The term fundamental option became popular in the 1960s. It represented an attempt to describe the basic orientation of one's moral life as a continuous process with a definite moral direction rather than as a sequence of discrete, unconnected actions. Particular acts are seen as expressing and modifying the fundamental option, confirming and developing it or diminishing and ultimately reversing it.
Existentialist and personalist analyses, combined with dynamic psychological insights, alerted theologians to the inadequacy of any atomistic picture of human actions, good or bad, into which the theological manuals had drifted. Thus the emphasis was shifted from the particular action to the living subject as the bearer of morality. The notion of a fundamental option has roots in several strata of the Christian tradition: in the prophet Jeremiah the new covenant is said to be written in the hearts of men; the New Testament insists on the interior dimension of morality; Paul frequently insists upon the centrality of a total conversion in expressions such as "life in Christ"; and also in Thomas Aquinas's discussion of the new law (Summa theologiae 1–2, 106). Within this Christian perspective, grace and sin are regarded as states of existence—the result of a fundamental option.
On the level of moral analysis, discussion of the "first moral act" (Summa theologiae 1–2, 89, 5) has led to the recognition of a person's overall commitment through his actions, so that further actions expressed and reinforced or contradicted and weakened that commitment. To understand such a commitment it may be better to consider it as gradually gathering momentum through the responses of the agent. Depending upon whether the acts are predominantly other-centered or self-centered, the person is characteristically ordered toward an altruistic or selfish life-stance. In the Christian context of love of neighbor involving love of God, the predominantly other-centered person will also be open to the Absolute other and hence in the state of grace; the predominantly self-centered person will be closed to God and hence in sin. A transition from one state to the other through conversion or mortal sin will not occur easily, but will remain an actual possibility through some serious involvement of the agent and frequently as the climax of a process. Thus the term "fundamental option" has a definite value when describing the basis of one's overall commitment, although the actual state itself is better described as a basic orientation, thereby avoiding any implications of unique dramatic choice—an experience quite foreign to most people's moral lives.
The term appears in Church documents. The Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1975) and Pope John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis splendor adopt the concept of fundamental option but link it more closely to particular acts. They insist that mortally sinful acts, done with full knowledge and consent, constitute a turning away from God and, thereby, imply the exercise of a fundamental option.
Bibliography: e. j. cooper, "The Notion of Sin in Light of the Fundamental Option: The Fundamental Option Revisited.," Louvain Studies 9 (1983) 363–382. j. fuchs, "Basic Freedom and Morality" Human Values and Christian Morality (Dublin 1970). e. mcdonagh "The Moral Subject," The Irish Theological Quarterly 39 (January 1972) 3–23. l. monden, Sin, Liberty and Law (New York 1965). k. rahner, "The Commandment of Love in Relation to the other Commandments," Theological Investigations 5 (Baltimore 1966) 439–460; "Theology of Freedom" and "Reflections on the Unity of the Love of Neighbour and Love of God," Theological Investigations 6 (Baltimore 1969) 178–196, 231–252. h. reiners, Grundintention und Sittliches Tun (Freiburg 1966).