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Chapter 14: Sin Of Adam and Sins of Men and Women

Question A: For what aspects of the human condition does original sin account?

1. Although death is natural and inevitable, it hardly seems appropriate to us that we and those we love should die. Even worse than death is the general condition of conflict—of inner turmoil, of falling short of one’s ideals, of striving against others. The situation is no better, indeed is often worse, when one looks beyond the individual to society. Social structures which should promote justice foster oppression and war; races, nations, classes, and groups of all sorts struggle constantly for supremacy at one another’s expense. As for powers beyond the human, their attitude toward humankind, as attested by the various religions, seems ambiguous—by no means always benign and, to judge from many manifestations, in some respects distinctly hostile.3

2. Accounts of evil incompatible with Christian faith are common. As we have seen (5‑C), some posit an ultimate duality of good and evil principles, with human existence their battleground. Others suggest that evil is an illusion. Secular humanists, both Western liberals and Marxists, write off evil as a stage of evolutionary development and expect increasing knowledge or the unfolding dialectic of history eventually to overcome it. These false accounts of human misery fail to take into account people’s abuse of the power to choose freely.

3. Jews and Christians cannot consistently accept such accounts of evil. According to their religious tradition, God created everything good, and evil is a privation which arises primarily from the abuse of the God-like gift of freedom. Our misery is not inevitable; we have somehow brought it upon ourselves (see S.t., 1, q. 48, a. 5). Still, the account of evil given by the Jewish and Christian religious tradition does not eliminate its mysteriousness.

4. A Jewish writer near the time of Jesus remarks: “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist” (Wis 1.13–14; cf. Is 45.18). Yet death seems to be natural. If so, it must have been “made” by God; in that case, how can God be truly good? Death also lends a kind of support to sin, since the wicked seek oblivion in death (see Wis 1.16–2.9). Thus sin and death are essentially related. But as death is a universal feature of the human condition, so, too, must sin be in some sense universal.

5. The data of experience testify to this, as also to the fact that sin is, in some sense, inevitable. One sins freely; one also sins inevitably (see DS 228–30/106–8). We find ourselves preconditioned in a sinful situation, distracted by anxiety about death, driven by temptations we seem too weak to resist for long.

6. Even if this situation confronts all humankind, however, it could not have been this way at the beginning (see GS 13). For God is good, and sin cannot have originated with him. If, then, we cannot account for these universal features of the human condition by referring them to God, we must look instead to the beginning of humankind (see S.c.g., 4, 52). The problem requires us to consider the condition of Man in the innocence in which our race emerged from the hand of God. How did human beings first commit sin? Only in an abuse of freedom by Man at the beginning can we find an explanation for the misery which still afflicts the whole of humankind.4

The data of experience make clear the universality of sin. As St. Paul points out, those who do not believe in God are sunk in evil; this evil follows from all sorts of sins, which in turn issue from idolatry and nonbelief (see Rom 1.18–32). The situation cannot be blamed on God; he gave even the pagans sufficient knowledge to be aware of him, whom alone they should worship, and he gave them an adequate grasp on right and wrong (see Rom 1.20 and 2.14–16). How, then, does sin originate among the pagans, who do not break the law of God, yet fall into wickedness by abusing their freedom?

The Jewish sage suggests explanations for the origin of idolatry. For example, “For a father, consumed with grief at an untimely bereavement, made an image of his child, who had been suddenly taken from him; and he now honored as a god what was once a dead human being, and handed on to his dependents secret rites and initiations” (Wis 14.15). The ambition and greed of artisans and artists make idolatry flourish (see Wis 14.18–19; 15.11–13). And from idolatry flood all sorts of sins (see Wis 14.22–31). God is kind and gentle even with such sinners, for he provides them with the motive and opportunity for repentance (see Wis 12.2–10). Yet the pagans fail to seize the opportunity; their malice is ingrained; “they were an accursed race from the beginning” (Wis 12.11).

But is Israel free of sin? Not at all, despite being chosen by God and favored with his word of guidance and his faithful help. Jesus, after excoriating the scribes and Pharisees, says: “Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers” (Mt 23.31–32). No more than the pagans do the Jews avoid sin. “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3.10). Solomon prays, with wise consciousness of human sinfulness: “If they sin against you—for there is no man who does not sin . . .” (1 Kgs 8.46), taking for granted the inevitability of sin.

3. The starting point in experience for treating original sin (and much of the rest of the approach in this chapter) was suggested by the original text and supplement authorized by the Holy See to the “Dutch” catechism: A New Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), 259–70; Edouard Dhanis, S.J., and Jan Visser, C.Ss.R., “The Supplement to ‘A New Catechism’: On Behalf of the Commission of Cardinals appointed to examine ‘A New Catechism,” ’ 519–38.

4. Walter Kasper, Jesus the Christ (London: Burns and Oates, 1976), 203–4, presents an argument like that given here for taking seriously the substance of the traditional Catholic doctrine of original sin, concluding (204): “If someone for the sake of freedom wants to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, if he does not want either to define metaphysically the power of sin or to minimize it and if he wants to be able to justify his solution intellectually, he must see that the traditional doctrine of original sin—not in its misleading terminology, but in the sense in which it is really meant—is one of the greatest achievements in the history of theology and one of the most important contributions of Christianity to the history of ideas.”