The Universality of Sin in the History of Man

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 17 September 1986, the Holy Father examined the hereditary character of sin.

Hereditary character of sin

1. We can summarize the content of the preceding catechesis with the following words of the Second Vatican Council: "Constituted by God in a state of holiness, man, tempted by the evil one, abused his freedom from the beginning of history, setting himself up against God and pretending to achieve their end apart from God " ( Gaudium et spes , 13). Thus, the analysis of the first sin in the history of humanity is summarized to the essentials, an analysis that we have carried out on the basis of the book of Genesis ( Gen 3).

This is the sin of the first parents. But to it is added a condition of sin that reaches all of humanity and is called original sin . What does this denomination mean? Actually the term does not appear once in Holy Scripture. The Bible, on the other hand, against the background of Gen 3, describes in the following chapters of Genesis and in other books an authentic " invasion " of sin , which floods the world, as a consequence of Adam's sin, infecting with a kind of universal infection to the whole humanity.

2. Already in Gen 4 we read what happened between the first two children of Adam and Eve: the fratricide carried out by Cain on Abel, his younger brother (cf. Gen 4, 3-15). And in chapter 6 there is already talk of universal corruption because of sin : "Yahweh saw how much man's wickedness had grown upon the earth, and that his heart devised nothing but wicked schemes all day long" ( Gen 6:5 ). And further on: "God saw that everything on earth was corruption, for all flesh had corrupted its way on earth" ( Gen 6:12 ). The Book of Genesis does not hesitate to affirm in this context: "Yahweh repented of having made man on earth, and his heart greatly grieved" ( Gen.6, 6).

Also according to this same book, the consequence of that universal corruption due to sin was the flood in Noah's time ( Gen 7-9). In Genesis there is also an allusion to the construction of the tower of Babel ( Gen.11, 1-9), which became —against the intentions of the builders— an occasion for the dispersion of men and the confusion of languages. Which means that no external sign and, analogously, no purely earthly convention is capable of bringing about the union between men if rootedness in God is lacking. In this sense we must observe that, in the course of history, sin manifests itself not only as an action that is clearly directed "against" God; sometimes it is even acting "without God", as if God did not exist; it is pretending to ignore it, to do without it, to exalt in its place the power of man, which is thus considered unlimited. In this sense, the "tower of Babel" can also be an admonition for men today. Reconciliatio et paenitentia (13-15).

3. The testimony about the general sinfulness of men , already so clear in the book of Genesis, reappears in various forms in other texts of the Bible. In each case this universal condition of sin is related to the fact that man turns his back on God. Saint Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, speaks with singular eloquence on this subject: "And since they did not seek to know God, God gave them over to their reprobate feelings, which leads them to commit blunders, and to fill themselves with all injustice, malice, greed, wickedness; full of envy, given to murder, to strife, to deception, to malignity; gossips or slanderers, abominators of God, outrageous, proud, boastful, inventors of wickedness, rebels against parents, foolish, disloyal, unloving, ruthless...; which truncated the truth of God for the lie and worshiped and served the creature instead of the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. Therefore, God gave them over to shameful passions, since the women changed the natural use into a use against nature; likewise the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, were burned in concupiscence for one another, the men of the men, committing blunders and received in themselves the payment due to their loss... And, knowing the sentence of God, that those who do such things are worthy of death, not only do them, but applaud those who do them" ( Rom 1, 28-31, 25-27. 32).

It can be said that this is a lapidary description of the "situation of sin" at the time when the Church was born, at the time when Saint Paul wrote and acted with the other Apostles. True, appreciable values ​​were not lacking in that world, but they were widely infected by the multiple infiltrations of sin. Christianity faced that situation with courage and firmness, managing to obtain from its followers a radical change of customs, the result of conversion of heart, which later gave a characteristic imprint to the cultures and civilizations that were formed and developed under its influence. In broad strata of the population, especially in certain nations, the benefits of that heritage are still felt.

4. But in the times in which we live, it is symptomatic that a description similar to that of Saint Paul in the Letter to the Romans is found in the Constitution Gaudium et spes of the Second Vatican Council : "...whatever attempts against life —homicides of any kind, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and deliberate suicide itself—; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as, for example, mutilations, moral or physical torture, systematic attempts to dominate the mind of others; everything that offends human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary arrests, deportations, slavery, prostitution, white slavery and youth trafficking; or degrading working conditions , which reduce the worker to the rank of a mere instrument of profit, without respect for the freedom and responsibility of the human person: all these practices and others similar they are in themselves infamous, they degrade human civilization, they dishonor their authors more than their victims, and they are totally contrary to the honor due the Creator" (Gaudium et spes , 27).

This is not the time to make a historical analysis or a statistical calculation to establish to what extent this conciliar text represents —among many other denunciations by the Pastors of the Church and even by Catholic and non-Catholic scholars and teachers— a description of the " situation of sin" in today's world. It is true, however, that beyond its quantitative dimension, the presence of these facts is one more painful and tremendous proof of that "infection" of human nature, which is deduced from the Bible and taught by the Magisterium of the Church. , as we will see in the next catechesis.

5. Here we will content ourselves with making two observations. The first is that Divine Revelation and the Magisterium of the Church , which is its authentic interpreter, speak unchangingly and systematically about the presence and universality of sin in human history . The second is that this situation of sin, which is repeated generation after generation, is perceived "from the outside" in history due to the serious phenomena of ethical pathology that can be observed in personal and social life; but perhaps it can be better recognized and it is even more impressive if we look at the "inside" of man.

In fact, the same document of the Second Vatican Council affirms elsewhere: " What Revelation tells us coincides with experience : in fact, when man examines his heart , he confirms his inclination to evil and feels overwhelmed by many miseries, that they cannot have their origin in their Holy Creator By frequently refusing to recognize God as their principle, man breaks the due subordination to his ultimate end, and also all his ordination, both as regards his own person and to relationships with others and with the rest of the world" ( Gaudium et spes , 13).

6. These affirmations of the Magisterium of the Church of our days contain in themselves not only the data of historical and spiritual experience, but also and above all a faithful reflection of the teaching that is repeated in many books of the Bible , beginning with that description of Gen 3, which we have analyzed previously, as a testimony of the first sin in the history of man on earth. Here we will remember only the painful questions of Job: "Can a man present himself as righteous before God? Is a man pure before his Maker?" ( Job 4, 17). " Who can bring purity out of impure ?" ( Job 14, 4). "What is man to believe himself to be pure, to call himself just the one born of woman?"15, 14). And the other question, similar to this one, from the book of Proverbs: "Who can say: 'I have cleansed my heart, I am without sin'?" ( Prov 20, 9).

The same cry resounds in the Psalms: "Do not call your servant (Lord) to judgment, for no living man is innocent before You" ( Ps 142/143, 2). "The wicked have gone astray from the (maternal) womb; the liars have gone astray from the womb (of his mother)" ( Ps 57/58, 4). "Look, in guilt I was born, a sinner my mother conceived me" ( Ps 50/51, 7).

All these texts indicate a continuity of sentiments and ideas in the Old Testament and, at the very least, pose the difficult problem of the origin of the universal condition of sin.

7. Sacred Scripture urges us to seek the root of sin within man, in his conscience, in his heart. But at the same time he presents sin as a hereditary evil . This idea seems to be expressed in Psalm 50, according to which the man "conceived" in sin cries out to God: "O God, create in me a pure heart" ( Ps 50/51, 12). Both the universality of sin and its hereditary character, for which it is in a certain sense "congenital" to human nature, are affirmations that are frequently repeated in the sacred book. For example. in the Salt . 13: "They have corrupted themselves by committing execrations, there is no one who does good" ( Ps 13/14, 30).

8. From the biblical context, Jesus' words about "hardness of heart" can be understood (cf. Mt 19, 8). Saint Paul conceives of this "hardness of heart" primarily as moral weakness, indeed, as a kind of inability to do good . These are his words: "...but I am carnal, sold as a slave to sin. For I do not know what I do; for I do not do what I will, but what I hate, that I do" (Rom 7, 14-15). "Because it is in me to want what is good, but not to do it..." ( Rom 7, 18). " Wanting to do good, it is evil that clings to me " (Rom .7, 21). Words that, as has been pointed out many times, present an interesting analogy with those of the pagan poet: "Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor" (cf. Ovid, Metamorph . 7, 20).

In both texts (but also in others of spirituality and universal literature) the emergence of one of the most disconcerting aspects of human experience is recognized, around which only the revelation of original sin offers some light.

9. The teaching of the Church of our days, expressed in a special way in the Second Vatican Council, punctually reflects on the revealed truth when it speaks of the "world... founded and preserved by the love of the Creator, enslaved under the servitude of sin ". " (Gaudium et spes , 2). The same Pastoral Constitution reads the following: "Throughout all of human history there has been a hard battle against the power of darkness, which, begun at the origins of the world, will last, as the Lord says, until the final day. Engaged in this fight, man has to continually fight to abide by what is good, and only at the cost of great efforts, with the help of God's grace., is capable of establishing unity in itself" (Gaudium et spes , 37).

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