Veritatis Splendor, The Fundamental Option: Not an Option

Continuing the study of Veritatis Splendor, the 10th encyclical of Saint Pope John Paul II, Chapter Three, Part III, the Saint introduces here a term that might seem difficult at first, and yet after some reflection I have come to see that this teaching applies directly to our times.

Saint JPII speaks of moral “decisions” (as opposed to “judgments”) that are made on a level of human action that theologians and behavioral scientists have proposed as a “fundamental freedom,” which must be considered in evaluating human actions.  The actions resulting from this “option” are often only partially good or may even be objectively evil.  As the Saint writes, “It has been rightly pointed out that freedom is not only the choice for one or another particular action;  it is also, within that choice, a decision about oneself and a setting of one’s own life for or against the good, for or against the truth and, ultimately, for or against God (VS 65).”

“According to these authors, the key role in the moral life is to be attributed to the ‘fundamental option’ whereby the person makes an overall self-determination ….  Particular acts which flow from this option would constitute only partial and never definitive attempts to give it expression: they would only be its ‘signs’ and ‘symptoms.’. . .

“A distinction thus comes to be introduced between the fundamental option and deliberate choices of a concrete kind of behavior.  In some authors, this division tends to become a separation, when they expressly limit moral ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to the transcendental dimension proper to the fundamental option and describe as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ the choices or particular ‘inner-worldly’ kinds of behavior . . There thus appears to be established within human acting a clear disjunction between two levels of morality:  On the one hand, the order of good and evil, which is dependent on the will, and on the other hand specific kinds of behavior, which are judged to be morally right or wrong only on the basis of a technical calculation of the proportion between the ‘premoral’ or ‘physical’ goods and evils which actually result from the action.

“This is pushed to the point where a concrete kind of behavior, even one freely chosen, comes to be considered as a merely physical process and not according to the criteria proper to a human act (VS 65).”

“The conclusion to which this eventually leads is that the properly moral assessment of the person is reserved to his fundamental option, prescinding in whole or in part from his choice of particular actions, of concrete kinds of behavior (VS 65).”

Saint Pope John Paul II does not deny that there is such a thing as a fundamental choice which “qualifies moral life and engages freedom on a radical level.”

However, he points to the Bible, where the virtue of faith is offered to man as the fundamental option. Coming from the heart of a person and working through love, faith bears fruit in works.  As Saint Paul said, “You were called to freedom, brethren, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” (Galatians 5:13) and, “For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)  This is what happens “when an act of faith – in the sense of a fundamental option – becomes separated from the choice of particular acts … (VS 66).”

The Commandments are presented to man by God with the words, “I am the Lord your God,” thus engaging the heart of man in a decision for or against morality, for or against God.  “Israel’s fundamental decision, then, is about the fundamental commandment (VS 66).”

The New Covenant likewise is characterized by the fundamental call of Jesus to follow Him. “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’ (Mark 8:35) (VS 66).”

The call of Jesus to follow Him “marks the greatest possible exaltation of human freedom, yet at the same time it witnesses to the truth and to the obligation of acts of faith … (VS 66).”

“These tendencies are therefore contrary to the teaching of Scripture itself, which sees the fundamental option as a genuine choice of freedom and links that choice profoundly to particular acts.  By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, toward his end, following God’s call (VS 68).”

Once again Saint Pope John Paul II has defended the integrity of human freedom from modern tendencies to deny the link between freedom and action.  It is precisely this link that gives man the dignity of a Child of God, higher than all other creatures, and their ruler.

“To separate the fundamental option from concrete kinds of behavior means to contradict the substantial integrity of personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul.… In point of fact, the morality of human acts is not deduced only from one’s intention, orientation or fundamental option … (VS 67).”

God alone is free to judge any human soul:  but at the same time, as Saint Pope John Paul has said, we must not submit to the false parameters of moral relativism. As Christians, like our Leader we must call good “good” and evil “evil.”  The separation of the fundamental option from the act does not make it less evil.  In view of the Saint’s teaching on conscience in the previous sections of the encyclical, it is possible to lose our freedom by failing to seek the truth and to convert to Christ.  It may be worthwhile to quote here again Pope John Paul II’s own words:

“Conscience, as the ultimate concrete judgment, compromises its dignity when it is culpably erroneous, that is to say, ‘when man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin.’ [Gaudium et Spes, 16] …. ‘The eye is the lamp of the body.  So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!’ [Mt. 6:22 -23]  The words of Jesus just quoted also represent a call to form our conscience, to make it the object of a continuous conversion to what is true and to what is good (VS 63-64).”

Hearkening back to the opening words of this letter:

“It has been rightly pointed out that freedom is not only the choice for one or another particular action; it is also, within that choice, a decision about oneself and a setting of one’s own life for or against the good, for or against the truth and, ultimately, for or against God (VS 65).” 

When Saint Pope John Paul II wrote the luminous words of Veritatis Splendor, some of the disorders of our times were already common, but it seems that now they have reached a critical point.  Our Lord is offering everyone a chance to once again, or perhaps for the first time, accept the “fundamental option” of following Him.

Since its publication in 1994, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has provided a wealth of sound teaching.  The following two paragraphs, among others, may give us an insight into why God allows the evil in the world to increase in the form of deceptions that “will shake the faith of many believers.”

 Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a trial that will shake the faith of many believers.  The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth.  The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of His Messiah come in the flesh (CCC 675).

 The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in His death and Resurrection.  The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by an historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendency, but only by God’s victory over a final unleashing of evil, which will cause His Bride to come down from heaven. God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this world (CCC 677).  

“It has been rightly pointed out that freedom is not only the choice for one or another particular action;  it is also, within that choice, a decision about oneself and a setting of one’s own life for or against the good, for or against the truth and, ultimately, for or against God (VS 65).”

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