Free choices bear upon actions that we can do. But the actions in question are not simply physical events in the material world that come and go, like the falling of rain or the turning of the leaves. The actions at stake are not things that merely “happen” to a person. They are, rather, the outward expression of a person’s choice, the disclosure or revelation of that person’s moral identity, his or her being as a moral being. For at the core of an action, as human and personal, is a free, self-determining choice, which as such is something spiritual and abides within the person, determining the very being of the person. The Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, are very clear about this. Jesus taught that it is not what enters a person that defiles him or her; rather, it is what flows from the person, from his or her heart, from his or her choice (see Matt 15:10-20; Mk7:14-23). We can say that a human action – i.e., a free, intelligible action, whether good or bad—is the adoption by choice of some_ intelligible proposal and the execution of this choice through some exterior performance. But the core of the action is the free, self-determining choice that abides in the person, making him or her to be the kind of person he or she is. Thus, I become an adulterer, as Jesus clearly taught (Matt 5:28), when I look at a woman with just, i.e., when I adopt by choice the proposal to commit adultery with her or to think with satisfaction about doing so, even if 1 am prevented from executing this choice externally. The execution of the choice to commit adultery increases the malice of my act, but even if the choice is not for some reason executed, I have still, by my own free choice, made myself to be an adulterer.

This illustrates the self-determining character of free choice. It is in and through the actions we freely choose to do that we give to ourselves our identity as moral beings, for weal or for woe. This identity abides in us until we make other, contradictory kinds of choices. Thus, if I choose to commit adultery, I make myself to be an adulterer, and I remain an adulterer, internally disposed to commit adultery, until, by another free and self-determining choice, I have a change of heart (metanoia] and repent of my deed. I am then a repentant adulterer, one determined, through free choice and with the help of God’s never-failing grace, to amend my life and to be a faithful, loving spouse.

The significance of freely chosen human acts as self-determining is beautifully brought out by Pope John Paul II. After noting that “it is precisely through his acts that man attains perfection as man,” he goes on to say: “Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them. They do not produce a change merely in the states of affairs outside of man, but, to the extent that they are delibrate choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual trails”” (Veritatis splendor, no. 71).

We Might say that freely chosen acts are like “words” that we speak and through which we give to ourselves our moral character, our identity as moral beings. Indeed, character or our identity as moral beings, can be properly identified as “the integral existential identity of the person—the entire person in all his or her dimensions as shaped by morally good and bad choices—considered as a disposition to further choices.” [Grisez, Christian Moral Principles, p. 59.]

The Meaning and Morality of Human Acts

The understanding of human acts and their morality in Catholic theology can be summarized in the following propositions.

1. Human acts get things done. i.e., they bring about states of affairs in the external world, and human persons are responsible for causing them. But human acts are of crucial moral significance primarily because at their core is a free human choice, so that human persons determine themselves and give to themselves their moral identity, their character, in and through the acts they freely choose to do.

2. The highest “norm” or “truth” to guide us in making true moral judgments and good moral choices is God’s eternal law. Our intelligent participation in this law is the natural law. We can thus speak of a “participated theonomy.” [John Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics]

3. The fundamental moral principle is the love commandment, which requires us to love the goods meant to flourish in ourselves and others, goods such as life itself, including bodily life and health, knowledge of the truth and appreciation of beauty, friendship, marriage, etc.

4. The primary source for the morality of an act is the “object” freely chosen here and now. Reason attests that some kinds of acts, as specified by their objects, cannot be referred to God precisely because they violate the dignity of the person made in his image by violating his goods. Such acts, among them the intentional killing of innocent persons, are intrinsically evil and proscribed by absolute moral norms.

Good Deeds and Good Consequences. Christian faith emphasizes that the most important aspect of morality is our actions and not the consequences of_our action. We are to perform excellent actions and live moral lives even if not always wonderful things happen to us. By choosing to do certain actions we determine ourselves to be one kind of person or another. For example, I must not betray the trust of a friend and steal some money from him because I am in a bind and he has more money than I and I assess that he can recover from the loss. The assumption, even if proven correct, that a negative consequence for me can be avoided by a lesser loss on his part does not justify the evil of stealing from him. The act of stealing morally defines me and the purpose of mortality is not to pretend that we can bring a better state of affairs at every turn, at least as perceived by one party. The purpose of morality is to complete my human nature, actualize my dignity and recreate me in God’s image. Thus, I take the loss but not harm my friend.

In Catholic theology there is a difference between what is directly willed or intended and what is indirectly willed or outside of the person’s intention. To deny this, as proportionalists do, is to deny a core aspect of Catholic morality. If we reject the distinction and hold that there is no difference, then, one would have to concede that it is permissible at times to do evil and that there are no moral absolutes because it is undeniable that even good people do, and cannot escape doing, acts from which bad effects flow.

For example, a parent who saves his or her child from a violent assault of an attacker may be able to do this only by a protective act that causes great harm or even the death of the assailant, however unintended the harm may be. But if every act that causes harm is morally indistinguishable from an act in which the harm is directly intended then the absolute moral prohibition of directly doing evil would be meaningless. To deny the difference is unreasonable. Similarly occurs when a doctor in an emergency and absolutely necessary operation removes the cancerous womb of a pregnant woman. He knows that as a result the child in the womb will die but the intention was only to save the mother and not to cause any harm , either as a means or as an end, to the developing embryo.

It is evident the difference between:

a.) The person who chooses only good and allows evil to happen as the unintended effect of the action—when there are very good reasons to do so (even God, in creating the universe, permitted the free evil deeds of his creatures. If there is no difference between permitting evil and setting one’s heart on evil, God must have set his heart on evil.)


b.) One person who fixes his heart upon doing evil as a means towards an end or as an end in itself.

Even if the most precious good could not be achieved except by doing a deed that directly does even a small evil, the good man should not do that deed. He must care to make the world good but the most important good he is to do in making the world good is to make his own heart good, by performing only good actions.

 Making Good Moral Choices:   Two Approaches.

How are we to decide that a certain choice is morally good or bad? The need is to know how our love of neighbor can be translated into practical norms. This difficulty is real because Catholic moral theologians hold strongly to two..opposing views on this matter. Although both camps do attempt to provide a system which avoids legalism and focuses on love of persons and human goods one is not completely faithful to the larger tradition of Catholic morality. Let’s examine them.

1. Proportionalism. This is a method of moral teaching that requires an assessment of all the good and evil involved in alternative possibilities for action. Proportionalism states that a person ought to choose that alternative of action which promises the greater proportion of good over evil after a careful assessment of the act to be chosen..The purpose of assessing, before choosing, is to determine which alternative brings the greater good and which does not. This method is used in a restricted way by Catholic theologians who may not be proportionalists. The principle is commonly known as “greater good” or ”lesser evil.”

A. In a positive note, proportionalists generally acknowledge the objective goodness of the basic goods of human nature we mentioned before and do not believe that the final decisive element in choosing is pleasure. They also admit the existence of certain limitations to the application of their method. They do not necessarily support the view that the end justifies the means.

B. But proportionalists distinctively believe that the most common moral absolutes traditionally taught by the Church, and even now continually taught, are not valid. Commonly, these theologians oppose the teaching that every act of contraception is immoral, that not every act of homosexuality or fornication is objectively wrong and that not every direct and intentional taking of innocent life is absolutely prohibited. They typically hold that no kinds of jicts, when defined in purely descriptive language (language with no morally evaluative language) are always wrong or intrinsically evil. For example, if we define murder as the “unjust slaying of an innocent person” they would agree that it is always wrong. But, if we define’ it as “the intentional or direct slaying of an innocent person” then it is not always wrong, it may become a lesser evil depending on the circumstances. The last definition does not have the morally evaluative term “unjust.”

C. Proportionalists also affirm that there are some actions (like forcing a retarded child to sexual relations) that are likely to cause greater harm in almost all circumstances. They call these actions “practical absolutes.” But, as the phrase suggest, the norm here is not absolute in principle. In other words, there may be some circumstances we cannot now think about where the action can be evaluated as a lesser evil, and then becomes the right thing to do.

D. Most proportionalists assert that certain actions traditionally considered as always bad can be justified under certain circumstances if the performance of such actions brings forth a purported greater good. They distinguish between moral and premoral evils (also called ontic or physical). Premoral evils refer to the deprivation of some good due to a person. They are really bad but not immoral. For example, sickness and .death, are premoral evils. The question for them is whether choices that cause sickness or death are always wrong. Proportionalists say that there are circumstances in which premoral evils are not wrong if choosing those actions brings forth a lesser evil. In such distinction, proportionalists have a basic logic for rejecting much of the Church’s teachings on sexual matters for much of the teachings infallibly. In rejecting such teachings as traditionally stated they also assert that: 1.) It is evidently true that we are required to look for greater good or lesser evil on a given situation. It is absurd to look for the greater evil or lesser good. Proportionalists see the moral absolutes the Church proposes, not just the mode of their presentation, as burdensome legalism; 2.) The Church uses the principle at times, according to proportionalists. If the Church uses such principles they are then justified and within the larger Catholic tradition of moral teaching in making them the basic foundational principles of Christian morality.

II. The Morality of Principles. This approach tries to meet the challenges of Vatican II and renew moral theology while maintaining continuity with traditional teaching. It tries to give a full understanding of Catholic theology and avoid the legalisms of old. Looking deeper into the Catholic tradition, the morality of principles searches into the foundations of the faith to discover the truth and the beauty of faith to present it anew.

A. It insists on the truth and centrality of moral absolutes. Such norms as “never directly kill the innocent” or “never commit adultery” are held to be always true and nontrivial. There can never be any objectively good reasons for violating specific basic principles of morality prohibiting certain actions. The negative precepts of the moral law are absolute and binding under every circumstance. I, of course, do not mean that no moral norms have exceptions. Most norms do have exceptions. For example: “obey all just civil laws” or “keep your promises.”

B. Faith confirms that there are moral absolutes but also insists that moral absolutes are the requirements of love. prohibited absolutely because acts such as these are incompatible with the goods of persons which God calls us to love and respect. The different approaches of the Morality of Principles emphasize on the dignity persons as made in the image and likeness of God and called to a certain kind of life. To “Five contrary to such demands diminishes our dignity and distorts our human relationships. Genuine love requires a care and respect for persons which absolutely excludes certain kinds of actions, namely those that harm persons, manipulate them, or disregard their true dignity.

C. Unlike proportionalism, the Morality of Principles does not suppose the demands of morality can be encapsulated by a single principle like the principle of lesser evil. It also rejects the notion that we can calculate or measure human goods in non-arbitrary ways without acting irrationally. It is serious on not harming human goods and demanding that in our actions we honor the goods of human nature. We must always act in such a way as to be open to integral human fulfillment (see Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla. p. 41). Concern for goods of persons is not realized by trying to create an idyllic world in which the maximum possible amount of good is realized by any means but in making ourselves the persons we ought to be.

D. Christian faith affirms that there are in fact evil kinds of deeds, deeds that always involve assaults upon love of persons and must always be avoided. There are simply no “good reasons” to perform certain acts as they can never be truly reconciled with love of God and love of neighbor. Again, we must not do evil so that good may come, as St. Paul says. We must not do even, a minute evil because a great harm can be avoided by doing it or a supposed great good may come out of the exercise. Accord to  this principle, every aspect of an act must be morally good.

Fundamental Option Theory

Moral theology that developed in the climate of Vatican 11 began to emphasize the fact that Christian life basically cannot be identified with this or that action. Fundamental option used by theologians refers to the free determination of the person with regard to the totality of his existence. As the Belgian moral theologian Louis Monden says, beyond all object choices, there is a deepest kind of choice made by man, not with regard to specific objects but with respect to the totality of existence, its meaning and direction. Since the eternal salvation of the person, his basic orientation towards or against God is at stake in such fundamental choices, they must involve a man’s total disposition out of radical centre of his being. Hence the fundamental option becomes the primary moral criterion to assess the morality of the person.

Good Actions and Good Character

Some protest saying that good character is more important than good actions. They say the basic aspect that makes us what we are is not our free choices but our fundamental freedom or option.

This theory is correct in emphasizing that our lives can and should be organized by a fundamental commitment towards God. It errs in saying that our free choices are not the ones that determine our fundamental option but instead some mysterious, profound act at a deeper level of our freedom. Choices are spiritual realities and not just physical events that just happen (see Karol Wojtywa in The Acting Person, pp. 105-186). The virtuous person is one who has made the right choices and has made them in such a way that his or her entire personality is integrated around good choices. Human action is trivialized if we fancy that a single choice moved by grace cannot be important enough to merit salvation or tragic enough to lose it.

All of our free choices are self-determining. But some choices we can call “small” choices where as others can be termed “large choices or commitrnents. “Small” choices determine one or another aspect of our being, whereas “large” choices determine us more profoundly, and some—fundamental commitments or “options”—shape our entire moral existence.

A “small” choice can be illustrated thus. I choose to drink my coffee black, i.e., without any additives. In choosing to do so I make myself to be a drinker of black coffee and 1 remain such until I freely choose to add cream or sugar or both to my coffee. I may also choose to tell “small lies” to my wife in order to avoid unpleasant consequences—e.g., that I have indeed mailed a letter she had given me to post even though I forgot to do so and intend to mail it as soon as possible. In choosing to tell this ”small lie” I make myself to be a liar, disposed to lie in similar circumstances in the future. Telling a “small lie” (light matter and therefore only venially sinful) is an instance of a “small” choice. Choosing to perjure myself, i.e., to lie under oath in a court of law, on the other hand, is a “large” choice because here the “matter” of the lie is gravely serious and in choosing to lie in this way I make myself to be a perjurer, one disposed to lie regarding gravely serious matters under similar conditions.

Among large choices are those we can call “commitments.” Pope John Paul II. in his criticism of certain kinds of fundamental option theories in Veritulis splendor, noted that it is correct to emphasize “the importance of certain choices which “shape’ a person’s entire moral life, and which serve as bounds within which other particular everyday choices can be situated and allowed to develop” (no. 65). Here he recognizes the crucial moral importance of certain kinds of choices that can properly be called fundamental “commitments” or “options.”

The choice to marry, or to become a priest or religious or a member of the Mafia illustrates this. When a man a woman marry by freely choosing to give themselves irrevocably to one another in an intimate partnership of life and love (see Gaudium el spes, no. 48), they commit themselves through this choice to a way of life—married life— and it is their moral obligation to integrate other free choices into this commitment, and likewise their duty not to make choices incompatible with this fundamental commitment. They have committed themselves to a life of utter fidelity to one another, to a readiness “to welcome life lovingly, nurture it humanely, and educate it religiously,” i.e., in the love and service of God and neighbor, and to life together “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, until death do they part.”

Pope John Paul II, in this section of Veritatis splendor, goes on to teach that the “choice of freedom” \\hich Christian moral teaching, even in its Biblical roots, acknowledges” as fundamental is “the decision of faith, of the obedience of faith (cf. Rom 16:26).” This is the free choice, by which man makes a total and free self-commitment to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God as he reveals’.” The pope continues by saying that since faith is a commitment to God that is to bear fruit in works (cf. Matt 12:33-35; Lk 6:43-45; Rom 8:5-10; Gal 5:22), it demands that one keep the commandments of the Decalogue and follow Jesus even to the point of losing his life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel (cf. Mk 8:35) (no. 66).

From this we can see that the fundamental option of a Christian is his/her baptismal commitment.   This  is  a  specific  free  choice  whereby  a  Christian  freely  commits himself/herself to a life of union with Jesus. In and through this choice—this act of faithful obedience—a Christian freely chooses to share in Christ’s redemptive work and to complete, in his/her own flesh, “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his _body,_ that is. the Church” (Col 1:24). In and through baptism Jesus pours into our hearts his very own life and love, and by freely choosing to accept this divine gift, bequeathed us by virtue of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection, we in turn commit ourselves to cooperating with our Redeemer in his saving mission so that “we all attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13) until Jesus “will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself (Phil 3:21). Because this is the Christian’s fundamental choice or option, the one that “shapes”  the Christian’s entire life and serves “as the bounds within other particular everyday  choices can be situated and allowed to develop”. (Veritatis splendor, no. 65), the Christian must seek to integrate all his daily choices into this fundamental commitment. Certain choices—moral sins—are utterly incompatible with this commitment, whereas others—venial sins—while in some way compatible with it are not fully compatible with it. The Christian grows in holiness and becomes a saint— the vocation to which he/she is called—precisely by growing in integrating every choice of every day into this-overarching commitment.

Note that John Paul II identifies the “fundamental option” or commitment of the Christian with a specific act of free choice, with a specific act of self-determination. He rejects, and rightly so, those theories of “fundamental option’1 which sharply distinguish between the “free choices” that we make every day and a “‘fundamental freedom/ deeper than and different from freedom of choice…whereby the person makes an overall self-determination”… leading to a distinction “between the fundamental option and deliberate choices of a concrete kind of behavior” (Veritatis splendor, no. 65). Those who propose a fundamental option theory of this kind in effect tear asunder the relationship between the person and his acts and relocate self-determination from free choice to an alleged “fundamental” or “transcendental freedom,” deeper than free choice. This theory, which denies the self-determining character of free choice, (One of the best critiques of the flawed fundamental option theory is given by Joseph Boyle, “Freedom, the Human Person, and Human Action,” in Principles of Catholic Moral Life, ed. William E. May (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1981), pp. 237-266.) is rightly repudiated by Pope John Paul II.

Transcendental and Categorical Freedom

The notion of fundamental option entered moral theological reflection as a result of a deeper understanding of human freedom mainly the writings of Karl Rahner. Rahner viewed freedom not simply as the power to perform any particular action but as the transcendent power to actualize oneself. According to him the human person is a “many-layered being ….constructed as it were in layers starting at an interior core and becoming more and more external.” On this basis Rahner distinguishes between core or transcendental freedom and freedom of choice or categorical freedom. It is out of the inmost core of the person that he\she makes the basic decisions of transcendental freedom (fundamental option) which lead away from or to God. Thus he distinguishes between ordinary free decisions and those which constitute a fundamental option.

It is this possibility of transcendental or basic freedom in man to say yes or no to the totality of one’s existence, and ultimately to God, which explains the fundamental option of the person. This basic freedom can be actualized only in and through ordinary freedom of choice , in concrete particular choices and actions. As Josef Fuchs says, “a man can, on one and the same act , choose the object of his choice (freedom of choice) and by so doing determine himself as a person (basic freedom). Basic freedom of self-determination or fundamental option for or against God is always incarnated in the particular choices one makes in life.

Theology of Fundamental option

The notion of fundamental option explains the fundamental stance of the person positively orientating himself \herself towards the world, other people and ultimately to God. it is this fundamental stance which makes the life of a person and his activities human and hence moral.

The theological reflection on the notion of fundamental option deals with the self-realization of the person before God. There is an essential relationship between human acts and the ultimate end of the person. According to Thomas Aquinas the ultimate end, which is the primary good, is the fundamental criterion of moral-religious life. Ultimately it is the orientation to the final end or the radical self-realization in the direction of God or self-refusal against Him-fundamental option- which determines not only the moral quality of particular acts and choices but also the morality of the person. It is this deeper orientation of the person to the totality of the meaning of one’s existence, apart from the particular object choices, is designated by the term fundamental option in present theological reflection

Theory of Fundamental Option in Moral Reflection

The theory of fundamental option is a critical methodological insight which brought to light the basic structures working behind human behavior. The insight into the true nature of freedom and subsequent recognition notion of fundamental option led to the question “who are you?” more than “what did you do?” Who we are is more important than what we do, i.e., the ongoing identity we possess determines primarily our morality than what we do. The question of fundamental option or the exercise of basic freedom ultimately becomes the question of moral goodness or wickedness of the person. Hence, fundamental option enables us to ascertain not only the morality of particular aims and actions but also the morality of the person who performs it.

A Broader Vision of Fundamental Option

Giving extreme importance to individual person and his fundamental option in moral evaluation, this trend in moral theology also shows extreme tendency of privatization. It gives the wrong impression that fundamental option is something that can be worked out purely in the innermost heart of the person without paying attention to the social conditions.

There is an intimate link between the basic project of a person (his fundamental option or self-realization) and the overall project of a given society (the nature and orientation of society). The individual participates in the cultural dimensions that open up to God and others but he also participates in those dimensions that close up and refuse GOD and other people.

The person envisaged by the renewed moral theology seems to be one who is divided and anguished psychologically but at the same time privileged from a sociological, economic and cultural point of view. He may feel insecure in the depth of his being but he is secure by the guarantees offered by his socio-political context: employment, social security, food good living conditions, housing, good prospect for a peaceful old age, medical care. Etc. thus, taking a one-sided approach, dealing primarily with the First World people and their problems, the renewal moral theology in the wake of Vatican 11 has failed seriously to include in its scheme the majority of mankind who are victims sinful social structures. It has failed to deal with the problems of man-made starvation and oppression, people living in sub-human conditions, the peasants deprived of their land, the underpaid workers, the unemployed and frustrated youth, the ever increasing number of abandoned children and old people and others. It is only natural that these people take seriously the social dimension of morality and existence of the social-structural dimension of sin. This will have serious impact on their perception of the nature of fundamental one opts for in the context. We have to broaden the vision of fundamental option so that it can also address the social-structural dimension of moral behavior because the objective of Christian morality is not only self-realization of the person but also the development of the society.

About bodhicap

This is the journal-blog from the Capuchins at Bodhi Institute of Theology, Tillery, Kollam, India.
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