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The State of Man in Fallen Nature

General Audience — October 8, 1986

—    Light of redemption

The profession of faith proclaimed by Paul VI in 1968 at the conclusion of the "Year of Faith," reproposes in its entirety the teaching of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition on original sin. Let us listen to it once again:

"We believe that in Adam all have sinned, which means that the original offense committed by him caused human nature, common to all men, to fall to a state in which it bears the consequences of that offense, and which is not the state in which it was at first in our first parents, established as they were in holiness and justice, and in which man knew neither evil nor death. It is human nature so fallen, stripped of the grace that clothed it, injured in its own natural powers and subjected to the dominion of death, that is transmitted to all men, and it is in this sense that every man is born in sin. We therefore hold, with the Council of Trent, that original sin is transmitted with human nature 'not by imitation, but by propagation' and that it is thus 'proper to everyone.'"

"We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ, by the sacrifice of the cross, redeemed us from original sin and all the personal sins committed by each one of us, so that, in accordance with the word of the Apostle, 'where sin abounded, grace did more abound.'"

Following that, the profession of faith, also known as the Credo of the People of God, goes back, like the decree of the Council of Trent, to holy Baptism, and first of all to that of infants: "in order that, though born deprived of supernatural grace, they may be reborn 'of water and the Holy Spirit' to the divine life in Christ Jesus."

1.  Light of redemption

As is evident, this text of Paul VI confirms that the whole of revealed doctrine on sin and in particular on original sin is always closely connected with the mystery of redemption. Let us seek to present it also in this way in these catecheses. Otherwise it would not be possible to understand fully the reality of sin in human history. St. Paul sets that out clearly in the Letter to the Romans to which the Council of Trent especially refers in the decree on original sin.

In the Credo of the People of God, Paul VI reproposed in the light of Christ the Redeemer all the elements of the doctrine on original sin contained in the Tridentine decree.

In regard to the sin of our first parents the Credo of the People of God speaks of "fallen human nature." For the proper understanding of this expression it is well to return to the description of the fall contained in Genesis, chapter three. It also contains God's punishment of Adam and Eve, under the anthropomorphic presentation of the divine interventions described by the Book of Genesis. According to the biblical narrative, after the sin the Lord says to the woman: "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Gen 3:16).

"To the man [God] said: 'Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, "You shall not eat of it," cursed is the ground because of you; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return'" (Gen 3:17-19).

These strong and severe words refer to man's situation in the world as it appears in history. The biblical author does not hesitate to attribute it to God as a sentence of condemnation. It implies the "cursing of the ground"—visible creation has become rebellious and hostile. St. Paul says that as a result of man's sin "creation was subjected to futility," and for this reason also "the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now" until it will be "set free from its bondage to decay" (cf. Rom 8:19-22).

This lack of balance of creation has its influence on the destiny of man in the visible world. The labor by which he acquires the means of sustenance is carried out "in the sweat of his face," and is linked with toil. The whole of human existence is characterized by toil and suffering and this begins already from birth, accompanied by the sufferings of the woman in labor, and of the child itself, who is unconscious of them but who wails and whimpers.

Finally the whole of human existence on earth is subject to the fear of death, which according to revelation is clearly connected with original sin. Sin itself is synonymous with spiritual death, because through sin man has lost sanctifying grace, the source of supernatural life. The sign and consequence of original sin is bodily death, such as it has been experienced since that time by all humanity. Man was created by God for immortality. Death appears as a tragic leap in the dark, and is the consequence of sin, as if by an immanent logic, but especially as the punishment of God. Such is the teaching of revelation and such is the faith of the Church. Without sin, the end of the earthly trial would not have been so dramatic.

Man was created by God also for happiness. In the context of earthly existence, this should have meant being free from many sufferings, at least in the sense of a possibility of exemption from them—posse non mori. As can be seen from the words attributed to God by Genesis (Gen 3:16-19), and from many other texts of the Bible and Tradition, with original sin this exemption ceased to be man's privilege. His life on earth was subjected to many sufferings and to the necessity of death.

The Credo of the People of God teaches that human nature after original sin is no longer in the "state at which it was at first in our first parents." It is "fallen" since it is deprived of sanctifying grace, and also of other gifts, which in the state of original justice constituted the perfection of this nature. Here we are dealing not only with immortality and exemption from many sufferings, gifts lost because of sin, but also with interior dispositions of the reason and will, that is, with habitual energies of the reason and will. As a consequence of original sin the whole man, body and soul, has been thrown into confusion—secundum animam et corpus, as the Council of Orange expressed it in 529. The Tridentine decree echoed this when it noted that man had undergone a change for the worse—in deterius commutatum fuisse.

As regards spiritual faculties this deterioration consists in a darkening of the intellect's capacity to know the truth, and in a weakening of free will. The will is weakened in the presence of the attractions of the goods perceived by the senses and is more exposed to the false images of good elaborated by reason under the influence of the passions. However, according to the Church's teaching, it is a case of a relative and not an absolute deterioration, not intrinsic to the human faculties. Even after original sin, man can know by his intellect the fundamental natural and religious truths, and the moral principles. He can also perform good works. One should therefore speak rather of a darkening of the intellect and of a weakening of the will, of "wounds" of the spiritual and sensitive faculties, and not of a loss of their essential capacities even in relation to the knowledge and love of God.

The Tridentine decree emphasizes this truth of the fundamental soundness of nature against the contrary thesis maintained by Luther (and taken up later by the Jansenists). The Council of Trent teaches that as a result of Adam's sin, man has not lost free will (can. 5: Liberum arbitrium...non amissum et extinctum). He can therefore perform acts which have an authentic moral value—good or evil. This is possible only by the freedom of the human will. But without Christ's help, fallen man is incapable of directing himself to the supernatural goods which constitute his total fulfillment and salvation.

In the condition in which nature finds itself after sin, and especially because man is more inclined to evil than to good, one speaks of a "spark of sin" (fomes peccati), from which human nature was free in the state of original perfection (integritas). This "spark of sin" is also called "concupiscence" (concupiscentia) by the Council of Trent, which adds that it also continues in man justified by Christ, therefore even after holy Baptism. The Tridentine decree clearly states that concupiscence in itself is not yet sin, but "it derives from sin and inclines to sin" (cf. DS 1515). As a consequence of original sin, concupiscence is the source of the inclination to various personal sins committed by people through the evil use of their faculties (these sins are called actual, to distinguish them from original sin). This inclination remains in man even after holy Baptism. In this sense everyone bears in himself the "spark" of sin.

Catholic doctrine defines and describes the state of fallen human nature in terms which we have explained on the basis of the data of Sacred Scripture and Tradition. It is clearly proposed in the Council of Trent and in the Credo of Paul VI. However, once again we note that, according to this doctrine based on revelation, human nature is not only "fallen" but also "redeemed" in Jesus Christ, so that "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Rom 5:20). This is the real context in which original sin and its consequences must be considered.