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The Church's Teaching on Original Sin

General Audience — September 24, 1986

—    Death is a consequence of sin

Thanks to the previous catechesis of the present series, we have before our eyes, on the one hand, the analysis of the first sin in human history according to the description contained in Genesis 3; on the other, we have an ample view of what divine revelation teaches on the universality and hereditary nature of sin. This truth is constantly proposed, over and over again, by the Church's Magisterium, even in our own time. Here we must refer to the documents of Vatican II, especially to the Constitution Gaudium et Spes, and with a special mention of the post-synodal Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (l984).

The source of this teaching is above all the passage of the Book of Genesis, in which we see that man, tempted by the evil one ("when you eat of it...you will be like God, knowing good and evil" Gen 3:5), "abused his liberty, setting himself against God and seeking to attain his goal apart from God" (GS 13). Then "the eyes of both were opened" (that is, of the man and of the woman), "and they knew that they were naked" (Gen 3:7). When the Lord God "called the man and said to him: 'where are you?' he replied: 'I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself'" (Gen 3:9-10). This is a very significant reply. Man in the beginning (in the state of original justice) spoke to the Creator with friendship and confidence in the whole truth of his spiritual-corporeal being, created in God's image. But now he has lost the basis of that friendship and covenant. He has lost the grace of sharing in God's life—the good of belonging to him in the holiness of the original relationship of subordination and sonship. But sin has immediately made its presence felt in the existence and the whole comportment of the man and the woman—shame for their transgression, the consequent condition as sinners and therefore fear of God. Revelation and psychological analysis are united in this page of the Bible to express man's "state" after the fall.

1.  Death is a consequence of sin

We have seen another truth emerge from the books of the Old and New Testaments—a kind of "invasion" of sin in the history of humanity. Sin has become the common lot of man, his inheritance from his mother's womb. "In sin did my mother conceive me," exclaimed the Psalmist in a moment of existential anguish, in which repentance is coupled with the invocation of divine mercy (Ps 51). St. Paul frequently referred to this same anguishing experience, as we saw in the previous catechesis. He gave a theoretical formulation to this truth in the Letter to the Romans: "All are under the power of sin" (Rom 3:9). "Let every mouth be stopped, and let the whole world be held accountable to God" (Rom 3:19). "We were by nature children of wrath" (Eph 2:3). Biblical scholars comment that these are all allusions to human nature left to itself, without the help of grace. They refer to nature as it is reduced by the sin of our first parents, and thus to the condition of all their descendants and heirs.

The biblical texts on the universality and hereditary nature of sin lead us to examine more directly the Catholic teaching on original sin. It is as though sin is "congenital" in nature in the state in which everyone receives it at the moment of conception from one's parents.

It concerns a truth transmitted implicitly in the Church's teaching from the beginning. It became the object of a formal declaration of the Magisterium in the fifteenth Synod of Carthage in 418 and the Synod of Orange in 529, principally against the errors of Pelagius [1] . Later, during the period of the Reformation, the Council of Trent solemnly formulated this truth in 1546 (cf. DS 1510-1516). The Tridentine decree on original sin expresses this truth in the precise form in which it is the object of faith and of the Church's teaching. We can refer to this decree for the essential content of Catholic dogma on this point.

Our first parents (the decree says: Primum hominem Adam), in the earthly paradise (and therefore in the state of original justice and perfection) sinned gravely, by transgressing the commandment of God. Because of their sin they lost sanctifying grace; likewise they lost also the holiness and justice in which they were "constituted" from the beginning, and they drew down on themselves the anger of God. The consequence of this sin was death as we now know it. One must recall here the words of the Lord in Genesis 2:17: "Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." In the previous catecheses we spoke of the meaning of this prohibition. As a result of sin Satan was able to extend his "dominion" over man. The Tridentine decree speaks of "slavery under the dominion of him who has the power of death" (cf. DS 1511). Being under the "power" of Satan is described as "slavery."

It will be necessary to return to this aspect of the drama of the origins to examine the elements of "alienation" that sin brought with it. Meanwhile we note that the Tridentine decree refers to the "sin of Adam" inasmuch as it was our first parents' own personal sin (what the theologians call peccatum originale originans). But it does not fail to describe its fateful consequences in the history of the human race (the so-called peccatum originale originatum).

It is especially in regard to original sin in this second meaning that modern culture raises strong reservations. It cannot admit the idea of a hereditary sin, connected with the decision of a progenitor and not with that of the person concerned. It holds that such a view runs counter to the personalistic vision of man and to the demands which derive from full respect for his subjectivity.

However, the Church's teaching on original sin can be extremely valuable for modern people. Having rejected the data of faith in this matter, they can no longer understand the mysterious and distressing aspects of evil which they daily experience. They end up by wavering between a hasty and unjustified optimism and a radical pessimism bereft of hope.

In the next catechesis we shall pause to reflect on the message faith offers us on a theme so important for the individual and for the whole of humanity.

[1]   cf. DS 222-223; 371-372