March 6, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Belief in original sin

John F. Fink(Fourth in a series of columns)

As Catholics, we believe that Jesus suffered and died for our salvation, and I’ll discuss that in detail in later columns. But first, we must ask the question: Why do we need salvation?

Because, Catholics believe, we were born with original sin on our souls. And what is original sin? It’s the sin of Adam and Eve described in the second and third chapters of the biblical Book of Genesis.

The sin was personal to them, but passed on to all persons as a state of privation of grace. Catholics believe that Adam’s sin of disobedience has been transmitted to all humans, depriving us of the original holiness and justice in which Adam and Eve were created.

Adam and Eve? Does that mean that the Catholic Church takes the Book of Genesis literally, that there really was an Adam and Eve?

Not exactly. It teaches that Genesis was inspired to teach faith and morals, not science. At the same time, Pope Pius XII taught in 1950 that the faithful must reject “polygenism,” the opinion that there were multiple “first parents” of the human race.

As it has happened, recent scientific research has suggested that all people might be able to be traced back to an individual woman.

In any case, Genesis teaches that the first humans sinned and, thereby, lost the original justice and holiness with which God endowed them. It uses figurative rather than literal language, but describes an event that took place at the beginning of the history of the human race. Man and woman abused the freedom that God gave them, opposed God and separated themselves from him.

As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers. It is subject to ignorance, suffering and death. As a result of original sin, we humans are also inclined to commit sins, an inclination called “concupiscence.”

And that is why the human race needed salvation. Only by understanding the nature of original sin can we understand the mystery of why God sent his Son to be our Savior. I think the idea of original sin has been dismissed by a lot of people, but it is essential if the doctrine of Christ’s dying for our salvation and redemption is to make sense.

It seems to me that there are a lot of Pelagianists in our modern world. The fifth-century Pelagius taught that men and women could, without the necessary help of God’s grace, lead a morally good life.

St. Augustine combated Pelagius’s teachings and developed the doctrine of grace.

According to Augustine and the Catholic Church, grace is a created sharing or participation in the life of God, given to persons through the merits of Christ and communicated by the Holy Spirit. Grace is received through the sacrament of baptism. Baptism removes sins, not only original sin but also personal sins.

It doesn’t, however, restore us to the same state enjoyed by Adam before his fall. We still suffer illness, death and concupiscence. But it enables us to know, love and serve God through the theological virtues, and grow in goodness through the moral virtues.

It is how we are “born again,” and thus able to enjoy the salvation won for us by Christ. †

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