Tom Roeser: Those who wonder how a supposed Catholic can go through life supporting abortion have ignored the logical answer: it’s a misapplication of a theological doctrine called “the Fundamental Option.” It sprouted in the 1940s at the university I attended…Saint John’s of Collegeville, Minnesota. The first day of school we were separated into two groups for theology: the first group composed of the supposedly bright-brights were directed to study theology under Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB who was the campus’ leading theological light…and the dumber ones (into which I thankfully was included) were sent to study theology under Fr. Ernest Kilzer OSB of the traditionalist school. That lucky break for me made all the difference. A good number of those who matriculated under Godfrey became relativist Catholics…as Godfrey himself proved to be-signing a dissent to Humanae Vitae and becoming an implacable enemy of John Paul II.
Godfrey gave them lessons in misapplication of the Fundamental Option while Ernie gave us the Fundamental Option straight. Here’s what the F-O is all about. Fundamental Option is a theory of morals that says each person gradually develops a basic orientation in his life of being either for or against God-the difference being this: You are for God if you’re life is fundamentally devoted to the service of others and against God if your life is essentially devoted to self-love and self-service. So far so good. It was reflected in Augustine’s theory that the human race is ultimately composed of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man (whose members love themselves even to the contempt of God).
Both Godfrey and Ernie agreed thus far. Where it gets into heresy is involving mortal sin. While I never took a class from Godfrey, I knew many of my classmates were spinning out from his class with a relativistic view of mortal sin which is all too prevalent today in the theories of Richard McBrien of Notre Dame and, to a popular mode, those of Andrew Greeley. Those of you who are authenticist Catholics like me remember that to qualify for having committed a mortal sin there are three conditions: grievous matter…sufficient reflection…and full consent of the will.
In 1975…long after we graduated…the Vatican issued a formal declaration, “Persona Humana” in which certain theories involving the Fundamental Option were condemned. “There are those,” the document stated, “who go so far as to affirm that mortal sin, which causes separation from God, only exists in the formal refusal directly opposed to God’s call or in that selfishness which completely and deliberately closes itself to the love of neighbor. They say that it is only then that there comes into play the `fundamental option,’ that is to say, the decision which totally commits the person and which is necessary if mortal sin is to exist.” In other words, implicit in the theory is that there can be serious sins such as murder or adultery because the actions are gravely wrong-but which do not constitute mortal sin which produces loss of sanctifying grace because…why? Because for mortal sin to be committed one must subjectively reject God.
This new, lax version of mortal sin is a heresy, the Vatican determined, because it frees one from the onus of mortal sin by simply attesting that he is not rejecting God.
You can see now how that concept is a fundamental sop of conscience to those in Congress and the legislatures who support abortion rights. They can evade responsibility by merely saying they love God. Whereas authenticists believe that by straight-out actions, sin is committed that deprives the sinner of the friendship of God. This explains the detour taken by so many of my friends from the circa `40s and beyond who maintain they are good Catholics but support programs and candidates who work the opposite side of the street.
Small wonder, then, that so many of my Saint John’s colleagues came back to our rooms after sessions with Godfrey whistling and in an “up” mood. They felt they could do whatever they wanted…in morality and sexual promiscuity…confident that they still love God.
That teaching…even in its current heretical dimension…lies at the nub of the difference between your average National Catholic Reporter reader and adherent and the rest of us.