The Fundamental Option

A Faithful Student’s Guide to a Competing 20th Century Moral Theory

Photos (left to right): Joseph Boyle, Jr.; Josef Fuchs, S.J.; Pope John Paul II.

Photos (left to right): Joseph Boyle, Jr.; Josef Fuchs, S.J.; Pope John Paul II.

For years now in the post-conciliar period, the concept of the fundamental option—which some have likened to St. Thomas Aquinas’s notion of a commitment to an “Ultimate End” as the first principle of moral action (see Benedict M. Ashley, O.P., Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology, Alba House, 1996, pgs. 104-107; cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, Qs. 1-5)—has been confusing, obscure, and subject to intense controversy, both academically and pastorally. Moral theologians who are associated with promoting and defending the concept include the late Redemptorist Bernard Häring, the late Jesuit Richard McCormick, and the Sulpician Richard Gula. Critics of the concept include moral theologians Germain Grisez, the late William E. May, and the late Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap. Is the theory a sound one, or is it contrary to Catholic moral teaching? If it is contrary, is there anything in the theory that moral theology still might find useful?

This paper will try to shed light on the matter of the fundamental option by comparing the view of one of its early influential theorists, the late German moral theologian Josef Fuchs, S.J., on the meaning of basic freedom, and its relationship to free choice as found in chapter four (“Basic Freedom and Morality”) of his influential book, Human Values and Christian Morality (Gill, 1970, pgs. 92-111), with that of Catholic philosopher Joseph Boyle, Jr., on the meaning of free choice, self-determination, and human action, as set forth in his well-known essay, “Freedom, the Human Person, and Human Action” (in Principles of Christian Morality, ed. William E. May, Franciscan Herald Press, 1981, pgs. 237-266). While both essays are now between 35-45 years old, each is seminal to either the articulation or the critique of the fundamental option theory. They remain, in my judgment, the best expression and refutation of the theory, respectively.

In my analysis, I will show where each author locates freedom of self-determination, the arguments given by Fuchs to support his position, and the arguments given by Boyle to show that Fuch’s position is incorrect. I will then conclude by evaluating the various arguments offered by both authors in light of the teaching of St. Pope John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical, Veritatis splendor, on fundamental option theories (nos. 65-70). It is hoped that this discussion will be especially helpful to students in moral theology to better understand the nature of the fundamental option—a subject with which they often struggle.

Josef Fuchs, S.J., on Basic Freedom/Fundamental Option
Fuchs begins his essay by wanting to distinguish what he calls “basic freedom,” or what Karl Rahner, S.J., calls “transcendental freedom,” from other types of freedom: psychological, moral, and Christian (see pg. 92; see also pg. 93). In contrast to these other types of freedom, basic freedom represents “a still more fundamental, deeper-rooted freedom, not yet accessible to psychological investigation. This is the freedom that enables us, not only to decide freely on particular acts and aims, but also by means of these, to determine ourselves totally as persons, and not merely in any particular area of behavior” (pg. 93).

In developing the notion of basic freedom, Fuchs hopes to provide an answer to the question: “what does the freedom of myself as a person amount to, over and above my actions and aims? … {W}hat is the morality of my personal ego, over and above the morality of my various actions?” (pg. 95). Implicit in this question is the view that one’s free self-determination as a person is more than any freely chosen action or actions (i.e., the categorical realm of morality). This self-determination, or act of total self-disposal, consists in one’s accepting, or refusing, to respond to God in love (i.e., the transcendental realm of salvation). In other words, the exercise of basic freedom is not identical with free choice. It is something different from, and much deeper than, any particular ordinary choice, and it is exercised by means of grace at the very “center of the person” (pg. 108). “The free self-commitment of ourselves as persons,” Fuchs argues, “is more than any particular action or actions and more than the sum of them; it underlies them, permeates them, and goes beyond them, without ever being actually one of them” (pg. 96).

For Fuchs, therefore, one’s relationship with God is not determined by an ordinary act of free choice, but rather by the activation of a basic freedom, i.e., the fundamental option. Fuchs writes that this idea (“the difference between the person as a whole, whom we have at our disposal in basic freedom, and the person’s acts, which we determine by free choice,” pg. 100) is found in Scripture when it states that God looks not only at man’s actions, but also at his heart (see pg. 100). Fuchs holds that no ordinary choice of itself can change one’s basic freedom, because many of these choices are moral acts only by “analogy,” since they do not involve the self-commitment of the individual in basic freedom (see pgs. 102-103). They are “acts only of free choice” carried out at “the surface level of the person” (pg. 103).

Therefore, according to Fuchs, even a lie (one acknowledged to be a freely willed and seriously grave deed, i.e., what the Catholic tradition would call a mortal sin) will not usually reverse one’s self-commitment in love to God in basic freedom because, “in practice,” the lie is not personally recognized as a “No before God” (pg. 102).

The exercise of a person’s self-commitment in love is not actually consciously known, yet one is still somehow aware of it “transcendentally.” This self-awareness is not “objective knowledge,” but rather “transcendental and unreflexive” (pgs. 106, 107). Here, be it noted, the influence of Rahner’s “transcendental” philosophical/theological anthropology on Fuchs is pronounced. Fuchs argues in this regard that “specific knowledge about God, and the taking up of a specific attitude towards God by free choice, do not constitute the really fundamental relationship to him. Deeper, more fundamental, is the transcendental—and, therefore, not objective—awareness of God as the absolute horizon of human reality. So also the surrender or the withholding of the self as a basic free act is not specific, but a transcendental process” (pg. 106).

One is aware of the activation and manner of his or her basic freedom by the material gravity of a sin. It functions as a “sign” to let one know that if one performs the action (the sin), one’s basic freedom will be activated. But grave matter is only a sign that basic freedom is involved. One could possibly conceive of carrying out a deed one knew to be gravely sinful, and still not reverse one’s basic freedom in love towards God (see pgs. 107-108).

There are basically two arguments that Fuchs offers to support the notion of basic freedom. These are based on the idea that free choice is somehow inconsistent with the characteristics of self-determination as the total self-disposition of the person. The first argument is as follows: as an object of human self-consciousness, free choice is incompatible with the view that one’s total self-disposition cannot be objectified, but must be, and remain, transcendental. Fuchs notes that “there can be no particular, categorical act of basic freedom—for a person can never grasp and engage the totality of himself categorically as an object. As soon as the self, as subject, grasps at the self as object, the subjective self that acts is no longer to be found within the self confronting it as object” (pg. 98; see also pg. 105).

The second argument can be formulated much more easily. It maintains that one’s self-disposition bears upon the person’s whole being in relation to God. It cannot be limited in the way free choice is limited: due to the fact that what is chosen is always limited, and by the choice itself which excludes some options, thereby limiting itself. Fuchs again invokes Scripture to support his view: “God looks not only at a man’s deeds but also at his heart” (pg. 100).

It is upon these arguments that Fuchs builds his concept of basic freedom and the fundamental option. It is now necessary to turn my attention to Joseph Boyle’s essay, and show why he disagrees with Fuch’s position and others similar to it.

The Critique of Joseph Boyle, Jr.
For Boyle, contra Fuchs, freedom of self-determination is simply free choice. One can then ask what is meant by, or how to define, free choice. Boyle regards free choice to occur “when a person might select this or that, and that person himself or herself determines which he or she will select” (pg. 242, note omitted). He also regards the arguments against free choice as “weak” and “self-defeating” (pg. 243, notes omitted). Rather, free choice is affirmed in Scripture, taught by the Catholic Church, and revealed in everyday human experience (see pgs. 243-244).

Boyle argues that moral responsibility requires free choice for two reasons. First, Christian morality supposes that one is the free initiator of one’s own actions. Second, morality involves human beings in relation to the good. Only by carrying out free choices can persons constitute themselves in relation to what is good. It is in this way that “free choices are said to be the locus of moral responsibility” (pg. 245). Fuchs would deny, as we have seen, that these characteristics of moral responsibility are founded on free choices.

Boyle then proceeds to discuss the relationship between free choice and human action. He states that actions “are part of what one chooses,” and that they can be “defined as what human beings choose” (pg. 247). So, actions are not physical events, “not mere pieces of behavior.” Rather, they are “defined by the choices or intentions they embody” (pg. 249). As a result, to say that one determines oneself by the exercise of basic freedom, as Fuchs says, rather than free choice, is to reduce personal moral responsibility to a lower level.

Boyle’s next move is to describe in helpful detail four central features of basic or fundamental freedom: “First of all, it [fundamental freedom] is exercised at the very core of the human person; thus it is the locus of self-determination and hence of basic moral responsibility. Second, it does not have as its object any particular action or set of actions, but rather its object is the entire self in its relationship to God. Third, the exercise of fundamental freedom is not an action in any normal sense of the word. Something like an option or preference is involved, but this preference is more like a stance or attitude than an act of choosing. Furthermore, there is no explicit awareness of a time when one took one’s fundamental stance… It is none too clear exactly what the relationship between free choice and the exercise of fundamental freedom is, but it is clear that one can choose freely in a way inconsistent with the exercise of one’s fundamental freedom without altering the fundamental stance [or option] established by this freedom” (pgs. 250-251, note omitted).

Since basic freedom is exercised at the very core of the person and does not have any particular action as its object, nor is one explicitly aware of when one has exercised it, Boyle states that the belief in basic freedom cannot be based on experience. Nor does there appear to be any philosophical argument that seems to require one to affirm the existence of basic freedom (see pg. 251, note omitted). But as Boyle points out, many theologians are convinced of its reality. He therefore wants to answer the two arguments put forward by Fuchs and others to support basic freedom. First is the argument that free choice, because it is objective, cannot be total (see pgs. 251-252). Boyle realizes that it is true that self-determination is not a “datum of experience” like “pain is a datum of self-awareness.” Self-determination is an “action,” not something “given” (pg. 254). This awareness of self-determination, he says, is more like an “un-thematic awareness one has of one’s act of knowing when one is knowing” (pg. 254).

Nevertheless, one can form propositions about this un-thematic awareness, thus enabling it to be an object of consciousness. These propositions can point to many acts of awareness. Boyle writes: “Thus the range of propositions cannot be limited so as to exclude propositional knowledge of the transcendental self as known” (pg. 255). Even self-determination, therefore, when it is “total” to some degree, can be the object of propositional knowledge. It does not have to be as unknowable as Fuchs would have it. Boyle also notes that his position is entirely in accord with the teaching of the Council of Trent (a subject disputed by Fuchs) (see pg. 255).

The second argument holds that free choice is much too limited to be the locus of self-determination (see pgs. 252-253). Boyle thinks that this argument is based on an erroneous view of free choice. For Boyle, free choice can be called self-determination precisely because “what one chooses includes both the action done and one’s doing it … One determines oneself to be a person who does the action in question” (pg. 256, note omitted). In free choices, one chooses not only actions but one’s self doing the actions. Therefore, these choices are self-constituting, whereby the self-constitution is nontransitory (unlike a physical act which is transient). Furthermore, these choices (e.g., the choice to become a priest, the choice to become a married person, the choice to become a Christian) can also “organize and structure a person’s life into a meaningful whole” (pg. 258).

According to Boyle, the argument that free choice is limited to particular objects and actions rests on an incorrect view which states that the two aspects of what is chosen must be the objects of two separate exercises of freedom—“free choice for the action, and fundamental freedom for the self” (pg. 257).

Concluding Evaluation: Fuchs, Boyle, and the Teaching of St. Pope John Paul II
From my analysis of these two essays, I conclude that Boyle has convincingly shown Fuchs’s position to be an erroneous one. Not only does it seem unnecessary to posit the presence of basic freedom, its very existence is mysterious and problematic to say the least. Boyle’s first argument has shown quite clearly, I believe, that free choice is not an object in the manner it would have to be for it to be excluded as the act in which a person determines himself/herself.

Boyle’s second argument has also demonstrated that although free choices have their limitations, when one freely decides to commit some evil action (e.g., murder), one does not dispose oneself fully in all aspects of one’s existence, to be sure, but one does determine oneself to be a murderer, a determination that remains (because, as noted, free choices are non-transitory spiritual entities that last within the person) until one repents of the sinful deed, hopefully never choosing to murder in the future.

Boyle has also powerfully shown that holding a view of basic freedom such as Fuchs’s leads to a “double-decker” view of moral responsibility: one has responsibility for particular acts and another fundamental responsibility for one’s self-determination at the level of basic freedom (see pg. 259). Thus, in this view, one’s own personal responsibility for freely chosen actions becomes significantly downplayed: one can freely choose to do an evil act (on the categorical level) which might not change one’s fundamental option of love of God (on the transcendental level). This is obviously contrary to the tradition of Catholic Christianity and Magisterial teaching, especially as it is found in Chapter Two, Part III (“Fundamental Choice and Specific Kinds of Behavior,” nos. 65-70) of St. Pope John Paul II’s Veritatis splendor. I turn now to an analysis of the encyclical’s understanding of free choice, fundamental freedom, and the fundamental option.

To begin, Pope John Paul II affirms the notion that our free choices determine our moral character (“a decision about oneself”); and some of these choices “shape” a person’s “entire moral life” (no. 65). Fundamental option theories are indeed right to stress the importance of these large choices, e.g., the choice of turning from hatred of God to love of God (or vice versa), and the fact that these “fundamental options” are not easily changed, as St. Thomas Aquinas would also affirm. Truly, the moral life is not a series of isolated atomistic acts, but a pattern that is formed over time through many choices and acts that build on the previous ones and are connected (as disposing the person) to the (like) ones that follow.

The pope notes that some moral theologians, however, “have proposed an even more radical revision of the relationship between person and acts. They speak of a ‘fundamental freedom,’ deeper than, and different from, freedom of choice, which needs to be considered if human actions are to be correctly understood and evaluated” (no. 65). These theologians shift the locus of self-determination from free choices to a “fundamental option … whereby the person makes an overall self-determination” (no. 65). The “properly moral assessment of the person,” therefore, is based on his or her fundamental option rather than deliberate choices to do particular actions, e.g., to have an abortion, or to do a good deed for someone (see no. 65).

The pope finds it problematic, as contrary to the scriptural witness, that these theologians relocate self-determination from the concrete free choices we make every day, to a so-called fundamental option. The scriptural view sees “the fundamental option as a genuine choice of freedom, and links that choice profoundly to particular acts” (no. 67). For the Christian, says John Paul II, the fundamental choice or option is actually “the decision of faith, of the obedience of faith (cf. Rom 16:26)” (no. 66). Hence, the fundamental option—to use that term soundly—“is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter” (no. 67). Here, of course, John Paul II speaks of mortal sin, a topic closely connected to the fundamental option. (Note: In the essay under discussion, Fuchs believes that the fundamental option is charity, but it is, of course, one that belongs, not to free choice, but rather to fundamental freedom and, thus, inaccessible to consciousness; see also pgs. 108-111. In other places, however, Fuchs says that the fundamental option is faith).

Against some fundamental option theorists (cf. no. 69), such as Fuchs, the pope teaches in accord with the Catholic faith, that mortal sin exists “when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered” (no. 70; cf. Pope John Paul II, Reconciliation et poenitentia, no. 17). Hence, “the separation of fundamental option from deliberate choices of particular kinds of behavior, disordered in themselves, or in their circumstances, which would not engage that option … involves a denial of Catholic doctrine on mortal sin” (no. 70).

As understood and revised by John Paul II, the concept of the “fundamental option” is a good one. As it is understood by Fuchs, however, Boyle and the pope have shown it needs to be seriously corrected. And John Paul II has done precisely that in an authoritative way in Veritatis splendor. It is hoped that this correct understanding of the fundamental option will be taught in Catholic seminaries, universities, and parishes in order to overcome the false idea that one can be a “good” person, and yet knowingly and freely perform specific deeds that are, indeed, contrary to the love of God and neighbor, i.e., mortal sins (cf. Veritatis splendor, no. 68). (For another critique of Fuchs on the fundamental option, see e.g., Germain Grisez, “Moral Absolutes: A Critique of the View of Josef Fuchs, S.J.,” Anthropos: Rivista di Studi sulla Persona e la Famiglia, Vol. 1 (1985): 155-201, pgs. 158, 163-164; see also Francis Michael Walsh, “Amending Fuchs’s Account of Morality: A Response to Mark E. Graham,” Josephinum Journal of Theology, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2006): 114-130.

Dr. Mark S. Latkovic About Dr. Mark S. Latkovic

Dr. Mark Latkovic is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, where he has taught since July 1990, and where he has also been Associate Dean of Studies from September 1999 until January 2000, and interim Dean of Studies from February 2000 until August 2000. He was made a full professor in March 2003. Dr. Latkovic received a dual bachelor's degree in 1986 in religious studies and philosophy (with a minor in communications) from Cleveland State University (Cleveland, OH) and a master's degree in 1989 in theology from The Catholic University of America (Washington, DC). He also received in 1990 a license in sacred theology degree (STL, Summa Cum Laude) that was directed by the late Benedict M. Ashley, OP (1915-2013), and a doctorate in sacred theology degree (STD, Summa Cum Laude) from the Lateran University's Pontifical Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family (Washington, DC "session"), where he was a Michael J. McGivney Fellow working as a graduate assistant to Ashley. His licenciate thesis was a critique of the moral theologian Joseph Selling's understanding of Humanae vitae and his doctoral dissertation was a study of the moral theology of Fr. Ashley that was directed by William E. May (1928--) and defended in April 1998.


  1. Avatar Deacon Joseph M Marroquin Sr. says:

    An interesting article on the freedom of man. The points you brought up have opened up a desire to acquire more knowledge on this. I will be reading the references you have given in this article. Thank you for peaking my interest.

  2. Mark S. Latkovic Mark S. Latkovic says:

    Dear Dcn Joseph,
    Thanks for your comment. I’m glad that you found my article interesting.
    God bless,