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Consequences of Original Sin for All Humanity

General Audience — October 1, 1986

—    Adam's sin transmitted by generation
—    Reference to the mystery of redemption

The Council of Trent solemnly expressed the Church's faith concerning original sin. In the previous catechesis we considered that Council's teaching in regard to the personal sin of our first parents. Now we wish to reflect on what the Council said about the consequences of that sin for humanity.

In this regard the Tridentine decree states first of all:

Adam's sin has passed to all his descendants, that is, to all men and women as descendants of our first parents, and their heirs, in human nature already deprived of God's friendship.

The Tridentine decree (cf. DS 1512) explicitly states that Adam's sin tainted not only himself but also all his descendants. Adam forfeited original justice and holiness not only for himself, but also "for us" (nobis etiam).

Therefore he transmitted to the whole human race not only bodily death and other penalties (consequences of sin), but also sin itself as the death of the soul (peccatum quod mors est animae).

Here the Council of Trent uses an observation of St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans. The Synod of Carthage had already referred to it, repeating a teaching already widespread in the Church.

1.  Adam's sin transmitted by generation

In a modern translation the Pauline text reads as follows: "Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all men sinned" (Rom 5:12). In the original Greek we read: eph o pantes emarton, an expression which was translated in the old Latin Vulgate as: in quo omnes peccaverunt, "in whom (a single man) all sinned." But what the Vulgate translates as "in whom," from the very beginning the Greeks clearly understood in the sense of "because" or "inasmuch." This sense is now generally accepted by modern translations. However, this diversity of interpretations of the expression eph o does not change the basic truth in St. Paul's text, namely, that Adam's sin (the sin of our first parents) had consequences for all humanity. Moreover, in the same chapter of the Letter to the Romans the Apostle wrote: "By one man's disobedience all became sinners" (Rom 5:19), and in the preceding verse: "One man's trespass led to condemnation for all men" (Rom 5:18). St. Paul connects the sinful situation of all humanity with the fault of Adam.

The Church's Magisterium refers to these statements of St. Paul just quoted, which enlighten our faith on the consequences of Adam's sin for all humanity. Catholic exegetes and theologians will always be guided by this teaching in evaluating, with the wisdom of faith, the explanations offered by science about the origins of the human race.

In particular, the words of Pope Paul VI to a symposium of theologians and scientists are valid and a stimulus for further research in this regard: "It is evident that the explanations of original sin given by some modern authors will appear to you as irreconcilable with genuine Catholic teaching. Such authors, starting from the unproved premise of polygenism, deny more or less clearly that the sin from which such a mass of evils has derived in humanity, was, above all, the disobedience of Adam 'the first man,' figure of that future one, which occurred at the beginning of history" [1] .

The Tridentine decree contains another statement: Adam's sin is transmitted to all his descendants by generation and not merely by way of bad example. The decree states: "This sin of Adam, which by origin is unique and transmitted by generation and not by way of imitation, is present in all as proper to each" (DS 1513).

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 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).

2.  Reference to the mystery of redemption

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).

We cannot conclude this catechesis without emphasizing again what we said at the beginning of the present cycle, namely, that original sin must constantly be considered in reference to the mystery of the redemption carried out by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who "for us men and for our salvation became man." This article of the creed on the salvific purpose of the Incarnation refers principally and fundamentally to original sin. Also the decree of the Council of Trent is entirely composed in reference to this finality, and is thus inserted into the teaching of the whole of Tradition. It has its point of departure in Sacred Scripture, and first of all in the so-called "proto-evangelium," namely, in the promise of a future conqueror of Satan and liberator of man. This already appeared in the Book of Genesis (3:15) and later in so many other texts, until the fuller expression of this truth given to us by St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans. According to the Apostle, Adam is "a type of the one who was to come" (Rom 5:14). "For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many" (Rom 5:15).

"For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous" (Rom 5:19). "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" (Rom 5:18).

The Council of Trent refers especially to the Pauline text of the Letter to the Romans (5:12) as the cornerstone of its teaching, seeing in it the affirmation of the universality of sin, but also the universality of redemption. The Council has recourse also to the practice of infant baptism, and does so because of the close connection of original sin—the universal legacy received with nature from the first parents—with the truth of the universal redemption in Jesus Christ.

[1]   AAS, LVIII, 1966, 654