Some years ago I worked in a parish with Religious Sister from radicalized and dying order. And she had all the usual aliments of radicalized women religious which, for brevity I will not recite here. But Among her ailments was the denial of the doctrine of Original Sin.
She had read a book published in those years by a radicalized priest, named Matthew Fox, who has since left the Catholic Priesthood. And in his book, Original Blessing, he denied Original Sin an proposed that we were all basically good, and that the concept of a cosmic fall, was negative not only to Man but also to creation. Frankly it is hard to distinguish Fox’s overall views from simple Pantheism. This is no place or time to recite his manifold errors here.
But poor Sister X (we’ll call her) she sat in a gathering of parishioners and outright denied Original Sin and declared that we are all basically good. As a young priest, though resistant to correcting an elderly person in public, I rushed to defend Church teaching and correct her erroneous teaching in that meeting.
Later I took her aside and questioned her: “You cannot possibly be serious about this are you?” With wild gesticulations of dismissiveness, she declared, “Oh you young priests are all so negative! I grew up in the bad old Church and you’re trying to bring all that back….All you think about is sin. Do you really think some apple in a tree caused some terrible fall?”
Hmm…, I said, “I don’t think it was so much the apple in the tree as it was the pair on the ground. I think that’s where the sin was. But seriously Sister, sin is a pretty significant problem, yet it does supply a kind of necessary premise to grace and mercy, don’t you think? I mean, if were all so good, and basically in good shape, who needs Jesus and what was he doing on that Cross? It is also clear to me Sister that you have never raised children!”
What I meant by this was that even the youngest “innocent” children, show forth the deep wounds left by Original Sin that the Church calls “concupiscence.” I find it remarkable, having observed my youngest brother (who was ten years younger than I) as he emerged from infancy, and other children as well, that there are enormous issues with selfishness, temper, anger and rebellion right from the start. The “terrible twos” are called that for a reason. Meltdowns are common in young children, temper tantrums, clenched fists, and red faces are not rare.
Yes, there are very deep wounds in the human heart, and they are not merely acquired by bad experiences, they seem present right from the start. Baptism takes away the source of the problem, but the many wounds need life long healing, especially since we “pick at the scabs” through life.
So I was on an errand with Sister. Every day for several weeks I brought her the Newspaper filled with stories of treachery, crime, corruption, sex scandals, murder, gang violence, you name it. And I said, “Sister, if it isn’t Original Sin, what is it?! Come on, you have to admit that there is something basically wrong with us as a human family!”
“Oh,” she said, “They are not depraved, they are just deprived.” Lovely, I thought, so now we’re quoting musicals (West Side Story) for our authority, instead of Scripture or the Church. It is true that Catholicism does not teach the “utter depravity” of the human person as do some Protestant sects, but that does not mean all is well either.
As we saw in yesterday’s Boston bombings, the cause of which is still largely unknown as I write, there is a great tendency toward evil in the human family, a tendency to which people are drawn to grater or lesser degrees, but a tendency that afflicts us all at some level. This concupiscence is a wound that needs healing.
At present there is the outworking of something Scripture calls “the mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess 2:7). There is evil in this world, and we are strangely drawn to it. Indeed, in these dark times we often celebrate it by calling “good” was God calls sin. We also turn it into a form of entertainment through pornography and violent movies and games. We glamorize gangsters, and “bad boys” in the hood. Illicit sexual union receives sympathetic treatment even outright exultation.
Yes, there is evil, sin and darkness in this world we are strangely attracted to it. We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, with our own fallen natures. As Boston reminds us, we need to be sober about the reality of sin and about our need for grace and mercy. Without grace and mercy, Hell begins now, and gets only worse. Only grace and mercy can really heal us.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has some important things to say about Original Sin that may be helpful in the wake of yesterday’s explosion of evil. Since this may be a sort of teachable moment about the “Mystery of Iniquity” let us listen to some excerpts from the wisdom and heart of Mother Church:
Sin is present in human history; any attempt to ignore it or to give this dark reality other names would be futile….Only the light of divine Revelation clarifies the reality of sin and particularly of the sin committed at mankind’s origins. Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc…
The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents. Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God,…Scripture witnesses to the disastrous influence of the one Jesus calls “a murderer from the beginning.”…Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness. (#s 386-398 selected)
Scripture portrays the tragic consequences of this first disobedience. Adam and Eve immediately lose the grace of original holiness. They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image – that of a God jealous of his prerogatives. …The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination.
Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”, for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history. (# 400)
After that first sin, the world is virtually inundated by sin There is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel and the universal corruption which follows in the wake of sin. Likewise, sin frequently manifests itself in the history of Israel, especially as infidelity to the God of the Covenant and as transgression of the Law of Moses. And even after Christ’s atonement, sin raises its head in countless ways among Christians.
Scripture and the Church’s Tradition continually recall the presence and universality of sin in man’s history: What Revelation makes known to us is confirmed by our own experience. For when man looks into his own heart he finds that he is drawn towards what is wrong and sunk in many evils which cannot come from his good creator.
Often refusing to acknowledge God as his source, man has also upset the relationship which should link him to his last end, and at the same time he has broken the right order that should reign within himself as well as between himself and other men and all creatures. (#s 400-401)
Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the “death of the soul”. Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin. (# 403)
Original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence”.
Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle. The whole of man’s history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity. (#s 405, 409).
The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the “reverse side” of the Good News that Jesus is the Savior of all men, that all need salvation and that salvation is offered to all through Christ. The Church, which has the mind of Christ, knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ. (# 389)
So there it is. The clear water of faith. Whatever the details we learn about the Boston Bombings in the days ahead, this is the back-story. A story of a terrible fall, a grave wound in the human heart that leads to an obtuse spirit and inclination to evil. Jesus alone can heal and save us from this present evil age (Gal 1:4).
Lord, Jesus: For the sake of thy sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world!