Original Sin

by Fr Alvin Kimel


Do Orthodoxy and Catholicism significantly disagree on original sin? Both agree that by his sin and disobedience Adam broke fellowship with God and introduced into the world chaos, disharmony, corruption, evil, and death. But Orthodoxy dissents from Catholicism, we are told, at one crucial point: Orthodoxy does not teach that Adam’s heirs inherit the guilt of Adam or even a condition of “sinfulness”; rather Adam’s heirs inherit mortality, which is understood as the “cause” of all subsequent human disobedience. John Meyendorff elaborates (Byzantine Theology [1974]):

Now, in Greek patristic thought, only this free, personal mind can commit sin and incur the concomitant “guilt”—a point made particularly clear by Maximus the Confessor in his distinction between “natural will” and “gnomic will.” Human nature as God’s creature always exercises its dynamic properties (which together constitute the “natural will”—a created dynamism) in accordance with the divine will, which creates it. But when the human person, or hypostasis, by rebelling against both God and nature misuses its freedom, it can distort the “natural will” and thus corrupt nature itself. It is able to do so because it possesses freedom, or “gnomic will,” which is capable of orienting man toward the good and of “imitating God” (”God alone is good by nature,” writes Maximus, “and only God’s imitator is good by his gnome“); it is also capable of sin because “our salvation depends on our will.” But sin is always a personal act and never an act of nature. Patriarch Photius even goes so far as to say, referring to Western doctrines, that the belief in a “sin of nature” is a heresy.

From these basic ideas about the personal character of sin, it is evident that the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God could be conceived only as their personal sin; there would be no place, then, in such an anthropology for the concept of inherited guilt, or for a “sin of nature,” although it admits that human nature incurs the consequences of Adam’s sin.

The Greek patristic understanding of man never denies the unity of mankind or replaces it with a radical individualism. The Pauline doctrine of the two Adams (”As in Adam all men die, so also in Christ all are brought to life” [1 Co 15:22]) as well as the Platonic concept of the ideal man leads Gregory of Nyssa to understand Genesis 1:27—”God created man in His own image”—to refer to the creation of mankind as a whole. It is obvious therefore that the sin of Adam must also be related to all men, just as salvation brought by Christ is salvation for all mankind; but neither original sin nor salvation can be realized in an individual’s life without involving his personal and free responsibility.

The scriptural text, which played a decisive role in the polemics between Augustine and the Pelagians, is found in Romans 5:12 where Paul speaking of Adam writes, “As sin came into the world through one man and through sin and death, so death spreads to all men because all men have sinned [eph ho pantes hemarton]” In this passage there is a major issue of translation. The last four Greek words were translated in Latin as in quo omnes peccaverunt (”in whom [i.e., in Adam] all men have sinned”), and this translation was used in the West to justify the doctrine of guilt inherited from Adam and spread to his descendants. But such a meaning cannot be drawn from the original Greek—the text read, of course, by the Byzantines. The form eph ho—a contraction of epi with the relative pronoun ho—can be translated as “because,” a meaning accepted by most modern scholars of all confessional backgrounds. Such a translation renders Paul’s thought to mean that death, which is “the wages of sin” (Rm 6:23) for Adam, is also the punishment applied to those who like him sin. It presupposed a cosmic significance of the sin of Adam, but did not say that his descendants are “guilty” as he was unless they also sinned as he did.

A number of Byzantine authors, including Photius, understood the eph ho to mean “because” and saw nothing in the Pauline text beyond a moral similarity between Adam and other sinners in death being the normal retribution for sin. But there is also the consensus of the majority of Eastern Fathers, who interpret Romans 5:12 in close connection with 1 Corinthians 15:22—between Adam and his descendants there is a solidarity in death just as there is a solidarity in life between the risen Lord and the baptized. This interpretation comes obviously from the literal, grammatical meaning of Romans 5:12. Eph ho, if it means “because,” is a neuter pronoun; but it can also be masculine referring to the immediately preceding substantive thanatos (”death”). The sentence then may have a meaning, which seems improbable to a reader trained in Augustine, but which is indeed the meaning which most Greek Fathers accepted: “As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men; and because of death, all men have sinned …”

Mortality, or “corruption,” or simply death (understood in a personalized sense), has indeed been viewed since Christian antiquity as a cosmic disease, which holds humanity under its sway, both spiritually and physically, and is controlled by the one who is “the murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44). It is this death, which makes sin inevitable and in this sense “corrupts” nature. (pp. 143-145)

Meyendorff reiterates this difference between East and West in his brief discussion of the Immaculate Conception. “Byzantine homiletic and hymnographical texts,” he writes, “often praise the Virgin as ‘fully prepared,’ ‘cleansed,’ and ’sanctified.’ But these texts were to be understood in the context of the doctrine of original sin, which prevailed in the East: the inheritance from Adam was mortality, not guilt, and there was never any doubt among Byzantine theologians that Mary was indeed a mortal being.” He even goes so far as to suggest that “the Mariological piety of the Byzantines would probably have led them to accept the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary as it has been defined in 1854 if only they shared the Western doctrine of original sin” (pp. 147-148).

I distinctly remember reading Myendorff’s discussion of original sin many years ago while I was still an Anglican and wondering whether Fr John had accurately stated the Western understanding. I knew that I did not and had never understood original sin as a sharing in the guilt of Adam; but my theology at the time was pretty eclectic and my knowledge of authoritative Roman Catholic teaching limited. And the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was certainly well beyond my sympathies.

So what does the Catholic Church teach about original sin? Does Meyendorff accurately represent the teaching of Catholicism?

We must first note that Catholic theologians have said many things about original sin over the past two thousand years, not all of which faithfully, adequately, or fully represents the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church. No single theologian, no matter how influential, enjoys infallible authority. The Catholic Church refuses to exclusively define herself by the teaching of St Augustine or St Thomas Aquinas or even by “Western” theological reflection. Her theologians include Ambrose and Gregory Nyssen, Augustine and Cyril of Alexandria, Anselm and Maximus the Confessor, Bonaventure and Symeon the New Theologian, Thomas Aquinas and Gregory Palamas. (I know that the inclusion of Gregory Palamas in this list is controversial, but given that he is celebrated as a saint by Eastern Catholics and honored as a true theologian, I think his inclusion is more than justified.) The Catholic Church insists on being truly catholic and thus strives to transcend one-sided and deficient formulations of divine revelation. She insists on breathing, as Pope John Paul II so memorably expressed it, “with both lungs.”

Fortunately, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ordered and approved by the Pope, devotes several pages to a discussion of the creation and fall of man. The catechism tells us that man was created in the image of God and “established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him” (374). This state of friendship and harmony is called “original holiness and justice.”

But man let trust die in his heart and disobeyed the command of God. He “preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good” (398). Consequently, humanity immediately lost the grace of original holiness. The catechism describes the consequences of this fall:

The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”, for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history. (400)

All men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as St. Paul affirms: “By one man’s disobedience many (that is, all men) were made sinners”: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” The Apostle contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of salvation in Christ. “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.” (402)

So far so good. Is there anything in this presentation to which an Eastern Orthodox theologian would strongly object? One even notes the adoption by the Catechism of the Greek text for Rom 5:12: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” But the passage strongly intimates mankind’s Adamic solidarity: “all men are implicated in Adam’s sin.” Perhaps here we finally arrive at the dreaded Augustinian assertion of inherited guilt, yet the Catechism explicitly and decisively qualifies such an assertion:

Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the “death of the soul”. Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin.

How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam “as one body of one man”. By this “unity of the human race” all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed”—a state and not an act.

Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin—an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence”. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle. (403-405)

The Catechism’s presentation of original sin is open to many legitimate catholic interpretations. The dogma excludes the Pelagian reduction of original sin to “the influence of Adam’s fault to bad example,” on the one hand, and the Reformation exaggeration of original sin as the radical perversion of human nature and destruction of human freedom (406), on the other. Between these two boundaries lies the mystery of human iniquity and the fall of man. In the tradition of St Thomas Aquinas, the Catechism identifies the essential character of original sin as the loss of original holiness and justice: man is born into a state of spiritual death. Not only is every human being born into a world dominated by oppression, violence, and hatred; but he is also born into a condition of profound alienation from his creator. The Holy Spirit does not indwell his soul, as originally intended by God. Fallen man is thus deprived of sanctifying grace. His nature is wounded. This is the sin bequeathed to humanity by Adam. This original sin is properly understood as a condition and state, not as personal act: it “does not have the character of a personal fault.” The Catholic Church thus agrees with Orthodox theologians who insist that no person may be deemed morally culpable for a sin he did not personally commit. Individuals are not condemned by God because of Adam’s disobedience. In the words of Pope Pius IX: “God in His supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault” (Quanto conficiamur moerore [1863]). All human beings enjoy solidarity with Adam and share in the consequences of his disobedience. All are born “in Adam.” But we inherit not his personal guilt but his corrupted nature and separation from the divine life. John Paul II elaborates:

Therefore original sin is transmitted by way of natural generation. This conviction of the Church is indicated also by the practice of infant baptism, to which the [Tridentine] conciliar decree refers. Newborn infants are incapable of committing personal sin, yet in accordance with the Church’s centuries-old tradition, they are baptized shortly after birth for the remission of sin. The decree states: “They are truly baptized for the remission of sin, so that what they contracted in generation may be cleansed by regeneration” (DS 1514).

In this context it is evident that original sin in Adam’s descendants does not have the character of personal guilt. It is the privation of sanctifying grace in a nature which has been diverted from its supernatural end through the fault of the first parents. It is a “sin of nature,” only analogically comparable to “personal sin.” In the state of original justice, before sin, sanctifying grace was like a supernatural “endowment” of human nature. The loss of grace is contained in the inner “logic” of sin, which is a rejection of the will of God, who bestows this gift. Sanctifying grace has ceased to constitute the supernatural enrichment of that nature which the first parents passed on to all their descendants in the state in which it existed when human generation began. Therefore man is conceived and born without sanctifying grace. It is precisely this “initial state” of man, linked to his origin, that constitutes the essence of original sin as a legacy (peccatum originale originatum, as it is usually called).

Western Catholic theologians typically employ the terms sin, stain of sin, guilt, punishment, and penalty to describe the condition of fallen man. Following the ritual practice of the Church, they even speak of infants and small children being baptized for the “remission of their sins.” But the Catholic Church is clear that this usage is to be interpreted figuratively, not literally. The driving concern here is the universality of salvation in the New Adam and the necessity of Holy Baptism. Jesus is the savior of all humanity, infants and adults. All need to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit and incorporated into the glorified human nature of the eternal Son of God; all are summoned to the waters of baptism. Apart from this new act of grace, whether ministered sacramentally or extra-sacramentally, none can be saved.

Again I ask, Is there anything in this presentation to which an Eastern Orthodox theologian would strongly object? I acknowledge that the language of sanctifying grace is alien to Orthodox reflection. The notions of sanctifying grace, created grace, and habitual grace are peculiar to late medieval Western reflection. The concern here has been to understand the impact of God’s gratuitous self-communication on the human being. But the Catholic Church can hardly insist that all theology must think in scholastic categories and replicate the theology of Thomas Aquinas or Robert Bellarmine, especially when so many of her own theologians are thinking the faith outside the scholastic box. Consider, for example, the presentation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception by Karl Rahner:

The Immaculate Conception means that Mary possessed grace from the beginning. What does it signify, though, to say that someone has sanctifying grace? This dry technical term of theology makes it sound as though some thing were meant. Yet ultimately sanctifying grace and its possession do not signify any thing, not even merely some sublime, mysterious condition of our souls, lying beyond the world of our personal experience and only believed in a remote, theoretical way. Sanctifying grace, fundamentally, means God himself, his communications to created spirits, the gift which is God himself. Grace is light, love, receptive access of a human being’s life as a spiritual person to the infinite expenses of the Godhead. Grace means freedom, strength, a pledge of eternal life, the predominant influence of the Holy Spirit in the depths of the soul, adoptive sonship and an eternal inheritance. (Mary, Mother of the Lord [1963], p. 48)

Like us, Mary is born into a sinful world and must engage in spiritual battle against Satan and the principalities and powers. Like us, Mary is mortal and lives in the knowledge of her mortality. Yet she differs from us in one crucial respect: from the very first moment she came into existence in her mother’s womb she was indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thus enjoyed intimate, enduring communion with God. In this sense, the blessed Virgin Mother was, by the grace of God, free from sin, original and actual. Do Orthodox Christians truly desire to deny this? If the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is reformulated in positive terms, as the assertion of Mary’s possession of the Holy Spirit from conception, does the doctrine then become acceptable to the East? And if Catholics and Orthodox can agree on the original purity of the Theotokos, do they not in fact essentially agree on original sin?

12 April 2007


According to the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church, original sin is the privation of sanctifying grace. All human beings are born into a state of alienation from God and therefore a state of alienation from their proper end. Created for eternal communion with God yet lacking the supernatural resources to fulfill our lives—this is the tragedy and suffering of original sin. We cannot achieve theosis in and by ourselves. We cannot insert ourselves into the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In my article “The Originality of Original Sin,” I criticized Orthodox caricatures of the Latin doctrine of original sin as the claim that God holds each human being personally culpable for the sin of Adam—i.e., inherited guilt. Orthodox theologians rightly object to the suggestion that God would condemn any individual for an act he did not freely commit. The Magisterium of the Catholic Church agrees. As Pope Pius IX declared in 1863: “God in His supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault.” This principle was recognized at least as early as St Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas notes that original sin cannot be said to be identical to “inheriting a defect and being guilty of it, since guilt requires voluntariness. Even if the soul itself were passed on genetically, since the infection of a child’s soul is not willed by the child, it cannot be guilty or deserve punishment. As Aristotle says, we don’t blame people for being born blind” (ST I.2.81.1). Hence we must distinguish between the various sins committed by persons and for which persons are morally culpable and that unique, original “sin of human nature, not a sin of this or that person (except insofar as that person is receiving his nature from our first parent. We were by nature inheritors of God’s wrath” (ST I.2.81.1).

To make sense of this we must recognize that words such as sin, guilt, fault, and punishment, words normally used to speak of the moral actions of human persons, are being used analogically, not univocally, when applied to man in his fallen nature. The Catholic Church does not teach that each human being is personally responsible for the disobedience of Adam and thus condemned by the holy God. This would violate the very nature of God as revealed to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet since St Augustine the Latin tradition, though admittedly with much greater nuance, has continued to speak of the transmission of guilt to the descendants of Adam. In the 16th century the Council of Trent declared, “If any one denies, that, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted … let him be anathema” (Decree on Original Sin, canon 5). The canon is directed against Lutheran imputational construals of the remission of original sin in Holy Baptism and should not be understood as dogmatizing a specific view of original sin, of which several were represented at the council. The phrase “guilt of original sin” is not unpacked for us, and there is a question as to precisely what reatum, commonly translated into English as “guilt,” actually means. Here, as is often the case when interpreting any specific dogma, it is easier to speak of the errors excluded. According to Sforza Cardinal Pallavicini, the papal legates at the council even exhorted the assembled fathers that they should not attempt to decide on the nature of original sin itself, because Scripture and tradition are silent upon the matter. The holy synod, they told them, was convoked not to pronounce opinions but condemn errors! But if the Church understood by this time the difference between personal sin and natural sin, as she clearly did, why then continue to speak of guilt? What is the logic that underlies this usage? How can I be judged guilty, if even metaphorically, of a sin I did not commit, of a nature that I have inherited? I can here only offer some tentative reflections and invite response from those who know Catholic theology far better than I.

The decisive principle guiding all reflection on original sin is the necessity of Holy Baptism. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus: outside the Church there is no salvation. Baptism saves because it effects, by the power of God, incorporation into the Church and therefore into Jesus Christ and therefore into the Holy Trinity. Against the Pelagians, St Augustine invoked the creedal confession of baptism for the remission of sins, noting that the Church baptizes even infants:

By this grace baptized infants too are ingrafted into his [Christ’s] body, infants who certainly are not yet able to imitate anyone. Christ, in whom all are made alive … gives also the most hidden grace of his Spirit to believers, grace which he secretly infuses even into infants. … It is an excellent thing that the Punic [North African] Christians call baptism salvation and the sacrament of Christ’s Body nothing else than life. Whence does this derive, except from an ancient and, as I suppose, apostolic tradition, by which the Churches of Christ hold inherently that without baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal? This is the witness of Scripture too. … If anyone wonders why children born of the baptized should themselves be baptized, let him attend briefly to this. … The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration. (Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:9:10; 1:24:34; 2:27:43 [A.D. 412])

Given this conviction, it is necessary to reconcile the mercy of God with the apparent nonsalvation of the unbaptized and especially of unbaptized infants, who are innocent of personal sin. If unbaptized infants are condemned to eternal separation from God, then they must be justly condemned. It may seem obvious to most of us today that the God and Father of Jesus Christ will not allow the absence of baptism to block his salvific will; but it was not at all obvious to the patristic and medieval doctors of the Church (see limbo). They could not yet envision the possibility that children who die without baptism might yet be regenerated and saved by baptism of desire, the desire of God and his saints.

The concern to establish the justice of God underlies Western reflection on original sin in a second way: Is God guilty of injustice in withdrawing sanctifying grace or the Holy Spirit from the descendants of Adam? How can it be just that I should be born into a state of spiritual death, when I haven’t done anything to deserve this? Since God cannot be accused of acting injustly, then somehow the “punishment” of this present life must be just. As St Bonaventure writes:

The first Principle acts by His own power, by His own law, and for Himself as an end. He must then be utterly good and righteous and hence utterly kind and just. That is why all the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth, meaning justice. If God had created man wretched from the very beginning, that would have been neither kind nor just, for He would have imposed great mercies upon His handiwork in the absence of sin. Nor would Divine Providence have governed us with kindness and justice had it afflicted us or permitted us to be afflicted with these same miseries in the absence of sin. Now, it is absolutely certain that the first Principle is utterly righteous and merciful both in creating and governing. It follows, then, by necessity that in the beginning He created mankind free from any sin or misery; and it also follows that, in governing mankind, He can cannot permit any misery to exist in us except as a punishment of sin. But it is also absolutely certain that we are burdened from the time of our birth with the penalty of countless miseries: hence it is just as certain that, by natural birth, we are all children of wrath, deprived of the righteousness of original justice. That privation is called original sin (Breviloquium III.5.3).

Things are not as they should be. We were created to enjoy eternal friendship and communion with God, yet we are born into a state of separation and alienation from God; we inherit a fallen nature and experience suffering, pain, disorder of body and soul, and death. This is not how it should be. This is not God’s original intent for us. Something is profoundly wrong with us, not by our moral choice but by inheritance. Yet God has not dealt with us unjustly. We are guilty, even before we have freely chosen to sin. If this is not so, we can explain neither the necessity of Holy Baptism nor the suffering and death of innocent children. Again Bonaventure: “All who descend from the seed of Adam have a nature marred not only by punishment, but by guilt” (quoted in Möhler, Symbolism, p. 48).

The moral language here is being stretched and pulled. We misinterpret it if we do not recognize its analogical nature. Hence we find ourselves, for example, using the strange expression “sin of nature,” which, as John Paul II notes, “is only analogically comparable to ‘personal sin.'” “Original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants,” the Catechism assures us, yet nevertheless we are “guilty”—not personally but impersonally, not by choices and actions but by nature. Karl Rahner elaborates:

The Council of Trent defined (with the Reformers) a real inward original sin in all (except Mary), which is caused by Adam’s sin, is really effaced by justification and (against the Reformers) does not consist in concupiscence, since this persists in the justified, but in the lack of original righteousness (justice) and holiness, which the Council regarded as constituted by the grace of justification as interior and habitual. Post-Tridentine theology developed various theories as to why the factual lack of this grace in us, as descendants of Adam, is not simply a consequence of sin, merely negative absence, but is something in us which ought not to be, or theories why it would be possible to impute the sin of Adam to us. For a long time now theology has taught and emphasized the merely analogous similarity between original sin and personal sin, although in systematic theology this recognition has not always been sufficiently maintained.

Original sin is certainly a mystery which is not to be rationalistically determined. We must inquire, however, what objectively and epistemologically is the real ground of this mystery. Its nature need not consist in an unintelligible imputation of the sinful act of the first man, nor in “collective guilt”, since both of these lead to contradictions and are not required by the dogma of original sin. The genuine ground of this mystery lies in the fact that sanctifying grace is a mystery, because it is the self-communication of the essentially holy God. This self-communication of the God who alone is essentially (ontologically) holy is, as grace, antecedent to the free decision of a creature who is ambivalent and therefore not holy by his very essence. By it, therefore, there is a holiness of man which is antecedent to the moral goodness (“holiness”) of the free decision, and (where it is accepted in freedom) confers on this decision and the condition that ensues from it a holy quality which it does not possess of itself. A lack which ought not to exist of a “holiness” which is antecedent to moral decision (the lack of endowment with the holy Pneuma of God) therefore posits a state of unholiness which is antecedent to the individual’s moral decision. This assumes that it is possible to make it intelligible how the divine obligation of this holiness is conceivable in respect of the individual without its becoming a directly moral demand on the individual, which would be meaningless if addressed to a person who inculpably cannot fulfil it. The fact that the mystery of original sin has its ground in the mystery of the bestowal of sanctifying grace also explains why the actual doctrine of original sin only appears in Scripture when the divinization of man by the Pneuma of God is explicitly grasped. …

The fundamental conviction of Christianity about redemption and grace is that all men are offered divinizing and forgiving grace but in such a way that it is given to all only through Christ, and not simply because they are human beings or members of mankind (if this is thought of without Christ) and it is given to all as forgiving sins. This is already implied by Jesus’ own interpretation of himself and his expiatory death “for all”. The NT simply expounds this, but does not substantially expand it.

This means that a man lacks God’s sanctifying Pneuma (as offered and accepted), precisely because he is a man and member of the human race. In regard to man, however, the will of God is that man should have the divinizing Pneuma. (This will is an element of God’s will to a creation divinized by his self-communication.) And that will (as the actual concrete will) is antecedent even to God’s moral demand on the freedom of the individual. Consequently if the divinizing Pneuma is not there, this is only conceivable because of guilt freely incurred (otherwise its absence would be unintelligible, in view of God’s will). Yet the absence is contrary to God’s will, even where the responsibility of the individual free being is not in question (because he is not culpably responsible for its absence). This lack which in this sense ought not to exist, of a divinizing holy grace antecedent to personal decision, has therefore in an analogous sense the character of sin. It is a state which ought not to be (and ought not to have been). (This in itself would have been true of a mere consequence of sin opposed to the creative will as such.) It is also a state in which ontological holiness is lacking, antecedent to personal decision, but which in contra-distinction to the other consequences of sin which cannot deprive their subject of holiness. This deprivation in the descendants of the first man also of course presupposes that it is brought about by guilt, since it is something that ought not to be. In that case it can exist as a consequence of sin contrary to God’s creative will. (Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi [1975], pp. 1150, 1152)

This is a long and somewhat abstruse passage from Rahner, but it is well worth our attention. Rahner makes clear that when the Catholic Church speaks of sanctifying grace, she is ultimately speaking of God’s personal self-communication to humanity. It was God’s intent from the beginning that he should indwell human beings and share with them the love and grace of divine life. Yet because of the disobedience of Adam, humanity now finds itself deprived in a real sense of God’s Spirit—with disastrous consequences for itself and the world. We are born into a state of disunity, disorder, and rebellion. Our souls are dead. God has destined us for sanctity, theosis, the beatific vision, eternal life with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; yet we lack the resources, grace and power to achieve this end. We are born in a state of sin and guilt, into an existential movement away from God. We are helpless before our supernatural destiny and the moral demands made upon us. This is not the life God intended for us. It is not the way it should be.

All of this is, I believe, what the language of original guilt is intended to bespeak. It is easily misunderstood, which is no doubt the reason why the language is avoided today in catechetical presentations of man’s fallen state. There are other ways to speak of the brokenness and disorder of the world and our incapacity to achieve the life God wills for us. But whatever the words, the terrible reality must be stated.

19 April 2007


Discourse about the doctrine of original sin often quickly moves into mythology (was there really a garden?) or theological abstruseness (what really is sanctifying grace?). For this reason many contemporary theologians have turned to personalist and existentialist language to speak of that sin which we receive from our origin in the world. In his book ‘In the Beginning …’ Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger suggests that to understand original sin we must first understand the nature of human personhood. Human beings are essentially relational. “We receive our life,” he writes, “not only at the moment of birth but every day from without—from others who are not ourselves but who nonetheless somehow pertain to us. Human beings have their selves not only in themselves but also outside of themselves: they live in those whom they love and in those who love them and to whom they are ‘present.’ Human beings are relational, and they possess their lives—themselves—only by way of relationship. I alone am not myself, but only in and with you am I myself” (p. 72). Sin is the destruction of human relationality. The sinner asserts himself against others, against creation, against his divine creator. He seeks to establish an autonomy that denies dependence and mutuality. By attacking the relationships that constitute human being, sin damages and alters the world. And it is into this damaged, disordered world every human being is born:

Every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage. At the very moment that a person begins human existence, which is a good, he or she is confronted by a sin-damaged world. Each of us enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt. Consequently each person is, from the start, damaged in relationships and does not engage in them as he or she ought. Sin pursues the human being, and he or she capitulates to it.

But from this it is also clear that human beings alone cannot save themselves. Their innate error is precisely that they want to do this by themselves. We can only be saved—that is, be free and true—when we stop wanting to be God and when we renounce the madness of autonomy and self-sufficiency. We can only be saved—that is, become ourselves—when we engage in the proper relationship. But our interpersonal relationships occur in the context of our utter creatureliness, and it is there that the damage lies. Since the relationship with creation has been damaged, only the Creator himself can be our savior. We can be saved only when he from whom we have cut ourselves off takes the initiative with us and stretches out his hand to us. Only being loved is being saved, and only God’s love can purify damaged human love and radically reestablish the network of relationships that have suffered from alienation. (pp. 73-74)

Perhaps we might say that original sin is dis-orientation: we are conceived into a state oriented away from God and against God, oriented toward self and autonomy. By our origin in the world we are immediately caught up into a spirit and energy of hatred, violence, egotism, greed, and defiance. We find ourselves enslaved to Satan before we even had the opportunity to enlist in his service. Our disorientation begins even in the womb, in the wounded relationship between mother and fetus, mother and the world, mother and God. At no point of human existence can one identify a moment and say “Here the human person is innocent; here the human person is whole and untouched by the power of sin and death.” The condition of alienation, disorder, and bondage begins at conception and only deepens as the human being matures into personal responsibility. For each of us the inherited condition of disorientation inevitably expresses itself in rebellion against God and exploitation of neighbor.

Jesus Christ undoes the original sin of Adam by reversing it. Jesus accepts utter dependence upon his heavenly Father. His sonship is relational. “I do nothing on my own authority,” he declares (John 8:28). He submits himself to the holy transcendence and becomes a slave. On the cross he freely offers himself to God and to humanity:

Thus Christ is the new Adam, with whom humankind begins anew. The Son, who is by nature relationship and relatedness, reestablishes relationships. His arms, spread out on the cross, are an open invitation to relationship, which is continually offered to us. The cross, the place of his obedience, is the true tree of life. Christ is the antitype of the serpent, as is indicated in John 3:14. From this tree there comes not the word of temptation but that of redeeming love, the word of obedience, which an obedient God himself used, thus offering us his obedience as a context for freedom. The cross is the tree of life, now become approachable. By his passion Christ, as it were, removed the fiery sword, passed through the fire, and erected the cross as the true pole of the earth, by which it is itself once more set aright. Therefore the Eucharist, as the presence of the cross, is the abiding tree of life, which is ever in our midst and ever invites us to take the fruit of the tree of life. (p. 76)

The Church has always taught that Holy Baptism removes the curse of original sin, but how? Ratzinger does not answer this question in this book, but I will hazard an answer for him: Holy Baptism cures original sin by incorporating us into the redeemed network of relationality that is the Church, the mystical body of the glorified Christ.

I do not know whether Ratzinger’s personalist construal provides a fully adequate explanation of original sin; but I am persuaded of its preachability in the modern context. It grounds the doctrine in the sordid, brutal realities of human existence. We come into the world as sinners; we are born children of wrath. Only God can save us. Only God can heal our souls and restore us to himself and to the world.

18 April 2007


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32 other followers

%d bloggers like this: