Church Teachings on Original Sin

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday 24 September 1986, the Holy Father spoke on what the Church teaches about original sin, especially in documents of Vatican II, especially the Constitution Gaudium et spes, but also the Post-Synodal Exhortation, Reconciliatio et paenitentia.

1. Thanks to the catecheses given in the context of the current cycle, we have before our eyes, on the one hand, the analysis of the first sin in the history of man according to the description contained in Gen 3; on the other, the broad image of what divine Revelation teaches on the subject of the universality and hereditary character of sin. This truth is constantly proposed by the Magisterium of the Church, also in our time. For this reason it is de rigueur to refer to the documents of Vatican II, especially the Constitution Gaudium et spes , without forgetting the Post-Synodal Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia (1984).

2. The source of this Magisterium is above all the passage from the book of Genesis , in which we see that man, tempted by the Evil One ("on the day you eat from it... you will be like God, knowing good and evil" : Gen 3, 5), " he abused his freedom , rising up against God and pretending to achieve his own end apart from God" ( Gaudium et spes 13). Then " the eyes of both of them (that is, of the man and of the woman) were opened, "...and they saw that they were naked" ( Gen 3:7). And when the Lord "called the man, saying, 'Where are you? '3, 9-10). A very significant answer. The man who previously (in a state of original justice), entertained friendly and trustingly with the Creator in all the truth of his spiritual-corporeal being, created in the image of God, has now lost the foundation of that friendship and alliance. He has lost the grace of participation in the life of God : the good of belonging to Him in the sanctity of the original relationship of subordination and filiation. Sin, on the contrary, made its presence felt immediately in the existence and in all the behavior of men and women: shame of their own transgression and of the consequent condition of sinners and, therefore, fear of God. Revelation and psychological analysis are associated in this biblical page to express the "state" of man after the fall.

3. We have seen that another truth emerges from the books of the Old and New Testaments: something like an "invasion" of sin in the history of mankind. Sin has become man 's common destiny, his inheritance " from the womb ". "My mother conceived me as a sinner," exclaims the Psalmist in a moment of existential anguish, in which repentance and the invocation of divine mercy are joined ( Ps 50/51). For his part, Saint Paul, who frequently refers, as we saw in the previous catechesis, to that same distressing experience, theoretically formulates this truth in the Letter to the Romans: "We are all under sin" ( Rom 3 , 9). "confess guilty before God " ( Rom 3, 19). "We were by nature children of wrath" ( Eph 2, 3). In all these texts we are dealing with allusions to human nature abandoned to itself, without the help of grace, biblicists comment, to nature as it has been reduced by the sin of the first parents, and, consequently, to the condition of all their descendants and heirs.

4. The biblical texts on the universality and on the hereditary character of sin, almost "congenital" to nature in the state in which all men receive it in the same conception from their parents, introduce us to the most directly from the Catholic doctrine on original sin.

It is a truth implicitly transmitted in the teachings of the Church from the beginning and converted into a formal declaration of the Magisterium in the XV Synod of Carthage in the year 418 and in the Synod of Orange in the year 529, mainly against the errors of Pelagius (cf. DS 222-223; 371-372) . Later, in the period of the Reformation, this truth was solemnly formulated by the Council of Trent in 1546 (cf. DS 1510-1516). The Tridentine Decree on Original Sin expresses this truth in the precise form in which it is the object of the faith and doctrine of the Church. We can, therefore, refer to this Decree to deduce the essential contents of Catholic dogma on this point.

5. Our first parents (the Decree says: "Primum hominem Adam"), in the earthly paradise (therefore, in the state of original justice and perfection) sinned gravely, transgressing the divine mandate . Because of their sin they lost sanctifying grace; therefore, they also lost the holiness and justice in which they had been "constituted" from the beginning, drawing upon themselves the wrath of God. The consequence of this sin was death as we experience it. Here we must remember the words of the Lord in Gen 2:17 : "Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day you eat of it you will surely die .". We have dealt with the meaning of this prohibition in previous catecheses. As a consequence of sin, Satan managed to extend his "domain" over man. The Tridentine Decree speaks of "slavery under the dominion of the one who has the power of death " (cf. DS 1511). Thus, the situation under the dominion of Satan is described as " slavery ".

It will be necessary to return to this aspect of the drama of the origins to examine the elements of "alienation" that sin brought with it. Let us emphasize that while the Tridentine Decree refers to the "sin of Adam" as the proper and personal sin of the first parents (what theologians call peccatum originale originans ), but it does not forget to describe the disastrous consequences that this sin had in the history of the man (the so-called peccatum originale originatum ).

Modern culture expresses serious reservations above all about original sin in this second sense. It fails to admit the idea of ​​a hereditary sin , that is, linked to the decision of one who is "head of a lineage" and not with that of the interested subject. He considers that such a conception contrasts with the personalistic vision of man and with the demands that derive from full respect for his subjectivity.

And yet the Church's teaching on original sin can also prove to be extremely valuable for modern man, who, after rejecting the datum of faith in this matter, is unable to explain the mysterious and distressing subterfuges of evil, which he experiences daily. , and ends up oscillating between an expeditious and irresponsible optimism and a radical and desperate pessimism.

In the next catechesis we will stop to reflect on the message that faith offers us on a topic that is so important for man as an individual and for humanity as a whole.

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