Summary of Catechesis on Original Sin

Author: Pope John Paul II

Given at weekly public audiences, September 8-October 8, 1986

(Numbers of paragraphs refer to the numbered paragraphs as given in L'Osservatore Romano)


2. The first sin is described in Sacred Scripture in the context of the mystery of creation. In other words, the sin committed at the beginning of human history is presented against the background of creation, i.e., God's magnificent gift of existence. In the context of the visible world, man receives as a gift his existence as an image and likeness of God, a rational being endowed with intellect and will. Within the context of God's creative gift we can we can best see the essence of the "first" sin man's free choice made with a misuse of these faculties.

Obviously we are not speaking here of the beginning of history as it is described in the theories of science but of the beginning as it appears in the pages of Scripture. Scripture uncovers in this "beginning" the origin of the moral evil which humanity experiences, and identifies it with sin.

3. The Book of Genesis, in the first narrative of the work of creation (Gen 1:1-28 which is chronologically later than the narrative of Gen 2:4-15) underlines the original "goodness" of man created by God as male and female. Several times it says, in the description of creation, "God saw that it was good...". Because it is a case of a created being in the image of God, i.e., rational and free, the phrase indicates the "goodness" that belongs to such a being in accordance with the plan of the creator.

4. This is the basis of the truth of faith which the Church teaches about the original innocence of man, his original righteousness (justitia originalis) as is seen in the description given in Genesis of the human person as he came from the hands of God and lived in full intimacy with him; the Book of Ecclesiastes also says that "God made man righteous" (7:29). When the Council of Trent teaches that the first Adam lost the holiness and righteousness in which he had been established (DS 1511), this means that before sin man possessed sanctifying grace with all the supernatural gifts that make man "righteous" before God. We may sum up all this by saying that at the beginning, man was in friendship with God.

5. In the light of the Bible, the state of man before sin appears as a condition of original perfection, expressed in a certain way by the image of "paradise" that Genesis offers us. If we ask what was the source of this perfection, the answer is that it was found above all in friendship with God by means of sanctifying grace and in the other gifts that in theological language are called preternatural and which were lost through sin.

Thanks to such divine gifts, man who was joined in friendship and harmony with his principle of being, had and maintained in himself interior equilibrium; he was (text garbled) of decay and death. The "dominion" over the world, which God had given man from the beginning was realized first of all in man himself as dominion over himself. In this self-dominion and equilibrium he had the "integrity" (integritas) of existence in the sense that man was intact and well ordered in all his being because he was free from the triple concupiscence that inclines him to the pleasures of the senses, to coveting earthly goods and to assert himself against the dictates of reason.

Therefore, there was also order in his relationship with the other, in the communion and intimacy that makes for happiness: as in the initial relationship between man and woman, Adam and Eve, the first couple and also the first nucleus of human society. The brief sentence of Genesis seems very eloquent from this point of view: "Now both were naked, the man and his wife but they were not ashamed."

6. The presence of original righteousness and perfection in the human person...did not mean that man as a creature endowed with liberty like the other spiritual beings, was exempted from the testing of his freedom right from the beginning! The same revelation...also tells us of the fundamental test that was reserved for man and in which he failed.

7. In Genesis, this test is described as the prohibition to eat of the fruit "of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." This means that from the very beginning the Creator reveals him self to a rational and free being as the God of the Covenant and hence of friendship and joy but also as the source of good and therefore, of the distinction between good and evil in the moral sense.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil recalls symbolically the absolute limit which man as a creature must recognize and respect. Man depends on the Creator and is subject to the laws by which the Creator has established the order of the world which he created, the essential order of existence (ordo rerum); therefore man is also subject to the moral norms which regulate the use of freedom. The primordial test is, therefore, aimed at the person's free will, at his freedom. Will man confirm the fundamental order of creation in his conduct and recognize the truth that he himself is created—the truth of the dignity that belongs to him as the image of God but also the truth of his creaturely limitation?

Unfortunately, we know the results of the test: man failed. Revelation tells us this but it sets this sad news within the context of the truth of Redemption so that we can look with confidence to our merciful Creator and Lord.


1. In the context of creation and of the bestowal of gifts by which God constitutes man in the state of holiness and of original justice, the description of the first sin which we find in the third chapter of Genesis, acquires a greater clarity. It is obvious that this description which hinges on the transgression of the divine command not to eat "of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil," is to be interpreted by taking into account the character of the ancient text and especially its literary form. However, while bearing in mind this scientific requirement in the study of the first book of Sacred Scripture, it cannot be denied that one sure element emerges from the detailed account of the sin: that it describes a primordial event, that it is a fact, which according to Revelation took place at the beginning of human history. For this very reason, it presents as well another certain element, namely the fundamental and decisive implication of that event for man's relationship with God and consequently for the interior "situation" of man himself for the reciprocal relationships between people and in general for man's relationship with the world.

2. The fact underlying the descriptive forms that really matters is of a moral nature and is imprinted in the very roots of the human spirit. It gives rise to a fundamental change in the human condition. Man is driven forth from the state of original justice and finds himself in a state of sinfulness—status naturae lapsae.

It is a state in which sin exists and is marked by an inclination to sin. From that moment the whole history of humanity will be burdened by this state. In fact, the first human being (man and woman) received sanctifying grace from God not only for himself but as the founder of the human family for all his descendants. Therefore, through sin which set man in conflict with God, he forfeited grace (he fell into disgrace) even in regard to the inheritance for his descendants.

According to the Church's teaching, based on Revelation, the essence of original sin as the heritage of our progenitors consists in this privation of grace added to nature.

4. The human sin at the beginning of history, the primordial sin, of which we read in Genesis 3, occurred under the influence of this being (the devil).

5. It is not difficult to discern in this text (Gen 3:1-5) the essential problems of human life hidden under an apparently simple form. To eat or not to eat the fruit of a certain tree may itself seem irrelevant. However, the tree "of the knowledge of good and evil" denotes the first principle of human life to which is linked a fundamental problem. The tree signifies the insurmountable limit for man and for any creature however perfect. The creature, in fact, is always merely a creature and not God. Certainly he cannot claim to be like God, "to know good and evil" like God. God alone is the source of all being, God alone is absolute Truth and Goodness according to which good and evil are measured and from which they receive their distinction. God alone is the eternal Legislator from whom every law in the created world derives and in particular the law of human nature. Man as a rational creature knows this law and should let himself be guided by it in his own conduct. He cannot himself pretend to establish the moral law, to decide himself what is good and what is bad, independently of the Creator, even against the Creator. Neither man nor any other creature can set himself in the place of God, claiming for himself the mastery of the moral order, contrary to creation's own ontological constitution.

6. In the account of Genesis, in that guise of an apparently ir relevant plot, we find man's fundamental problem linked to his very condition as a creature. Man as a rational being should let himself be guided by the "First Truth" which is moreover, the truth of his very existence...In fact, the tempter by insinuating doubt on the truth of the relationship with God, calls in question the state of original justice. In yielding to the tempter man commits a personal sin and causes in human nature, the state of original sin.

7. As we see from the biblical account, sin does not have its primary origin in the human heart (and conscience) of man) it does not arise from his spontaneous initiative. It is in a certain sense, the reflection and the consequence of the sin that had already occurred in the world of invisible beings... In them arose the "doubt" which, as recounted in the third chapter of Genesis, the tempter insinuates in our first parents. Already thy had placed in a state of suspicion and accusation God who as Creator is the sole source of the good granted to all creatures especially to spiritual creatures...They were the first who had claimed the power "to know good and evil like God" and they had chosen themselves over God. And man, by yielding to the suggest ion of the tempter, became the slave and accomplice of the rebellious spirits!

8. This is perhaps the most penetrating explanation possible of the concept of that sin at the beginning of history which occurred through man's yielding to the devil's suggestion: contemptus Dei, the rejection of God, contempt of God, hatred of everything connected with God or that comes from God.

9. (The biblical description) attests that the first man acted against the will of the Creator under the influence of the tempter's assurance that "the fruits of this tree serve to ac quire knowledge." It does not seem that man had fully accepted the totality of negation and hatred of God contained in the words of the "father of lies." Instead, he accepted the suggestion to avail himself of a created thing contrary to the prohibition of the Creator, thinking that he also—man—could be "like God, knowing good and evil."

According to Saint Paul, man's first sin consists especially in disobedience to God (cf. Rom 5:19)... It can be said that the sin "at the beginning" described in Genesis 3, in a certain sense contains the original "model" of every sin of which man is capable.


1. We can summarize the content of the previous catechesis in the words of the Second Vatican Council: "Although man was made by God in a state of holiness, from the very dawn of history he abuses his liberty at the urging of personified Evil. Thus he set himself against God and sought fulfillment apart from God" (G&S, 13). Essentially, this is the analysis of the first sin in the history of humanity which we have made on the basis of Genesis 3.

It was the sin of our first parents but connected to it was a sinful condition which was passed on to all their descendants and which is called original sin... The bible, against the background of Gen 3, describes in the subsequent chapters of Genesis and also in other books how sin "invaded" the whole world as a result of Adam's sin, by a kind of universal infection of all humanity.

2. Already in Gen 4 we read what happened between the two elder sons of Adam and Eve, we read in chapter six of the universal corruption resulting from sin... Likewise in the same book we see in the account of the Flood at the time of Noah, the consequence of that universal corruption resulting from sin (Gen 7-9). Genesis mentions also the building of the Tower of Babel (11)... In this regard we must note that in the course of history, sin is manifested not only as an action clearly directed "against" God but at times it is also an attempt to act "independently of God" as if God did not exist.

3. The witness to the general sinfulness of mankind so clear al ready in Genesis is found in various ways in other parts of the Bible. In every case, this universal condition of sinfulness is placed in relationship with the fact that man turns his back on God. St. Paul in the Romans is eloquent on this subject (cf. Rom 1:28-31; 25-27; 32).

4. Symptomatic of the times in which we live is the fact that a description similar to that in St. Paul's Letter to the Romans is found in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 27... The presence of these facts is sad and dreadful evidence of that "infection" of human nature as it appears in the Bible and is taught by the Church's magisterium.

5. For the moment, we shall make two observations. The first is that Divine Revelation and the Magisterium of the Church, its authentic interpreter, constantly and systematically speak of the presence and universality of sin in human history. The second is that this sinful situation, repeated from generation to generation is perceptible from the outside in history through the grace phenomenon of moral sickness which is noticeable in personal and social life but it becomes perhaps even more recognizable and striking if we direct our glance to the interior of man ... cf. G&S 13; cf. also Job 4:17, 4:4, 15:14; Prov. 20:9; Ps 142:2, 57:3, 50:5.

7. Sacred Scripture impels us to seek the root of sin in the interior of man and in his conscience, in his heart. This thought seems to be expressed in Ps 50:10. Both the universality of sin and its hereditary character, which makes it in a certain sense "congenital" in human nature, are frequently stated in the Bible (cf. Ps 13:3; Mt 19:8; Rom 7:14-15, 7:18, 7:21).


1. Man in the beginning (in the state of original justice) spoke to the Creator with friendship and confidence in the whole truth of his spiritual/corporeal being, created in God's image but he now has lost the basis of that friendship and covenant. He has lost the grace of sharing in God's life: the good of belonging to him in the holiness of the original relationship of subordination and sonship. But sin has immediately made its presence felt in the existence and the whole comportment of the man and the woman: shame for their transgression and the consequent condition as sinners and therefore fear of God.

4. The biblical texts on the universality and hereditary nature of sin as through "congenital" in nature in the state in which everyone receives it at the moment of conception from one's parents, lead us to examine more directly the Catholic teaching on original sin. (Also quoted: Ps 50, Rom 3:9, 19; Eph 2:3)

It is a case of a truth transmitted implicitly in the church's teaching from the very beginning which became a formal declaration of the Magisterium in the XV Synod of Carthage in 418 and the Synod of Orange in 329, principally against the errors of Pelagius (DS 222-223; 371-372). Later, during the period of the Reformation, this truth was solemnly formulated by the Council of Trent in 1546 (DS 1510-1516). The Tridentine Decree on original sin expresses this truth in the precise form in which it is the object of faith and of the church's teaching. We can therefore, refer to this Decree for the essential content of the Catholic dogma on this point.

5. Our first parents (the Decree says: Primum hominem Adam), in the earthly paradise (and therefore in the state of original justice and perfection) sinned gravely by transgressing the commandment of God. Because of their sin they lost santifying grace; likewise they lost also the holiness and justice in which they were "constituted" from the beginning, drawing down upon themselves the anger of God. The consequence of this sin was death as we now know it ... we note that the Tridentine Decree refers to the "sin of Adam" inasmuch as it was our first parents' own personal sin (what the theologians call peccatum originale originans) but it does not fail to describe its fateful consequences in the history of mankind (the so-called peccatum originale originatum).

It is especially in regard to original sin in this second meaning that modern culture raises strong reservations. It cannot admit the idea of a hereditary sin connected with the decision of a progenitor and not with that of the person concerned. It holds that such a view runs counter to the personalistic vision of man and to the demands which derive from the full respect for his subjectivity.

However, the Church's teaching on original sin can be extremely valuable also for modern man who having rejected the data of faith in this matter, can no longer understand the mysterious and distressing aspects of evil which he daily experiences and he ends up by wavering between a hasty and unjustified optimism and a radical pessimism bereft of hope.


1. The Council of Trent solemnly expressed the Church's faith concerning original sin. In the previous catechesis we considered that Council's teaching in regard to the personal sin of our first parents. Now we wish to reflect on what the council says about the consequences of that sin for humanity.

2. In this regard, the Tridentine Decree states first of all: Adam's sin has passed to all his descendants, that is to all men and women as descendants of our first parents and their heirs in human nature already deprived of God's friendship.

The Tridentine Decree (DS 1512) explicitly states that Adam's sin tainted not only himself but also all his descendants. Adam forfeited original justice and holiness not only for himself but also for us (nobis etiam). Therefore, he transmitted to the whole human race not only bodily death and other penalties (consequences of sin) but also sin itself as the death of the soul (peccatum quod est mors animae.)

3. Here the Council of Trent has recourse to an observation of Saint Paul in the Letter to the Romans, to which reference had already been made by the Synod of Carthage, repeating a teaching already widespread in the Church. (The Holy Father here compares a modern translation of Rom 5:12 with the original Greek and old Latin Vulgate—the famous "eph hoi" [in quo] and he then continues). However, this diversity of interpretations of the expression "eph hoi" does not change the basic truth in Saint Paul's text, namely that Adam's sin (the sin of our first parents) had consequences for all mankind. Moreover, in the same chapter of the Letter to the Romans, the Apostle write: "By one man's disobedience all became sinners" (5:19) and in the preceding verse: "one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men" (5:18). Saint Paul therefore connects the sinful situation of all humanity with the fall of Adam.

4. Saint Paul's statements just quoted and to which reference is made by the Church's magisterium, enlighten our faith on the consequences of Adam's sin for all mankind. Catholic exegetes and theologians will always be guided by this teaching in evaluating, with the wisdom of faith, the explanations offered by science about the origins of man. In particular, the words of Paul VI to a symposium of theologians and scientists are valid for a stimulus for further research in this regard: "It is evident that the explanations of original sin given by some modern authors will appear to you as irreconcilable with genuine Catholic teaching. Such authors, starting from the unproved premise of polygenism, deny, more or less clearly, that the sin from which such a mass of evils has derived in humanity was, above all, the disobedience of Adam, the "first man" figure of that future one, which occurred at the beginning of history (AAS LVIII, 1966, 654).

5. The Tridentine Decree contains another statement: Adam's sin is transmitted to all his descendants by generation and not merely by way of bad example. The Decree states: "This sin of Adam which by origin is unique and transmitted by generation and no by way of imitation is present in all as proper to each" (DS 1513).

Therefore, original sin is transmitted by way of natural generation. This conviction of the Church is indicated also by the practice of infant baptism to which the conciliar decree refers. Newborn infants are incapable of committing personal sin yet in accordance with the church's centuries old tradition, they are baptized shortly after birth for the remission of sin. The Decree states: "they are truly baptized for the remission of sin so that what they contracted in generation may be cleansed by regeneration" (DS 1514).

In this context it is evident that original sin in Adam's descendants has not the character of personal guilt. It is the privation of sanctifying grace in a nature which through the fault of the first parents has been diverted from its supernatural end. It is a "sin of nature" and only analogically comparable to "personal sin." In the state of original justice before sin, sanctifying grace was like a supernatural "endowment" of human nature. Its loss is contained in the inner "logic" of sin which is a rejection of the will of God, the bestower of this gift. Sanctifying grace has ceased to constitute that supernatural enrichment of that nature which the first parents passed on to all their descendant in the state in which it existed when human generation began.

Therefore, man is conceived and born without sanctifying grace. It is precisely this "initial state" of man linked to his origin, that constitutes the essence of original sin as a legacy (peccatum originale originatum).

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