Anwar al Awlaki and the Fundamental Option Print
Bishop Morlino's Column
Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009 -- 1:00 AM

Editor’s note: The following column is adapted from Bishop Robert C. Morlino’s staff catechesis on November 11.

If you’ve paid attention to the news in recent weeks, you may have heard the name Anwar al Awlaki. He is the former imam (which is the Muslim term for pastor) of a mosque in Fairfax County, Virginia, whose services and sermons were attended by Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood killer, and simultaneously, three of the 9-11 hijackers.

Awlaki, who now resides in Yemen, has articulated, as a pastor, a concept of conscience. This is one of our main words of interest as Catholics: “conscience.” Awlaki has said that Major Hasan, who killed 13 and wounded many others, is in very good conscience as a Muslim because it is good to prevent American service people from waging war in Islamic countries, however you do it. It is, Awlaki articulated, the Will of Allah, that faithful Muslims take such preventative measures against American or allied service people, because the good of the worldwide Islamic Caliphate requires it. The Caliphate, in general, refers to a huge Islamic State which is desired by many Islamic extremists.

At this point it is necessary to make an important distinction. Most Muslims are fine, peace-loving people. In my limited experience in the Middle East, most Islamic Arabs are very warm, hospitable people, with great senses of humor. And, as regards Muslims in general, it is necessary to note that even the word “Islam” suggests as part of its derivation the word “Salam,” which is “the fullness of peace.” What I speak of in regard to Awlaki is Islamic extremism. It is the extreme Islam of Osama bin Laden and others, certainly not of the majority, but it is very real — we cannot pretend it is not there.


According to Awlaki’s extreme Islamic concept of conscience then, one is in good conscience and is doing moral good in killing 13 innocent men and women in order to advance the cause of establishing a worldwide Islamic Caliphate. He is not saying that it is “tolerable” to undertake such actions, but that it is in good conscience and is morally good.

This then is the concept of conscience that Awlaki is formulating: If you have an overriding intention which you see as good, that overriding intention makes all of the means good. So, if something is necessary in order to accomplish this quasi-universal Caliphate, which is the good, willed by Allah, then whatever you have to do in order to accomplish that good, becomes good — whatever it is! The ultimate good, the overriding intention, justifies all the means to achieving it and makes them not only tolerable, but in good conscience and good in themselves.

Defining the ‘Fundamental Option’

The most interesting point of this for us as Catholics, and the reason I raise it for consideration, is that this erroneous concept that an overriding intention towards a good makes all the means good, is precisely what I, along with many of our priests, was taught in the seminary in moral theology. That which Awlaki is articulating is the very same theory that some Catholic moral theologians taught by “the Fundamental Option.” When I heard about Awlaki and what he taught, I laughed, thinking, “I was taught this in the ’70s and Awlaki is just getting around to it now!”

How does this concept of conscience look in terms of Catholic theology? One example might be a man who gets married and intends to have a really good marriage in Christ. A really good marriage in Christ, in the mind of this man, is that he should be at his best to give himself to his wife and his children everyday. In his mind, though, he believes that it really helps him to remain true to his fundamental intention, if, four or five times a year, he has an overnight affair. Such an affair, he believes, makes him feel more joyful in living out the unselfishness that he has to offer his family, and gives him energy to go about the task of being more present to his wife and kids.

In this situation, under the Fundamental Option, the overnight affairs are, at most, a venial sin, but they are no big deal; if the man believes that he should have affairs because it helps him to be more pleasant, happy, and unselfish at home, then this is no big deal. The only way that one could commit a “mortal sin” would be to reject the Fundamental Option.

This is clearly an example of the erroneous concept of conscience which was taught in Catholic seminaries and colleges in the ’70s and ’80s. This was taught when priests went to continuing education workshops. It is not the fault of those who were wrongly taught, but of those who authorized it.

The corrupting effects of a theory

What does this Fundamental Option do, from a Catholic point of view? In the end, it says, “what I have in my mind counts most when it comes to morals and when it comes to conscience.” This theory emphasizes, above all, what is in the mind of the individual and reduces to little significance the actions of the body. Under this concept, one can just about do anything with his/her body, as long as the right intention is affirmed by one’s mind.

The Scriptures say, “Charity overcomes a multitude of sin.” The Fundamental Option says, “whatever good I have in my mind overcomes a multitude of sin.” If what I do in the body is of lesser importance, and does not matter, and if actions of the body do not count, then the worth of the human body is demeaned. And as we can now clearly see this carried out in an extreme version of Islam (if you’re going to spread the Caliphate, you can kill the human body), so too can we see it in mistaken Catholic theology, saying if you have some overriding purpose in your life that is good and you get pregnant, you can take the life of the baby for the sake of the overriding good. Or perhaps, if some senior citizen is getting more and more helpless and in pain, and even says, “I’m too much of a burden, I just wish I could die,” then, rather than undertaking a truly Christian action of making that person feel that they are not a burden, but a treasure, we use this mistaken Christian theory of the fundamental option to put him/her out of one’s misery — because the body doesn’t matter —the only thing that matters is the intention.

And so, with the corrupting effect of this erroneous idea of conscience, it is no wonder that we have all forms of sexual immorality and all types of violence in our world. A growing rationalization is that, “if I’m really angry, it is okay to kill people or wound them.” This is not only the case with people like Major Hasan, but even with some of our high school and college students, who, when they’ve gotten really angry or disappointed, or really discouraged, have gone out and killed a number of people and themselves. That kind of violence is almost as nothing anymore — because of this utter devaluation of the body and the concept that all is justified by what is in one’s mind.

Subtly worked into our daily lives

And in a more subtle way, this theory can make itself seen in our daily lives. There are times when people go to Confession, and the priest might reply, “well, that’s not really a sin, because I know what a good person you are. I know what good intentions you have generally.” (And this is precisely why such a concept of conscience is so appealing to many, because if you have good intentions, there is almost no way to commit a mortal sin; because the good intentions wipe out the significance of actions in the body.)

So too has this idea of the Fundamental Option worked its way into the mind of many men and women, to the point that some now say, “no one can tell me that I’m not Catholic!” This means necessarily that “being Catholic,” means whatever the person thinks it does. Here we see the mistake that the mind and intentions of the person have been made into the source of truth.

It’s really funny — in the sense that it is sad — that back in the ’70s I was taught the very same thing that Awlaki is teaching in his own way, even as we speak. But, the world has so many ways to teach the mind-body split and it has so many motives for promoting it. This is something that good Catholics, good Muslims, and good people everywhere need to be aware of.

Thank you for reading this more-theoretical-than-usual column and thanks for all the good that you do. As we come close to Thanksgiving, know that I give thanks each day for all of you — for each of the men and women in this diocese and especially for our priests!

Praised be Jesus Christ!