Today I want to look at a particular issue in moral life. I am going to give a brief description of two antagonistic views. Perhaps you will be able to assist me in understanding the issues better.
As Catholics we are very familiar with the idea of mortal sin. And, if we are from an older generation, we may well see this as a constant hazard in many aspects of our lives. Were we to succumb – provided we knew that it was mortal sin, and we freely chose it, then we would separate ourselves from God. Should we happen to die (and it comes like a thief in the night) we are bound straight to Hell, equipped with its gnashing of teeth, for all eternity. Tough cheese.
A younger generation, which has observed several moral theologians of note adopt a less legal and more personalised approach, might quarrel with this. Such theologians may speak of the ‘fundamental option’. This starts with rejecting the view that the Christian life is a journey through threatening territory. It is not like some mad Monopoly game in which we are always in danger of landing on a wrong square – with a penalty not counted in lost points but in a “Go to jail forever” card. And here we receive punishment so gross that we might think that a thousand years on the rack was no more than a holiday by comparison. Such a punishment ordained by a secular ruler – for whatever crime – would be deplored out of hand.
Instead they argue that we choose a fundamental option through which we have a clear and deep intention to focus our will on Christ and continually to direct ourselves constantly towards him. Providing such a state is maintained, individual actions cannot involve abandoning this fundamental option, and so cannot add up to a direct and chosen defiance of God’s plan; it thus does not separate us from God and his salvation.
Pope John Paul II directly addresses the issue in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor 1993 (Part III. Fundamental choice and specific kinds of behaviour). If I may simplify, he argues that we define our fundamental option not merely in our internal resolution but also through our actions. That is, we cannot separate our fundamental option from the actions which we choose. Thus, when we freely commit an act of grave concrete behaviour which is opposed to God’s law, we ipso facto abandon our fundamental option through that very choice. Thus, for example, someone who uses artificial contraception or who misses a Sunday Mass without adequate excuse has by his or her own choice, in effect, condemned himself to Hell.
There is, he might have gone on to say, no lack of proportion between the act and the punishment since guilt is not only defined by the nature of the act but also by the nature of the person against whom the action is committed. In this case, Almighty God.