agree that “empathy” might not be the right word here — or at least might need an adjective of some sort to differentiate the various ways in which the term is used socially and emotionally. As Theodore makes the point, a number of issues (the autism he discusses, neurological damage among those of us with migrainal-epilepsy, etc) can cause catastrophic harm to one’s ability to read others’ emotions, but often Catholics with such problems end up being MORE charitable to be on the safe side of the ‘blank slates’ they perceive around themselves emotionally — while those with perfectly normal emotional radars just don’t care and ignore ‘social empathy.’ But the two are indeed very different idea that, like ‘depression,’ sadly are just given the same word by those not afflicted by them.

      (BTW, Theodore, I’ve recently countered a few of your points on these boards in a post-V2 vs trad manner that I now feel was done in a disingenuous manner, knowing that they were written by an autistic man and NOT out of specific negativity, something that I would have hoped to have picked up had I too had a normal “emotional radar” — I wanted to apologize publicly, since the responses were public, even if they were not particularly hostile responses (merely differences in opinion); a third party could read more of an argumentative intent into them and that would color your original point as well to that reader — consider this my leaving my gift at the altar and going off to reconcile with my brother before returning for the sacrifice…)

      • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

        I am also a child of Post Vatican II, and I struggle with the lack of catechisis that implies. I do not remember the specific topics, but I often welcome respectful logical correction (excepting that I have an autistic reaction to the word “fallacy” being misused).

        We do have something in common- we have both had the formation of the Knights of Columbus Third Degree. That may have something to do with it.

  • LJ

    I think the point the Fundamental Option people are trying to make is that human beings very rarely escape serious sin and the social/emotional/intellectual quagmire serious sin produces in one single moment. Instead, the conversion process is just that– a process, and in the early stages especially the person may remain in an “objective” state of serious sin, while interiorly the person actually is moving toward God rather than away.

    An example: suppose a woman was living a life of sexual sin– she’s had many lovers, some of them married, sometimes taking money or goods in exchange for sex, etc. She drinks too much. She’s in an on-again, off-again relationship with a boyfriend… then she comes up pregnant. That wakes her up to the fact that she can’t keep on doing what she’s doing. So, she quits drinking; she actually starts trying to be faithful to her boyfriend; meets up with some of the Christians at the crisis pregnancy center and asks them some questions about “what next”, not just about stuff she needs. Objectively, she’s still a long long way from what the Church would consider a non-sinful sexual life. But, nonetheless, she’s also clearly taking a new path, and that new path is oriented to God and God’s will (although at this point she probably can’t even see that herself). And an overly-harsh reception from the Church could easily crush this new growth in her soul (and the one being harsh with her would be culpable).

    But, that said, I still don’t agree with the Fundamental Option as an explanation! I think we have the mental tools already, with an understanding that bad habit, social pressure, poor catechesis, etc. can all reduce the person’s culpability in specific circumstances. The thing to focus on is, everyone without exception, moving forward from where they are, closer to Jesus, under the gentle inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That is, even people who aren’t in any obvious moral mess need a process of renewal and conversion, just like their less-fortunate fellows. And, even the people in the worst moral squalor can make specific, concrete choices that will be acceptable even to God Himself, and that we Christians should accept and welcome that as well.

  • captcrisis

    Human beings are complicated. The idea that someone is basically good or bad, though, is an appealing one, and it underlays Catholic (and Christian) theology — on the last day, some will be saved, and some not. And people’s sense of right and wrong plays into whether they act on that sense or not.

    The Church’s doctrines sometimes track that sense of right and wrong, and sometimes don’t. Its prior teaching sometimes seemed wrong to people then (and seems wrong to all of us now). And its present teaching seems wrong to some of us now (and might seem wrong to all of us in the future). Whether this is because teachings really do express a Catholic’s sense of right or wrong, or whether it’s the old Love v. Obedience dilemma, in which the person is choosing Obedience, depends on the person, the issue, and the time period.

  • Mike

    Sounds exactly like you’re describing my sister in-law and some of my co-workers: basically mean ppl who’s sins never quite rise to the level of mortal offence bc they are excuse me too chicken s*it to actually do something really “dangerous” and so satisfy their vices in small corrosive ways.


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