"Re-visiting Thoughts on the Fall and Original Sin"
Re-visiting Thoughts on the Fall and Original Sin
“Truth cannot contradict truth.”
(Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, 1893, Section 23)
This work consists of four parts. The first was published over 50 years ago,
The second was its re-visitation by me a few years ago.
The third part was a response from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference from whom I requested a theological opinion in early 2018, on what I had written, and whose response presents current theological thinking, and outlines grounds for the modern synthesis,
The fourth part which indicates the seamless shift where baptism, not original sin is at centre stage.
This clarifies the matter for me, as I am confident it would do for you.
Re-visiting “Thoughts on the Fall and Original Sin”
“Truth cannot contradict truth.”
(Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, 1893, Section 23)
In the mid-1950s, I, who was a cradle Catholic, and who believed that the Church alone was the custodian of revealed truth realised that there were people in our world who did not have
the slightest idea of Christ, the Church, or Christianity or Catholic beliefs; People who lived and died according to their spiritual norms and cultural traditions. Good people. Noble people. What could the destiny of the unbaptised possibly be? It was thoughts such as these that prompted me to reflect upon Original Sin and of being cleansed of it and of being initiated into and immersed into the life of Christ and His Church, by means of the sacramental waters of baptism, or by baptism of desire or by baptism of blood (martyrdom). I mulled over all this for years, as a university student in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) then as a teacher/lecturer in Ceylon, the UK and Singapore. In the last, I had the opportunity to put these reflections together and to re- visit them late in my life.
Context in which this subject is addressed
I write this as a Catholic layman and a Geographer, not formally versed in either theology or philosophy. However, I know that God is Love; that Jesus Christ is the Eternal Word become man, through whom God reveals himself to us; that Christ is truth and light for the world. Without him there is darkness, error, or at best twilight, where sight is often unclear.
As a Geographer, I believe that there needs to be a humbling, holistic approach to everything. This is an ongoing process which never ends. I respect theories of evolution, but not as a blind process ordained by chance. I am convinced that the physical (the empirical) and the metaphysical need to inform one another continually, so that knowledge may move to fuller
truth, often in a dialectical manner. However, the metaphysical needs to be accorded greater emphasis in the interest of truer perspective, and on no account be disregarded, as so many in our so-called scientific, technological and secular age tend to do. And for this, one needs prayer, reflection, study and the grace of God.
Popes and saints, especially in recent times, have made it very clear that the story of divine love needs to be accepted through a personal encounter with the Lord. For the present generation, that story has to be re-presented in fresh ways relevant to our age, and in a manner where such change does not compromise the truth of our Catholic faith or its continuity but enhances it; where physical truth and metaphysical truth harmonise and are not treated as contradictory or dichotomous. This is because God of all that exists, is the source of all truth.
It was within such contexts, that when I was a lecturer in Geography at the University of Singapore (1965-1971), I wrote a short article for the Catholic Student’s Society’s Magazine, “Aquinas” (1965-1966: pp: 15-19): ‘Thoughts on the Fall and Original Sin’. It was given the green light for publication by the Irish Jesuit priest who was the Spiritual Director and chaplain
of the Catholic Students Society. He later asked that that material be presented to interested members of the Church of St. Ignatius’ parish (Kings Road, Singapore 10), where it was well received. That was over 50 years ago. Much water has flowed down the Bukit Timah canal since then: most notably, Vatican II and discoveries and theories that require the traditional Creation story, as in Genesis, and its implications be reviewed.
In that simple paper, I highlighted a few problems arising from long-held teachings which appeared to be at some variance with one another. The greater and most fundamental set emphasised that God is love divine: loving, just, merciful and forgiving. The other set, initially based on Genesis, was that the deliberate disobedience of our first parents, ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’, constituted what came to be known by Christians as original sin. And however literally or
allegorically construed Adam and Eve and their fall may have been, it resulted not only in severe consequences both for themselves (expulsion from the Garden, etc.) but also for their progeny for all time.
Because of God’s original blessing, in which He saw that all He had created was very good, the Fall did not render humankind evil and corrupt, but afflicted by an ongoing malaise of mind and spirit, which all too often and all too easily frustrated any innate desire to be good by an insatiable thirst for the primacy of self, for the things of darkness and of sin. Furthermore, it was held that sickness, death, suffering and disaster entered the world because of original sin, and that all were excluded from heaven, until they were redeemed by Christ.
Now that I am near the end of life’s road, I have decided after some trepidation and prayer to try to bring that article more up- to-date, and to do so once again in simple, lay terms. Aspects of the subject need to be re-examined by the Church, and not shelved, in order to put end to criticisms that the Church founded by Christ (not by whim of man) is out of touch and irrelevant, in our (so-called) scientific, technological, pagan and ‘me-centred’ world.
Popes such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have emphasised that ‘original sin’ warrants and indeed demands deeper study. That formidable task I leave to scholars and experts.
Questions that Call for Answers
A question asked here is how and whether, as is literally stated in Genesis, God who is all- knowing, loving and merciful would have made man out of the dust of the earth, raised him to
the heights, pure and with full control of his moral faculties, allowed him to be put to the test, which he failed and which God knew he would fail, and then pass the dire consequences (forfeitures, debility, defective vision, moral confusion, etc.) of that original sin, not just to him but on to his progeny in perpetuity.
To begin our quest for a possible answer we need first to turn to God and ask ourselves who we think God is. With the Evangelists, and down the ages, the answer rings out loudly: God is Love. God is Truth. This should direct us to routes we should follow.
We need to examine facets of our question which have long been regarded as interlocked: the account in Genesis of the creation, the creation of Adam and Eve, the fall of our first parents, their original sin, its effects, and ask whether in the light of today’s knowledge, study and prayerful reflection, some of these should be unlocked for clearer understanding. After this, we should enquire what the position might be were this to be done.
The Creation Account
The creation story in Genesis (which has rough parallels in Sumerian/Mesopotamian creation myths in the Middle East) is based on oral tradition, handed down through the ages and was once thought to have been put into its form by Moses and the scribes who edited it.
Today it is regarded by the Church as neat, allegorical, beautiful and for the most part well- ordered in terms of what transpired on a variable time-scale on the ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘third’ days and so on; an account which readily satisfied the minds of people for centuries, and which contained and still contains a wealth of food for spiritual instruction.
The account was, quite understandably accepted by Jews and Christians for centuries, including St. Paul, the Early Fathers of the Church, and St. Augustine, right up to the mid-19th Century and even to this day by many Christians, as both theological truth and “scientific truth”. This was because the Bible was long accepted as the literal word of God, and because deductive theology was long considered superior to empirical observation and inductive reasoning. As for original sin, the tradition of the Church for centuries was to go to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, where the Lord God put them to live in obedient innocence, confidence and satisfaction in the Lord God and his providence. This of course they did but not for long because they allowed themselves to be deceived by the promises of Satan who urged them to plumb dark knowledge with its false, futile and destructive lure: committing the original sin.
The teaching on the Fall reflected the human desire for immortality and happiness compromised by goodness gone awry. It was an attempt to explain the indisputable fact that in human beings there is much that is contradictory and centred on the selfish self; that we are at sea in most matters, not only in matters of living in a difficult and challenging earthly environment but in matters of right and wrong, and the grey areas in between. We may wish to think and to do what is beneficial and good, but often end up scampering in other directions. As St. Paul observes, in his letter to the Romans, “I do not understand my own behaviour; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate (7:15); “the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want — that is what I do (7:19).”So it is that I myself with my mind obey the law of God, but in my disordered nature I obey the law of sin” (Romans 7: 25).
The Church elaborates
a) With St. Paul many cry, “it was through one man that sin came into the world, and through sin death, and thus death has spread through the whole human race, and because everyone has sinned death reigned over all from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sin was not the breaking of a commandment, as Adam’s was (Romans 5:12 – 14).
b) The early fathers of the Church, such as St. Jerome, followed the same line of thought and teaching, while
c) St. Ambrose of the 4th century AD (who had a great influence on St. Augustine), speaks of the fortunate ruin of Adam in the Garden of Eden, in that his sin brought more good to humanity than if he had stayed perfectly innocent.
d) St. Augustine, in particular, saw in these verses, as well as in his personal experience, grounds for constructing the case for original sin and the automatic transmission of its effects onto posterity. But the same St.Augustine in his ‘Dei Genesis ad Litteram’ established the principle that “We must today interpret the Bible in the light of knowledge that was denied our ancestors. Any interpretation of Scripture that contradicts a known fact of Science we may be very sure is no true interpretation” (Bruce Vawter, C.M.tells us in his “A Path through Genesis”).
e) Councils of the Church made dogma of it, declaring it to be central to true belief, backing this up with anathemas for those who begged to differ.
f) Today, the fact of “Original Sin” is indisputable, but the origins of Original Sin that had long been taken for granted, have been questioned and re-phrased in far richer, beautiful and more acceptable ways (as we see in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 2, Chapter 1): moderated and qualified in response to advances in human knowledge, and the recognition that God’s love for all people is far greater than what we once made of it.
Credibility of the Church’s Teaching
So, we ask whether further re-thinking would be necessary if the Catholic Church is to go forward as a completely credible teacher in the 21st century. Could and why should we look at this innate dualistic pull in human beings, one towards good and the other towards evil/wrong- doing in another way? And if so, how?
Even if the account of the Fall of Adam and Eve is taken literally, and if we accept that the outcome of the sin of Adam and Eve was human exposure thereafter to a difficult and contrary world,
Genesis does not assert that there was any negative spiritual imprint (original sin) and impact that was passed on to posterity.
The Old Testament and Jesus the eternal Logos God-become-man do not say so either. Nor do the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed explicitly or the other Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam.
As mentioned earlier, although for centuries the account in Genesis was held to be literally true, the Catholic Church no longer regards that story as historical truth, but rather as allegory leading us into the mystery of God’s power and revealing through prayerful reflection the wonder of God’s unfailing love. Have we looked at the verses of St. Paul (above) (Romans 5: 12 14) too narrowly? Was he not trying to say something greater than the demerits of the sin of our first parents? You will realise this when you read Romans Ch.5 and Ch. 6: an edifying experience.
It would be more illuminating to read St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:44,50), which offers a clue to our question on original sin: “…. what is sown is a natural body, and what is raised is a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is a spiritual body too. So, the first man, Adam, as scripture says, became a living soul; and the last Adam has become a life- giving spirit.
But first came the natural body, not the spiritual one; that came only afterwards. The first man, being made of earth, is earthly by nature; the second man is from heaven. The earthly man is the pattern for earthly people, the heavenly man for heavenly ones. And as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so we shall bear the likeness of the heavenly one. What I am saying, brothers, is that mere human nature cannot inherit the kingdom of God: what is perishable cannot inherit what is imperishable.” (The natural body could well be regarded as the one that evolved from pre-existing earthly material, and the heavenly body that which was sanctified by grace).
Impact of the Theory/Hypothesis of Human Evolution
Round about the middle of the 20th century, with growing recognition of the probability of human evolution, any teaching or notion that it was a case of proto-human yesterday and human the next day, and the glorious ascent and dire descent of our first parents produced a caricature of God Who is Good in the minds of many. Despite this there was the promise of redemption, hope and new and abundant life, through the advent of the ‘new Adam’ and the ‘new Eve’, foreshadowed by the Law and the Prophets, and followed by the glorious Incarnation.
Until comparatively recently the notion that man had evolved from more primitive species was not given serious credence. Charles Darwin had not appeared on the scene, and the biblical account of human origins was taken literally. The Bible was the word of God, and to contradict it in any way was heresy. However, from its very beginnings, the Church valued reason as an essential element in philosophy and for theological understanding. Moreover, for centuries it had held that the findings of science could be an aid to theologising.
A succession of saints and popes supported this idea. Here we mention people such as St. Albert the Great (13th Century) and Bl. John Duns Scotus (1265 -1308).
Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical on the study of holy scripture, ‘Providentissimus Deus’ (18th November 1893), written in the wake of Charles Darwin’s views on natural selection, made this wise provision, “Let scholars keep steadfastly to the principles which We have in this Letter laid down. Let them loyally hold that God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures – and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures”. If, then, apparent contradiction be met with, every effort should be made to remove it. Judicious theologians and
commentators should be consulted as to what is the true or most probable meaning of the passage in discussion, and the hostile arguments should be carefully weighed. Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth, and we may be sure that some mistake has been made either in the interpretation of the sacred words, or in the polemical discussion itself; and if no such mistake can be detected, we must then suspend judgment for the time being (Section 23).”
In his encyclical, Humani Generis (12.8.1950), Pope Pius XII stated that the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions on the part of men experienced in both fields take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God, provided that all are prepared to submit
to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith.
Some however, rashly act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question (Section 36).
When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did
not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own”.
Polygenism in the Bible?
However, polygenism remains at least a real probability, as advances in anthropology and genetics seem to indicate (See: The Journal of Nature, 2016 issues). In fact, the Book of Genesis seems to support it. In chapter 4, we have the story of Cain, the first born of Adam and Eve, and Abel their second son. The former was a tiller of the earth whose offering to the Yahweh was not accepted, and the latter a keeper of sheep whose offering found favour with Yahweh. Jealous of this, Cain invited Abel to go out into open country with him, and there murdered him.
Yahweh’s response was to banish Cain from Eden and thereafter to destine him to be a restless wanderer on earth; one who would hide from the Lord, and who would probably be killed by anyone who came across him. To save him from such a fate, because he loved Cain too, Yahweh declared, “whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance” and put a mark on Cain, so that no one coming across him would kill him. Cain left the region of his birth and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden, peopled by groups who were not related to Adam and Eve. How could they have been if Adam and Eve were the first humans from whom all
other human beings descended?
The point being made here is that if the account in Genesis about the Fall is used as the basis for building a case for original sin, why not give the account about Cain rightful value as well and include it in the story of the first human beings, and, go on to give Genesis Chapters 5 and 6 due consideration too? These speak of other lines of human people who lived at the same time that Adam and Eve did. Moreover, Cain not only married a woman in the land of Nod who was not one of his own kinsfolks, he had a son by her, Enoch, whose descendants are named in Genesis. Cain even built a town. By whom was it built and populated? By Cain’s relatives born of Adam and Eve? Not likely, for Cain was their first-born. Or by offspring of people not of Adam and Eve’s family? By the progeny of other human and pre-historic groups?
Then again, there were the Nephilim (Genesis 6:4. [See footnote 6b in the CTS New Catholic Bible, 2007] who were deemed to have been a pre-historic race of giants who inter- married with human beings. And the story goes on. Furthermore, descendants of Cain and the others
were considered to have been morally responsible by God and therefore accountable for their deeds, even though all were not of Adam and Eve’s stock.
Are not all these powerful biblical indicators of polygenesis in the early stories and myths of mankind, which should not be dismissed in deliberations on the origins of sin in the human race.
God, the Intelligence governing Evolution
The study of evolution proceeds with the approval and the encouragement of the Popes, with
man regarded as someone far more than an epi-phenomenon, and with God as the
Intelligence behind and in it. [Vide: Pope John Paul II’s (22.10.1996) Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences; and Pope Benedict XVI’s address to members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (2008).]
[A] God’s Original Blessing is foiled by Satan
1) Creation (God saw that it was very good)
2) Creation of Adam and Eve (The Father’s Joy)
3) Innocence and Plenty in the Garden of Eden
4) The Temptation of Adam and Eve
5) Their Fall 6) God’s just punishment — for Adam and Eve there was a loss of innocence, banishment from paradise, life punctuated by hardship and death for them and their progeny (this sentence was moderated by the promise of a redeemer) [Note that 2-6 occur within a relatively brief time-span]
[B] Christ Redeems Us
1) Christ Jesus the Redeemer and Saviour whose merits were deemed to apply to the baptised (baptism by water, by desire, by blood). Their choices a) heaven (if necessary, via Purgatory) or b) hell (eternal)
2) Options for the unbaptised: hell, or limbo* (no beatific vision) (N.B. *there is no such state
as Limbo, declared Pope Benedict XVI in 2007).
[C] Attitudes of the Catholic Church towards Evolution [characterised by progressive changes and emphases]
1. Outright rejection initially
2. Openness to search for truth (all truth comes from God)
3. Openness to the possibility/probability of evolution of higher orders of life arising from more primitive forms, and within recent decades to the real plausibility of the Big Bang hypothesis of the origins of the physical universe and its ongoing development.
4. Openness to the idea that human beings evolved from pre- human life, but (i) with each human soul being directly created by God, and (ii) all human life stemming from a single parent (An emphatic rejection of idea of multiple hearths in various parts of the world: ie. rejection of polygenism) or the term ‘Adam’ being applied to several individuals.
5. But, does the Biblical account not keep the door to polygenism open, if the latter is proven in time to come?
A No-Fall Hypothesis?
If we accept that human beings in their physical state evolved from pre-human beings, it follows that the genetic and cultural make up of such pre-humans equipped them with the instincts and preferences necessary for their reproduction, survival and development in their earthly milieu. These would have included traits and practices, and physical death itself, which the human beings who evolved from such proto-humans also carried in their genetic inheritance. Some of these traits and practices, people with consciences and moral awareness
and responsibility could duly come to term sinful. Thus, right from the start, the first human beings carried genetic and experiential baggage which they inherited from pre-humans, obviating the need for a Fall: and making the notion of a proto-Adam (lights off) switching to Adam in the very next generation (light on) somewhat illogical. The illumination of their minds would have in all likelihood been gradual.
God would have known that as a consequence of natural evolution, human beings would be weak and errant. But he accepted this and in no-way-the-less loved them, became human for them and in Christ Jesus suffered and died for them and rose again from the dead, proving his love for humankind; drawing them by inspiration, example, guidance and grace from darkness into light; to grow to the realisation that they were loved, and so needed to give preference and precedence not to ‘me’ but rather to the voice of conscience and more so, to the Voice of God, That Voice, we know, came most clearly from God-become-man, to raise them to higher levels of being and fulfilment.
And so, each person faced/faces the task of responding in the best way s/he could to the invitation and the love of God. That is where the Church, the Bride of Christ comes in, bearing an awesome responsibility to the Bridegroom, to heed and to flesh out the word and to minister to the people of God as faithfully as is possible, in an ongoing process, as humankind journeys falteringly to the parousia (the Second Coming of Christ).
Does this not make original sin as it has been generally understood a non-essential requisite for the Incarnation to have taken place? As Blessed Duns Scotus, OFM (1265 -1308, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993), once said, God would have become man even if Adam
had not sinned, since He willed that in Christ humanity and the world should be united with Himself by the closest possible bond.
So, is not the view that the Incarnation of Christ and his life, death and resurrection hinged on the sad event of the Fall of Adam somewhat skew? Was ‘sin’ not always on the divine timetable? Through it God would prove his love, and do so most fully through his Only Begotten Son dying for all people and rising from the dead to give them hope of having their sins wiped away, building the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth and finally being drawn into the Divine embrace.
In the early years of the 21st millennium we find ourselves carried into the glorious truth of the love of God and the God Who Is Love, as the popes of our times, such as John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, make so very clear. This invitation to and induction into the ineffable Mystery of the life of the Trinitarian One Who is Love is what the sacrament of baptism immerses us into, even as it cleanses and strengthens us. As we read in the Book of
Wisdom, written before Christ, “The whole world, for you, can no more than tip a balance, like a drop of morning dew falling on the ground. Yet you are merciful to all, because you are almighty, you overlook people’s sins, so that they can repent. Yes, you love everything that exists, and nothing that you have made disgusts you, since, if you had hated something, you would not have made it. And how could a thing subsist, had you not willed it? Or how be preserved, if not called forth by you? No, you spare all, since all is yours, Lord, lover of life! For your imperishable spirit is in everything”! (11:22 to 12:1).
The no-fall hypothesis suggests that there may have been a gradual or a stepped change from
pre-man (or proto-man) as he evolved, God-directed, from the ‘dust of the earth’ and lower forms of life into man; and having to deal with his genetic inheritance with its pluses and minuses. But it required the grace and love of God to raise him to aspire to, recognise and respond to metaphysical realities and grow towards his far richer spiritual potential, ‘redeemed man’, summoned by Love, in an ongoing process.
It is noted that Pope John Paul II thought that the subject of evolution in general was important enough to urge that it be looked at very seriously by men of science. This concern was reiterated by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
The Church has deferred to scientists on matters such as the age of the earth and the authenticity of the fossil record. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution.”
The Church’s stance is that any such gradual appearance must have been guided in some way by God, but the Church has thus far declined to define in what way that may be. Commentators tend to interpret the Church’s position in the way most favourable to their own arguments. The International Theological Commission’s statement includes these paragraphs on evolution, the providence of God, and “intelligent design”. In freely willing to create and conserve the universe, God wills to activate and to sustain and act in all those secondary causes whose
activity contributes to the unfolding of the natural order which he intends to produce. Through the activity of natural causes, God causes to arise those conditions required for the emergence and support of living organisms, and, furthermore, for their reproduction and differentiation.
Although there is scientific debate about the degree of purposiveness or design operative and empirically observable in these developments, they have de facto favoured the emergence and flourishing of life. Catholic theologians can see in such reasoning support for the affirmation entailed by faith in divine creation and divine providence. In the providential design of creation, the triune God intended not only to make a place for human beings in the universe but also, and ultimately, to make room for them in his own Trinitarian life. Furthermore, operating as real, though secondary causes, human beings contribute to the re-shaping and transformation of the universe.
So, where may we go from here? See what the then Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, has said: “If Providence will someday free me of my obligations, I should like to devote myself precisely to the theme of ‘original sin’ and to the necessity of a rediscovery of its authentic reality. In fact, if it is no longer understood that man is in a state of alienation that is not resolvable by his efforts alone, one no longer understands the necessity of Christ the Redeemer. The whole structure of faith is threatened by this. The inability to understand ‘original sin’ and to make it understandable is really one of the most difficult problems of present-day theology and pastoral ministry. “It’s always very dangerous to change religious language. Continuity is here of great importance. I hold that the central concepts of the faith, which derive from great utterances of Scripture, cannot be altered: as for example ‘Son of God’, ‘Holy Spirit’, Mary’s ‘virginity’ and ‘divine motherhood’. I grant, however, that expressions
such as ‘original sin’, which in their content are also so directly biblical in origin but which already manifest in expression the stage of theological reflection, are modifiable” (Cardinal Ratzinger, in the Ratzinger Report, (p.79) translated from the authorised German Manuscript, into the Italian version published under title of Rapporto Sulla Fede,1985, Edizioni Paoline, Milan, Italy.)
In early 2018, I wrote to the Secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Canberra, and requested a theological opinion on what I had said in my paper on Original Sin. I was grateful to receive the following response (below). It cleared matters for me as I hope they do for you.
Key points for a modern synthesis
1. History demonstrates that the term original sin is a non-essential of Christianity. Of course, if we abandon this term we will need to find another to convey the sense of human imbalance, of one’s division within one’s self, of our fragmentation, our alienation, our forlornness, our incapacity for authentic loving and failure to form community – without Christ.
2. The basic doctrine covered by the termoriginal sinis assuredly an essential of Christianity. The ingredients of this basic doctrine are as follows.
3. The centrality of Christ is the heart of the dogma. This proclaims Christ as Saviour of man, woman and child. Original Sin is a negative formulation of the positive and main item of the Good News, i.e. that Jesus is the Saviour of every human being.
4. The dogma of Original Sin seems to imply that a human being, even before able to elicit a personal act of sin, is already subjected to an empire of sin, has already fallen victim to the sin of the world (cf. Jn 1:29). This race-sin is not just an outside environment or atmosphere that surrounds the individual. It is also a quality that mysteriously affects human beings inwardly. It is a universal factor touching the inmost recesses already before we concretize it by an individual transgression, something that comes from our very nature, from what we are. The sinful deed one personally and deliberately commits actualizes and ratifies this universal datum of alienation. Entry into the human family means partaking of a universal, historically caused, pre-personal, sin-laden situation.
5.The doctrine of original sin certainly connotes the solidarity ofhumankind. All men/women belong to a unique family whose tight unity is symbolized in Adam and Eve.
6. The sinfulness of the human race which the doctrine of original sin announces, is not reducible simply to human creaturehood. Rather it is induced by human guilt, by humanity’s deliberate rebuff to God’s overtures of love and friendship. There is a fall; everyone falls; the first human beings fell. The fall, wherever and whenever it happens, always means rejection of God’s offer to us of an interpersonal relationship.
7. The doctrine of original sin underlines the human need for the grace and transforming might of Christ in order to rise above our congenital selfishness and self-centredness.
8. Humanity’s alienation, fragmentation and imbalance have been commented on by philosophers, psychologists,sociologists and ethnologists. But these researchers cannot affirm original sin. For this is something beyond their scope. Original sin may be called by these and other names – provided it is made clear that its special focus is our sinfulness in the sense of a blockage and rupture in our God-related-ness. But this is not discoverable by the purely technical investigator. It is meaningful only in the realm of faith. Itisadatumexclusivelyofrevelation.
9. This awareness of sinfulness that the doctrine of Original Sin connotes does not dispense sadness, gloom or despair. On the contrary it is joy-making; it is an engagement of optimism. For revelation apprises us of our sinfulness only after it has first told us about the Father of mercies who sends his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to be the Redeemer of all men/women (e.g., Rom 5; 2 Cor 5:18-21). Jesus Christ is the Father’s Word, his last and definitive utterance to the human race – an utterance not of wrath and condemnation but of mercy and loving kindness. It is from this realization that Jesus is the Saviour of our race that we deduce our sinfulness, our need of salvation.
10. The doctrine of Original Sin is tied to our understanding of baptism and thus of the Church. Baptism is initiation into the community of the Church, which frees us from Original Sin, because in this community we experience the mediated grace of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
11. The doctrine of Original Sin is not tied to the scientific hypothesis of monogenism, i.e. that the human race is descended from an original pair of parents.
12. God is not to blame for Original Sin, as though God had set up some arbitrary test which we then failed. Instead God does everything to save us, even sending his Son.
The seamless transition to truer emphasis is where today the Sacrament of baptism is recognised as the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Original sin is no longer given serious mention nor does it occupy centre stage. Through Baptism we are reborn as sons and daughters of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission. It is the sacrament of regeneration that looks forward.
I would urge you to read all about it in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (second edition). It is most enlightening, stimulating and comforting.
PS.This paper is also found as blog (dated 21.Nov.2018)on the website of the Armidale, NSW. Diocesan website at www//: smjcathedral.org.au