“During his stay in Jerusalem for the Passover, many believed in him when they saw the signs that he gave, but Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all. He needed no one to give him testimony about human nature. He was well aware of what people had in them.” (Jn.2:23)
In his famous book Confessions, St. Augustine wrote about how children between the ages of 1 and 2, when put together in a play pen, will bite each other, pull each other’s hair, and rob each other’s toys, without regard for the other child’s unhappiness. In this same writing, Augustine tells how he once stole some pears, not because he was hungry, but because it was exciting to do; it demonstrated “the greedy love of doing wrong for its own sake.”
Augustine used these observations to support his idea that human nature is wounded and inclined to evil. Among early Christians, this conviction of a wounded human nature grew incrementally during the first four centuries. There was a sense that something had gone wrong with human beings. The fifth century Councils of Carthage (419) and Orange (441) adopted the term “Original Sin.” The term was linked to the account in Genesis 3 that told of a primeval event that took place at the beginning of the history of humans. A sin was committed by our first parents, and the whole of history is marked by the original fault. There is an intrinsically wounded human nature. (Cf, Catechism of the Catholic Church 390).
Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, disagreed with Augustine about a wounded human nature, and taught that moral evil is the result of bad example and poor teaching. Children are born innocent and if raised properly, they retain that innocence.
However, many Christian thinkers wondered why is human life so marred by so much hatred, brutality, and tragedy? Why is the created order, brought into being through divine decision and love, warped by evil? Eventually, the Council of Trent in 1563 accepted the theology of Original Sin. Trent went so far as to affirm Original Sin a central truth of Catholic faith. The Council of Trent stated that Adam’s sin “is communicated to all by propagation not by imitation.” In its Decree on Original Sin, Trent held that the Scriptural foundation for the Doctrine of Original Sin was Rom.5:12: “Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin,” and Jn.3:19: “Men love the darkness rather than the light.” Martin Luther and other Reformers also affirmed Original Sin as a central truth of Christian faith.
In Christian tradition, the sin of Adam and Eve is described as “the Fall.” The Catholic teaching is that it caused a defect in human nature. In Luther’s judgment, Original Sin had corrupted human nature, and humans could do good only with the help of grace.
Put simply, what exactly is the teaching called Original Sin? It states that what is inherited by every human being is not only nature as created, but nature as distorted by sin.
The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries rated human reason as the exclusive source of knowledge and regarded the idea of Original Sin as absolutely absurd. The remedy to the problem of evil is more reason. Even contemporary Catholics are uneasy with the doctrine of Original Sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the transmission of Original Sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand.” (360).
The idea of Original Sin speaks to my experience of human life. There is a good deal of goodness and beauty to enjoy in this world. But there are all the miseries of the human situation.
All is not well. Evil seems universal and ineradicable. The first creation story says that God made the world, and it was good. Then why is it so difficult? Why does it hurt so much, Why do we die? It is not the way it was meant to be. The “Fall” is real. The world seems overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love.
The eminent theologian, Karl Rahner, pointed out that “the wound of sin permeates the whole of life, society and relationships, becoming part of the human reality in which the individual is immersed. Sin is within and without.” As often as Karl Rahner looked into the history of humanity, or even into individual human careers, he was filled with sorrow and even pessimism.
Therese of Lisieux surprisingly said: “Those around me are really good, but there is something, I don’t know what, that repels me.” When Flannery O’ Connor was asked about her view of human beings, she answered with one word, “fallen.” I like something else O’Connor said when she was in NYC: “Although you see several people you wish you did know, you see thousands you’re glad you don’t know.” Freud: “I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash.” Teresa of Avila: “There is no trusting these sons of Adam.” Dostoyevsky: “We are all cripples, every one of us, more or less.” I know a number of men who have said that there are times when “they must get away from people.” Pope Francis: “If you put your trust only in people, you will lose” (address to young men in Turin). If we look for any ultimate security in human commitments or human institutions, we need to be prepared for disappointment.
Human nature is also capable of courage, compassion, and integrity. The dark elements are counterbalanced by astonishing acts of compassion, forbearance, and creativity. Still, as many thinkers point out, there is the derailment of Original Sin. Humans tend to be very disappointing—notice the divorce rate.
G.K. Chesterton once noted that the doctrine of Original Sin is one of the few Catholic beliefs that can be confirmed by each day’s headlines. Chesterton wrote: “The Church’s doctrine of Original Sin is the only part of Catholic theology which can be really proved. There is something fundamentally rotten in humanity.” The Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, called Original Sin “empirically verifiable.” Open any newspaper, switch on your television and the symptoms of Original Sin are manifest.
We should not underestimate the wound of Original Sin. The doctrine of Original Sin should not make us cynical about what we can do; but it should make us modest. Finally, there is a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Ignorance of the fact that humans have a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to errors in the areas of education, politics, social action, and morals” (407). I have never heard a sermon on Original Sin.
According to Roman Catholic theology, only the Blessed Virgin Mary was born without Original Sin and remained undamaged (The Immaculate Conception). The only time Original Sin is mentioned in the liturgy is in the Easter Night Vigil, where it is called “O felix culpa,” the happy fault, the fortunate sin, because it brought us the Savior Christ.
Had I a mighty gun I think I’d shoot the human race. (Emily Dickinson)