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The Universality of Sin in Human History

General Audience — September 17, 1986

—    A radical change of life

We can summarize the content of the previous catechesis in the words of the Second Vatican Council: "Although he was made by God in a state of holiness, from the very onset of his history man abused his liberty...and sought to attain his goal apart from God" (GS 13). Essentially this analyzes the first sin in human history, which we have done on the basis of the third chapter of Genesis.

It was the sin of our first parents. But a sinful condition was connected with it which was passed on to all their descendants. This is called original sin. What does this mean? The term does not appear even once in Sacred Scripture. But against the background of the account in Genesis 3, the Bible describes in the subsequent chapters of Genesis, and also in other books, how sin "invaded" the whole world as a result of Adam's sin, by a kind of universal infection of all humanity.

Already in Genesis 4 we read what happened between the two elder sons of Adam and Eve. Cain killed his younger brother Abel (cf. Gen 4:3-15). We read in chapter six of the universal corruption resulting from sin: "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that the thoughts of his heart were only evil" (Gen 6:5). Later: "God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth" (Gen 6:12). In this context, the Book of Genesis does not hesitate to say: "The Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart" (Gen 6:6). Likewise in the same book we see, in the account of the flood at the time of Noah, the consequence of that universal corruption resulting from sin (cf. Gen 7-9). Genesis mentions also the building of the tower of Babel (cf. Gen 11:1-9), which resulted—contrary to the intention of the builders—in the dispersal of peoples and the confusion of languages. This shows that no external sign, and similarly no merely human agreement, can bring about union among men if it is not rooted in God. We must note that, in the course of history, sin manifests itself not only as an action clearly directed "against" God, but at times it is also an attempt to act "independently of God," as if God did not exist. It is a pretense to ignore him, to do without him, and to exalt man's power instead. This is presumptuous beyond all limits. In this sense the tower of Babel can also serve as a warning to the people of today. For this reason I mentioned it in the Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (13-15).

Already so clear in Genesis, the witness to the general sinfulness of humanity is found in various ways in other parts of the Bible. In every case this universal condition of sinfulness is placed in relationship with the fact that man turns his back on God. St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans is particularly eloquent on this subject: "Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless...because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.... Though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them" (Rom 1:28-31; 25-27; 32).

1.  A radical change of life

This precisely describes the "sinful situation" at the time of the Church's foundation, when St. Paul wrote and worked with the other apostles. Certainly many values could be appreciated in that world, but they were contaminated to a large extent by the multiple infiltrations of sin. Christianity faced up to that situation with courage and firmness. It succeeded in obtaining from its followers a radical change of life, the fruit of a conversion of heart, which later gave a characteristic stamp to the cultures and civilizations which were formed and developed under its influence. Even today large segments of the population enjoy its heritage, especially in certain nations.

A description similar to that in St. Paul's Letter to the Romans is found in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council. It is symptomatic of the times in which we live: "Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator" (GS 27).

This is not the moment to make a historical analysis or a statistical calculation to establish to what extent this conciliar text—among so many other denunciations by pastors of the Church, and also by Catholic and non-Catholic scholars and teachers—represents a description of the "sin situation" in the world of today. But it is certain that apart from the quantitative dimension, these facts sadly give evidence of that "infection" of human nature, as it appears in the Bible and is taught by the Church's Magisterium, as we shall see in the next catechesis.

For the moment, we shall make two observations. The first is that divine revelation and the Magisterium of the Church, its authentic interpreter, constantly and systematically speak of the presence and universality of sin in human history. The second is that this sinful situation, repeated from generation to generation, is perceptible "from outside" in history through the grave phenomena of moral sicknesses which are noticeable in personal and social life. But it becomes perhaps even more recognizable and striking if we direct our glance to the "interior" of man.

The same document of Vatican Council II says elsewhere: "What divine revelation makes known to us agrees with experience. Examining his heart, man finds that he has inclinations toward evil too, and is engulfed by manifold ills which cannot come from his good Creator. Often refusing to acknowledge God as his beginning, man has disrupted also his proper relationship to his own ultimate goal as well as his whole relationship toward himself and others and all created things" (GS 13).

These statements of the Church's Magisterium in our time contain not only the data of historical and spiritual experience, but also and above all a faithful reflection of the teaching repeated in many books of the Bible, beginning with that description in Genesis 3, which we have previously analyzed as a witness to the first sin in man's history on the earth. Here we shall recall only the anguished queries of Job: "Can mortal man be righteous before God? Can a man be pure before his maker?" (Job 4:17). "Who can bring clean things out of unclean?" (Job 4:4). "What is man, that he can be clean? Or he that is born of a woman, that he can be righteous?" (Job 15:14). There are other similar questions in the Book of Proverbs: "Who can say, 'I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?'" (Prov 20:9).

In the Psalms the same cry rings out: "Enter not [O God] into judgment with your servant; for no man living is righteous before you" (Ps 143:2). "The wicked go astray from the womb; they err from their birth, speaking lies" (Ps 58:3). "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Ps 51:5).

All these texts indicate a continuity of sentiment and thought in the Old Testament, and at least they pose the difficult problem of the universal situation of sin.

Sacred Scripture impels us to seek the root of sin in the interior of the human person, in his conscience, in his heart. This thought seems to be expressed in Psalm 51, which says that man was "conceived" in sin and cries out to God: "Create in me a clean heart, O God" (Ps 51:10). The Bible frequently states both the universality of sin and its hereditary character, which make it in a certain sense "congenital" in human nature. Thus in Psalm 14: "They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one" (Ps 14:3).

Jesus' words on the "hardness of hearts" can be understood in this biblical context (cf. Mt 19:8). St. Paul conceived this "hardness of heart" principally as a moral weakness, rather, as a kind of incapacity to do good. This is what he said: "I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate..." (Rom 7:14-15). "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it..." (Rom 7:18). "When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand" (Rom 7:21). These words are linked by an interesting analogy to those of the pagan poet: Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor (I see what is better and I approve, but I do what is worse) (cf. Ovid, Metamorph., 7, 20). One of the more disconcerting aspects of human experience emerges in both cases (but also in so many others of spirituality and in the whole field of literature). The revelation of original sin throws some light on these.

The Church's teaching in our time, expressed in a particular way by the Second Vatican Council, reflects precisely this revealed truth when it speaks of the "world...created and sustained by its Maker's love...fallen indeed into the bondage of sin" (GS 2). In the same Pastoral Constitution we read: "For a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested. Caught in this conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good, nor can he achieve his own integrity without great efforts and the help of God's grace" (GS 37).