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

Question C: Are current attempts to revise the Church’s teaching defensible?

1. In what follows, three separate questions will be devoted to three important areas of difficulty concerning the teaching on original sin: the evolutionary account of human origins (question D), the seeming naturalness of death (question H), and the question of how a sin can be hereditary (question I). The present question considers attempts to revise the Church’s teaching in view of these difficulties.8 The unsatisfactoriness of the new approaches should reinforce our determination to resolve the difficulties without contradicting any element of the Church’s teaching.

2. Modern Scripture studies make it clear that less is asserted about original sin in the Bible—for example, in Genesis—than might appear to be the case. The revealed truth is communicated by a linguistic-literary vehicle which includes picturesque details that need not be taken as part of revelation. Moreover, theories of an original golden age influenced many of the Church Fathers in their descriptions of the condition of Man at the beginning, while St. Augustine linked the transmission of original sin with the vehemence of sexual passion.9 Although such literary and theological elaborations are sometimes confused with the essential teaching of the Church, they are not part of it. Missing this point, defenders of the tradition sometimes burden themselves unnecessarily, while critics often focus their attack on points not essential to the Church’s teaching.10

Awareness of the distinction between the propositions expressed and the linguistic-literary vehicle of their expression was not always clear prior to the nineteenth century, and probably was not clear to those who participated in Trent. Therefore, it seems appropriate to some contemporary theologians to limit the faith-requirement concerning original sin to what scholars today think can be established from Scripture, and then to reinterpret the definitions of Trent accordingly. This strategy also offers promise for resolving other difficulties, while still maintaining a doctrine of original sin sufficient to make clear what is wrong with humankind prior to personal sins.

However, while sound studies make it clear that Scripture says less about original sin than might have been thought in times past, they do not show that anything in the Bible is incompatible with Catholic faith concerning original sin as defined by Trent.11 Moreover, while Catholic faith teaches more about original sin than could be established by cautious modern exegesis of Scripture, the definitive teaching of the Church on original sin is far more modest than popular impressions and past theological speculations.

Scripture must be interpreted in the light of living faith. The sense of Scripture which the Church has held and still holds is its true sense. In the matter of original sin, Trent explicitly specifies the meaning of Romans 5.12. Moreover, the Church’s teaching helps greatly to sort out revealed truth from literary vehicle in passages such as the account in Genesis of the origin of human sinfulness.

3. One approach to revising the Church’s teaching begins by emphasizing that human persons are destined for fulfillment in Christ, but require grace and a free decision for Christ to come to this fulfillment. This fulfillment is sharply contrasted with human nature considered by itself, apart from Christ. Hence, according to those who take this approach, original sin need not be considered a pervasive or primordial moral evil, but can instead be identified with such inevitable aspects of the human condition as our creaturely status, our vulnerability to temptation, or the fact that we are only gradually evolving toward the status we shall eventually enjoy.12

4. Because God is responsible for these aspects of our condition, however, this approach faces a dilemma: Either these are not evils or God is responsible for evil. If they are not evils, then it is a denial of original sin, not an explanation, to reduce it to such factors. If they are evils for which God is responsible, we have a new theory of original sin at the expense of denying God’s goodness.

The teaching of Trent makes it clear that the first humans were constituted in holiness, but lost it by their disobedience. This proposition is central, as will become clearer in what follows, since it points to what is primary in the privation which original sin is: the lack of that grace in human persons which by God’s generosity could and should have been in them merely by their coming into being as members of the family of humankind.

Yet it is a mistake to proceed from this point in isolation and try to account for original sin by assuming in human persons simply as created and as human a true resistance to participation in divine life—a resistance which must be overcome by grace. This would mean that there is some inherent incompatibility between fulfillment in human goods and fulfillment in divine goods—an inevitable clash between the natural and the supernatural—so that a perfectly natural thrust toward human fulfillment would entail a choice against supernatural life. There is no such incompatibility. It is not necessary that the human decrease so the divine might increase. Therefore, an adequate account of original sin must make clear how this condition affects the will, making every human person, until fully healed by grace, prone to immoral acts by which human goods are violated.

Much recent Catholic theology has been influenced in respect to original sin and evolution by the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. He sought to include all reality in a single evolutionistic scheme. Teilhard’s vision is not a scientific hypothesis; rather, it is speculative metaphysics and theology. In Teilhard’s system, neither free choice nor sin is fully recognized, and original sin is dismissed as an obstacle to the evolutionist optimism with which Teilhard replaces the traditional doctrine of the redemption.13

5. Another approach to revising the Church’s teaching identifies original sin with the complex product of personal sins, which comprise a situation of evil impinging on every individual. Some claim this situation is referred to by the Scriptural expression “sin of the world.” However, while “sin of the world” might refer either to the pervasive situation of evil in the world or to original sin as the Church understands it, the expression cannot possibly refer to both. For although baptism remits original sin, it clearly does nothing to alter the environment of sin for those who are baptized.14 Evidently, then, original sin and the complex product of personal sins must differ.

Many of these attempted theological reconstructions fail to explain why humankind cannot in principle be redeemed by the combined natural powers of human persons, as all secular humanists propose. In this way, they rejoin the Pelagian heresy which evoked the most significant development of the traditional doctrine of original sin and of grace (see DS 222–30/101–8).

Some theologians who propose revisions of the Church’s teaching go beyond careful exegesis and theological reflection, to reject—not merely interpret and develop—what the Church has definitively taught. In doing so, they set aside faith. But faith is an essential presupposition of true theology. It is not surprising that no one has proposed any cogent principle by which revisions are to be limited or graded once the requirement of faith is set aside. A question such as original sin is simply not like an issue in science or philosophy, where experience and reason can support some opinions and rule out others. Once the Church’s teaching on such a matter is set aside, one opinion is as groundless as another.

6. Radical revisions of Catholic teaching on original sin threaten a far more important doctrine: that on redemption. If it is difficult to understand how sin was introduced into the world by the sin of one person and has been passed on from him to us, it is no easier—indeed, it is more difficult—to understand how grace is restored to humankind by the redemptive work of Jesus and communicated from him to us. Again, if it is incredible that there was a conditional gift of immortality to a faithful humanity at the beginning, it is more incredible that there should be the actual gift of resurrection to redeemed humanity at the end. If, finally, one cannot accept a break in the continuum of nature to allow for the special creation of human persons, one will find it far more difficult to accept the total transformation of nature into the new heavens and new earth.

7. The Council of Trent insists on the link between original sin and redemption (see B above). In doing so, it relies on and authoritatively interprets the doctrine of St. Paul, who explains the unity of redemption accomplished in Jesus by analogy with the unity of sin initiated by Man. Certainly, Paul’s main interest is in reconciliation through Christ. However, contrary to what is often said, Paul does not simply project original sin as a kind of shadow of the redemption. Rather, he assumes it as the starting point for clarifying the redemption: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned . . .” (Rom 5.12).15

In speaking of the sin of the first man, Trent refers to Genesis, chapters 2 and 3. Taken as it stands, the story in Genesis pictures the first humans as part of God’s good creation. They disobey a divine command and are worsened in every aspect of human goodness.

One interesting feature of the story is the serpent’s argument against the divine threat of death: “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gn 3.4–5). Scripture here suggests a basic temptation: Sin has the appeal of freedom to do as one pleases, regardless of moral norms.16 Before one encounters the consequences, it seems that sin, rather than being an obstacle to fulfillment, is a requirement if one is not to be limited arbitrarily. The appeal of sin is to one’s desire to do and experience everything, to know—that is, to experience and enjoy—both what is recommended as good and what is forbidden as evil. The self- limitation inherent in choice is restrictive enough. Why must one also submit to moral norms, which appear to be additional and arbitrary limits?

Considerations along these lines support the view that the Man of Genesis 2 and 3 is every man, not simply the first man. But while these chapters clearly are not history in any ordinary sense, we should not conclude that they are myth. There is another possibility, namely, that in the concrete form of story they propose an inspired hypothesis. This hypothesis accounts not only for the general features of individuals’ sins, but also for the common human situation of existential evil and mortality in a world God had created and deemed “very good” (see Gn 1.31).17 For St. Paul, an expansion of the hypothesis becomes an element in his account of how faith in Christ justifies while nothing else does.

8. For a clear summary of a spectrum of revisionist approaches: James L. O’Connor, S.J., “Original Sin: Contemporary Approaches,” Theological Studies, 29 (1968), 215–40. A less technical summary of many positions: George J. Dyer, “Original Sin: Theological Abstraction or Dark Reality?” Chicago Studies, 17 (1978), 385–98. Also: B. O. McDermott, “Original Sin,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 17:471–72; “The Theology of Original Sin: Recent Developments,” Theological Studies, 38 (1977), 478–512. One of the more helpful recent theological attempts: Maurizio Flick and Zoltan Alszeghy, Il peccato originale, 2d ed. (Brescia: Queriniana, 1974). The authors summarize other current views (179–226) and present their own view (273–374) which, if not altogether satisfactory, does include most of what is helpful in other recent works. A critical examination of a few of the most important revisionist approaches: G. Vandervelde, Original Sin: Two Major Trends in Contemporary Roman Catholic Interpretation (Amsterdam: Rodopi N.V., 1975), 313–34 (summary of criticism). The multiplication of theories of original sin inconsistent with one another and the Church’s teaching is a prime example of theological disarray: José Luis Illanes Maestre, “Pluralismo teológico y verdad de la fe,” Scripta Theologica, 7 (1975), 619–84.

9. See J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978), 346–66. Origen was strongly influenced by Neoplatonism, and his thought influenced many others: Antonia Tripolitis, “Return to the Divine: Salvation in the Thought of Plotinus and Origen,” in Disciplina Nostra, Patristic Monograph Series, 6, ed. D. Winslow (Philadelphia: 1979), 171–78. Gregory of Nyssa also supposed that humankind’s original paradise was more spiritual than natural, and extramundane: Ernest V. McClear, S.J., “The Fall of Man and Original Sin in the Theology of Gregory of Nyssa,” Theological Studies, 9 (1948), 175–212, esp. 177–85. Although sometimes questionable as to interpretation, George Arkell Riggan’s dissertation includes a great wealth of scholarship, not only on St. Augustine but on other Church Fathers and a variety of ancient literature: “Original Sin in the Thought of Augustine,” Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1949, esp. 44–166.

10. For a plausible attempt to disengage the essential from the nonessential: Anthony T. Padovano, “Original Sin and Christian Anthropology,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 22 (1967), 93–132, summary 120–22. But some critics of received treatments of original sin focus on nonessential features. For example: Herbert Haag, Is Original Sin in Scripture? (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969), 23–63 and 101–6; a less extreme example: Peter de Rosa, Christ and Original Sin (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1967), 80–86.

11. For a brief exposition: Michael J. Cantley, “The Biblical Doctrine of Original Sin,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 22 (1967), 133–71; this is generally sound, although the author accepts (148–50) the view—at odds with Trent and difficult to reconcile with other truths of faith such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the bodily assumption of Mary—that even if Adam had not sinned, still he would have died. A book-length treatment: A. M. Dubarle, The Biblical Doctrine of Original Sin (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964), 45–200. This work is well-argued, clear, and helpful, except for the final chapter, where the author’s speculations are hard to square with Catholic teaching.

12. A rather straightforward example of this approach: A. Hulsbosch, O.S.A., God in Creation and Evolution (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965), 24–49. Alfred Vanneste, The Dogma of Original Sin (Louvain: Vander/Nauwelaerts, 1975), reduces original sin to the universality of personal sin in adults (83–92) and strongly criticizes views such as Hulsbosch’s (180–82). All the same, Vanneste himself denies that creation has any goodness in itself apart from relation to the Christian economy of salvation (157–59), and thus seems to imply that an initial condition of personal, freely chosen sin is (despite its freedom) an inevitable moment of created persons’ reality in themselves antecedent to their incorporation into Christ. For a detailed analysis and critique of Vanneste’s view: Vandervelde, op. cit., 259–88 and 322–24.

13. See Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution, trans. René Hague (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich, 1969), esp. 36–55, 79–86, 133–37, 162–63, 189–98, and 212–20. For some links between Teilhard and revisionist accounts of original sin: Robert T. Francoeur, Perspectives in Evolution (Baltimore: Helicon, 1965), 145–229. One cannot proceed far in the direction Teilhard takes without embracing a monistic theory (some sort of pantheism) in which evil becomes an illusion; the dialectic of freedom, so central to Christian faith, simply drops out. Still, Teilhard’s concern to emphasize the positive side of the redemption—the fulfillment of everything in Christ—and our role in it is sound and important, as is made clear by Robert L. Faricy, S.J., “Teilhard de Chardin’s Theology of Redemption,” Theological Studies, 27 (1966), 553–79. Chapters nineteen through twenty-three below will show how this concern can be satisfied without compromising the dialectic of freedom and the essential character of fulfillment in Christ as a communion of persons.

14. Piet Schoonenberg, S.J., Man and Sin: A Theological View (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965), 177–81, suggests that original sin might be reduced to the “sin of the world,” which he describes as an actual sinful situation (111–18). Still, he holds that infants need baptism, even if they are in a Christian family, and that this sacrament is effective (190–91). He simply does not consider how baptism, which does not change the situation of sin he describes, is effective. For an analysis and critique of Schoonenberg’s theory in its various stages, see Vandervelde, op. cit., 57–84, 107–11, 149–65, 187–234, 241–48, and 313–22. The baptismal liturgy itself, viewed in the light of Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers, strongly supports the traditional teaching: G. M. Lukken, Original Sin in the Roman Liturgy (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973), 266–96; Manuel Garrido Boñano, O.S.B., “El pecado original en los ritos bautismales,” in Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, El Pecado Original: XXIX Semana Española de Teologia (Madrid: 1970), 78–125. In the volume last cited, Joaquín M. Alonso Antona, C.M.F., “Schoonenberg y su teoria del pecado original,” 357–96, provides an incisive critique not only of Schoonenberg’s theory but also of his theological methodology.

15. This is not to say that because St. Paul presupposes Adam as original sinner and principle of human sin and death, he asserts the reality of Adam. The text must not be pressed too far. But Trent’s interpretation of it cannot be ignored, nor can Trent’s teaching be subjected to “interpretation” which denies hereditary alienation without contradicting at least one of the following: (1) all humankind is in a common situation of existential evil, not merely defective development or the like; (2) God did not put humankind in the condition of evil; (3) by baptism into Christ individuals really are freed from the common situation of existential evil and reconciled to God. Careful exegesis admits an interpretation of Rom 5.12 consonant with Trent and consistent with the three essential truths stated above: S. Lyonnet, S.J., “La Doctrine du péché originel en Rom., V, 12,” in Dictionnaire de la Bible, Supplément, 7:524–63; C. E. B. Cranfield, “On Some of the Problems in the Interpretation of Romans 5.12,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 22 (1969), 324–41; A. J. M. Wedderburn, “The Theological Structure of Romans V. 12,” New Testament Studies, 19 (1972–73), 339–54.

16. See W. Malcolm Clark, “A Legal Background for the Yahwist’s Use of ‘Good and Evil’ in Genesis 2–3,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 88 (1969), 266–78. Clark shows that “good” and “evil” refer to those things or possibilities which happen to be one or the other; they are real alternatives; the “knowledge” of both is the autonomous choice of either and rejection of the limitations to which the divine order subjects creatures.

17. See Louis F. Hartman, C.Ss.R., “Sin in Paradise,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 20 (1958), 24–40.