Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 22--Fundamental Option and Pots and Pans, the Drama of Butter, and Minute Particulars

EVERY JUDGMENT MADE BY CONSCIENCE contains within it a universe of its own. The Church has always taught the sacred aspect of conscience in each and every one of its acts. The moral and metaphysical implications of even the smallest pecadillo has greater meaning and moment that the largest of purely physical or pre-moral evils. Hence Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman could scandalize the liberals and secularists and even the religiously insipid Anglicans of his day (and similarly insipid "Catholic" theologians of our day) when he wrote:

She [the Catholic Church] holds that it better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, though it harmed no one, or steal one poor farthing without excuse. She considers the action of this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in their respective spheres; she would rather save the soul of one single wild bandit of Calabria, or whining beggar of Palermo, than draw a hundred lines of railroad through the length of Italy, or carry out a sanitary reform, in its fullest details in every city in Sicily, except so far as these great national words tended to some spiritual good beyond them.*

Every act of conscience behind the least of any moral action is of great moment, of significant weight: The exercise of one's freedom to choose to do a particular act is "not only the choice for one or another particular action." It is, at the same time, "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. In man, the moral world and physical world meet, in each and every instance, even in the most mundane, particular, and concrete act.

It is true that some choices are more significant than others: the choice intentionally to seduce on best friend's wife, or to murder one's father to gain one's inheritance, or to disbelieve in God and to curse him, is more vicious than lying to one's wife about whether the dress she has chosen makes her look fat. Without question there are "certain choices which 'shape' a person's entire moral life, and which serve as bounds within which other particular everyday choices can be situated and allowed to develop." VS, 65. Some choices are obviously life changing.

And yet we must not forget that even small choices, small acts, remain significant. Life is played out for most of us in more humble ways, among the pucheros, the pots and pans of St. Theresa,** in St. Josemaria Escriva's "drama of the butter."*** The moral life is in the main composed of the "Minute Particulars" of William Blake's poem Jerusalem.
You accumulate Particulars, & murder by analyzing, that you
May take the aggregate:& you call the aggregate Moral Law:
And you call that swell'd & bloated Form a Minute Particular.
But General Forms have their vitality in Particulars: & every
Particular is a Man: a Divine Member of the Divine Jesus.
P. 91, ll.26-30 "He who would do good," says the poet William Blake, "must do it in Minute Particulars: general good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer." P.55,ll.60-62 "All broad & general principles belong to benevolence / Who protects Minute Particulars, every one in their own identity." P.43, ll.22-23. "[E]very Minute Particular," Blake therefore insists in the same poem, "is Holy." P.69, l. 42.†

Some moral theologians
--"scoundrel, hypocrites, and flatterers" all--
would make man an onion

The importance of "Minute Particulars" is precisely what John Paul II insists upon against those who would build the moral life of man upon what William Blake called the "general good," and upon what these theologians would call one's "fundamental freedom" or "fundamental option."††
According to these authors, the key role in the moral life is to be attributed to a "fundamental option," brought about by that fundamental freedom whereby the person makes an overall self-determination, not through a specific and conscious decision on the level of reflection, but in a "transcendental" and "athematic" way. 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" or symptoms.
VS, 65. These theologians would make man like an onion, composed of a bunch of layers, with the outward layers of one's concrete, particular, "categorical" or occasional activity (his "Minute Particulars") being less significant with respect to man's relationship with God than one's central core, where "fundamental," "transcendental," or "basic" decisions are made. Particular acts, therefore, at best of only partial importance, can never be outcome determinative. There is a difference, then, between choosing (or not choosing) Good, and choosing (or not choosing) any particular concrete good. While there may be some distinction to be made between some decisions and others, the problem results from making this distinction between general and particular into a separation between the general and the particular:

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 of particular "innerworldly" kinds of behavior: those, in other words, concerning man's relationship with himself, with others and with the material world.

VS, 65.

What happens, of course, when separateness is said to exist between general or fundamental dispositions and one's individualized, concrete and particularized acts, is that we end up with two disjoined spheres: two levels of morality. They have separated man into an innerwordly East and an exterior West, and "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."‡
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. 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.

What happens as a result of this claimed disjunction, this separation between the basic and the particular, is that the particular, concrete life becomes less significant in the realm of the moral enterprise, and notions of utilitarianism, consequentialism, or proportionalism creep in and govern this outward realm. The significance of any one act is spurned, and the existence of any absolute or exceptionless norms on the concrete or particularized level of activity is, in the main, rejected. At the extreme end of these theories, the particularized, concrete level becomes merely "physical" or "premoral," and thus is not to be assessed in the same manner as the "fundamental" realm, where morality really takes place.

John Paul II rejects this separation of one's fundamental choice from particular acts. While man is called to exercise a fundamental choice, that fundamental choice is expressed, in each and every instance, in particular acts.

*John Henry Newman, "Lecture VIII," Lectures on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Submitting to the Catholic Church (London: Burns & Lambert, 1850), 199-200.
**"Entended," said St. Theresa of Avila in her
Libro de Fundaciones, 5.8, "que si es en la cocina, entre los pucheros anda el Señor ayudándoos en lo interior y exterior." ("Understand that if one finds oneself in the kitchen, among the pots and pans walks the Lord, helping us in the interior and exterior life.")
***Josemaria Escriva, The Way, No. 205: "We were reading--you and I--the heroically ordinary life of that man of God. And we saw him struggle whole months and years (what an 'accounting' he kept in his particular examination of conscience!); one day at breakfast he would win, the next day he'd lose . . . 'I didn't take butter . . . I did take butter!' he would jot down. May we too--you and I--live our . . . 'drama' of the butter."
†William Blake, Jerusalem (London: A. H.Bullen, 1904) (E. R. D. MacLagan and A. G. B. Russell, eds.)
††In keeping with the encyclical's general nature, the Pope does not identify any specific author, and the theories or notions of "fundamental option," and "fundamental freedom" advanced among the moral theologians in the academic and pastoral worlds are both legion and subtle (or, in some cases, not so subtle). The general thrust of the "fundamental option" theories is to separate particular, occasional acts from one's more intimate being, so that ordinary, day-to-day choices--though they may not accord entirely with the Good--do not of themselves change one's fundamental direction, and thus do not separate the individual from God. Any individual act, even one that involves grave matter and free will, will not serve to separate from God, inasmuch as to separate oneself from God one has to go from individual, particular acts to the level of fundamental, predominant, or central commitment. This theory, of course, deprecates the importance of individual, particularized, concrete acts. Another form of "fundamental option" posits such a thing as "fundamental freedom" or "basic freedom" or "transcendental freedom" and it is the exercise of this "fundamental freedom," and not the day-to-day exercise of free choice, that implicates one's relationship with God. By separating "fundamental freedom" from particularized freedom these theologians also deprecate particular, concrete acts as important in the moral life. Advocates of such theories include Joseph Fuchs, John W. Glaser, Richard A. McCormick, Timothy E. O'Connell, Bernhard Häring, and, less directly perhaps, Karl Rahner.
‡Rudyard Kipling, "The Ballad of East and West."

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