Many people refuse to believe because they fault God for the state of the world or for the problems they face in their neighborhoods or because they endure serious personal trials. The matter of the human condition and sin are intimately connected to the problem of pain and suffering. The question is raised, “Why would a good God allow violence, disease and death?” What such critics fail to take into consideration is that the fault does not belong with God but with us. God’s providence directly wills certain things and will be fulfilled in the great scheme of things; however, his passive will makes room for human freedom and the possibility of disobedience or sin.
The Church speaks about our first parents and how their rebellion in the garden changes the trajectory for the entire human race. They are called to be friends with God and stewards for material creation. God would have given them a full share of preternatural gifts which we cannot begin to understand. However, the temptation of the serpent would usher forth what we call original sin. We become spiritually wounded. Sin opens the door to suffering and to death. The primordial harmony is forfeited.
I recall an infant suffering seizures or painful withdrawal because his mother is addicted to heroin. The child is innocent but suffers for the sins and irresponsibility of his mother. It is in a like-sense that sin is passed down to us much like an addiction or disease. The gates of heaven are closed and consciences are veiled to the truth. Salvific grace is forfeited. We struggle with concupiscence where to do the bad is often easy and to do the good frequently becomes difficult. Mortal life often feels as if we are swimming against a powerful current. We have not been abandoned. Despite what we have done to ourselves, there is still a promise of redemption.
The testimony for original sin is rooted in the Old Testament, first in the story of Genesis and later acknowledged by those suffering its consequences. Note that while David is legitimately born to Jesse and Nitzevet, he cries out, “Behold, I was born in guilt, in sin my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:7). The reference is clearly to the sin of Adam. St. Paul refers to it without qualification:
“Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned — for up to the time of the law, sin was in the world, though sin is not accounted when there is no law. But death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin after the pattern of the trespass of Adam, who is the type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:12-14).
A distinction must be made between original sin and what is termed actual sin. Original sin (instigated by Adam and Eve) is a corporate sin that implicates our human nature and targets each of us. The fault and woundedness is passed down from the root to every offshoot, generation after generation. We are literally conceived and born in sin. Actual sin, by contrast, is something we personally commit through the misuse of our own freedom. It is an overt ratification of the primordial sin.
Note that God calls not just individuals but whole peoples to his service. Original sin sets in motion the need for salvation history. The Jews of old are the people of the promise. The Christian Church is the people of a promise fulfilled. Just as the whole body is “morally” culpable for original sin, Christ’s redemptive effects must also sacramentally touch the larger body and not just individuals. This is why Catholicism speaks about both a personal and a corporate faith in Christ. It is Jesus who will redeem a people and we access the saving graces through faith and the sacraments, especially baptism, Eucharist and penance.
While it would not further wound human nature, we well understand the notion of corporate guilt or community blame. After World War II both West and East Germany are forced to pay reparations to the Allied governments. Many heaped blame upon the entire nation for the hardships of war and the holocaust against the Jews. Similarly, today there is much discussion about the culpability of Europeans for past oppression of indigenous peoples and whites for the bondage of blacks in American slavery. While somewhat controversial, those who personally committed no wrongs are collectively faulted, either through their passivity to wrongs or simply because of their membership in the group responsible for subjugation and misdeeds.
Similarly, when it comes to original sin, we are not personally complicit, but our nature is guilty. We are connected in the body of humanity that finds its head in Adam. Original sin should not be confused with concupiscence as this is an effect of this sin. It is a weakness or propensity to evil. By contrast, actual or personal sin is always associated with the deliberate or willful misuse of human freedom. The human will is distinct from concupiscence which is an involuntary inclination toward evil. It is not sinful in itself. However, if we should capitulate or form bad habits or vices in its regard then it can become a terrible inducement to sin. While faith and baptism cleanses the soul from the stain of original sin, the effects of sin or concupiscence remain. Temptation in itself is not sinful. Disorientation is not sinful. However, knowing something is wrong and freely willing to do so is the definition of personal sin.
We live in peculiar times where some people define themselves by their sins and refuse to repent. What do we hear today? “Fornicators are in love and testing out their relationships. Adulterers are merely in irregular unions and should have their relationships condoned and regularized. Homosexual acts should not be judged as deviant and traditional morality must be condemned as bigotry.”
It is ironic that while certain hedonists celebrate sin and void it of recrimination, there are also many who act as if men and women can save themselves without the need for divine intervention. They deny the possibility of judgment and hell. The pelagian heresy has returned with the false deification of science and medicine. Others promote an errant universalism that presumes that everyone will somehow be saved. This negates the meaning of original sin. It also signifies a moral blindness about the human condition and the tragedy of actual or personal sin. We must not be blind to culpability for the many atrocities around the world against the sanctity of life and the dignity of persons. Millions of children have been aborted. Those claiming to be Catholic are among those who sponsor and enable such mass murder. There are other issues as well. The highest of churchmen are not spared. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has endorsed the war crimes of President Putin in Ukraine. Are we to think that God will turn a blind eye to such wrongs? Hell is real and many may know its fire due to their reluctance to love as Christ has shown us. We may lament that those who remain in original sin are not assured of a place in the kingdom. But the greater tragedy is with those who have deliberately thrown away the gift of sanctifying grace after baptism through the commission of mortal sin. Hope is only sustained when a saving faith is lived out in loving obedience.
True Christianity steers a middle course while always subscribing to the guidance of a higher power. Unlike a puritanical Protestantism that would posit our nature as being absolutely corrupted by sin and thus bad or evil; Catholicism insists that what God creates, even after the fall, must be good since God is never the direct author of evil. However, we would attest that we have been wounded. Consciences are numbed to the truth and to proper morality. The passions are often not easily controlled or directed. We frequently find ourselves doing the bad which we do not really want to do. Original sin, even after it has been remitted, has an impact upon most everything we know. Temporal punishment is our lot. We struggle with suffering, sickness, sin and death.
Returning to the subject of original sin, the Church tells us that this trespass by Adam damages not just him but the whole human race. We fall from grace (forfeiting sanctifying grace) and thus endure the loss of sanctity and supernatural justice. This sanctity or holiness makes us true spiritual sons and daughters of the Father. (Lost by original sin this relationship is restored in Christ.) This justice is literally justification, a cardinal virtue. It connotes our ultimate relationship with God and our supernatural end. Given the pressing stain of original sin, and how the shared human nature of our race consents to the rebellion of Adam, we require a new Adam to heal the breach and to repair the wrong.
Apart from Christ, we cannot even offer the worship we should as it is beyond our power to render full satisfaction to appease the dishonor caused to God by sin. True propitiation that makes possible our redemption only comes with the intervention of the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh, our Lord Jesus who as the “innocent one” can offer himself on the Cross to heal the rift between heaven and earth.
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