The Catholic view on Original Sin

Posted: September 28, 2010 by Disciple in Doctrines, Original Sin
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Greetings. My name is Lee (aka Disciple) and I’ll be representing the Catholic view on our new site, Christian Diversity. Our first topic is Original Sin. Key to understanding the Catholic doctrine on Original Sin is the teaching of St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (especially Chapter 5) in which he gives us a profound meditation on Original Sin and its effect on all of creation, and in which he also presents us with a view of Adam as the father from which all humankind is descended and by whose sin all were wounded; and Christ as the Second Adam Who came to give us new life and by Whose obedience all were redeemed.

A common objection to the doctrine on Original Sin is that no one should have to pay for the sins of another, for being condemned through no fault of one’s own. On the other hand, I have rarely heard anyone object to being redeemed by Christ through no effort of one’s own. The problem seems to be one of viewing Original Sin as punishment and as unjust punishment, at that. Let us realize that Original Sin is not so much an act as a state, the state which we inherit when we are born into the world as descendants of Adam. All of us are born into this state of Original Sin; all of us humans are born as infants; therefore, all human infants are born into this state of Original Sin. We are not talking here of personal sins of infants. No infant has the ability or opportunity to commit a personal sin of any kind. But all infants inherit human nature from their parents, who inherited it from their parents, and so on, all the way back to the beginning.

Now the following is a very imperfect analogy and it wouldn’t do to take it too far, but consider this. Suppose I have the misfortune to live near a site filled with harmful radiation. And suppose that this radiation is capable of damaging my genes and that it does so. Suppose that I marry a man who also lives in this neighborhood and that he is similarly damaged by the same radiation. Now suppose that we have children. Our offspring will be born with the same damage in their genes. That’s not so much fair or unfair but, rather, the way nature works.

In the case of Original Sin, human nature itself was changed, not merely Adam and Eve experiencing change on a personal level. Human nature itself was changed, and all humankind would be born ever after in that changed state. This is not fair or unfair but simply is, and also is just. But even then, while God’s Justice was at work, so was His Mercy. For already God was preparing to mend the rift between Himself and His creation, preparing to send His Son into the world. Preparing to give us greater gifts than those our father Adam had lost.

14 And the Lord God said to the serpent: Because thou hast done this thing, thou art cursed among all cattle, and the beasts of the earth: upon thy breast shalt thou go, and earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.

15 I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.

16 To the woman also he said: I will multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions: in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee.

17 And to Adam he said: Because thou hast hearkened to the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat, cursed is the earth in thy work; with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life.

18 Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou eat the herbs of the earth.

19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return.

20 And Adam called the name of his wife Eve: because she was the mother of all the living. 21 And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife, garments of skins, and clothed them.

(Genesis 3:14-24, Douay Rheims version.)

  1. J.W. Wartick says:


    Thanks for your insight here. I think you have some particularly interesting things to say. I wonder how your view differs from Sentinel’s, which argues that babies are indeed sinful.

    I would like to ask one question: What definition do you give of original sin? What is it? Is it an inclination to sin, or is it something more? Can one be condemned merely on account of original sin?

    I’m interested, because I always heard that the Roman Catholic view on original sin is that it was simply an inclination to sin, not an actual change to a sinful nature. Yet it seems that you are saying that they really did change in nature (your last paragraph).

    Thanks again for your thoughts here.

    • Disciple says:

      Thanks, Joseph. First, let me say that this is not “my view” as in “my opinion”. It’s the Catholic view, Catholic doctrine. Of course, anything mistaken or unclear is my fault. But I’m trying to deliberately keep my opinions out of it and simply represent the Catholic teaching as best as I can. 🙂

      I wouldn’t say that babies are sinful. I’d say that all have sinned in Adam and all are condemned in Adam. In Adam as in descended from Adam and in his loins, to be descended from him in the course of time. As Levi was in Abraham’s loins and tithed to Melchizedek when Abraham did, even though Levi wasn’t born yet and was present only in Abraham’s loins. (See Hebrews 7:4-10.)

      Original Sin is a technical term and refers to a state contracted (similar to a disease contracted) and not a sin commited. Adam was created with spiritual gifts which he could have passed on to his descendants as an inheritance but he lost these gifts and so could not pass them on to us. His nature was indeed changed. This is Biblical. This is Catholic. Human nature was changed. Relationships were changed. Through the Second Adam we can become new creations. We can be born from above (or anew) by water and the Spirit (see John 3:5).

      Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ and washes away the state of Original Sin. But it does not get rid of the tendency to sin, which is called concupiscence. That we have to struggle with in the spiritual combat. We have to receive, preserve and increase in grace. We have to practice the virtues. We have to cooperate with grace and work out our salvation with fear and trembling. (See Phil 2:12.)

      By the way, what folks have “always heard” about Catholicism usually isn’t quite what Catholicism actually is. When in doubt, refer to the Catechism which is replete with Biblical references.

  2. […] Read my first post there: The Catholic view on Original Sin. […]

  3. […] Read my first post there: The Catholic view on Original Sin. […]

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