Sense and Nonsense: Original Sin

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“Original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogous sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’—a state and not an act,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Chesterton, in a famous passage, quipped that original sin is the one doctrine of the Church that we do not have to “believe.” He said, “All you have to do is to go out in the streets and open your eyes.” The fact that something is wrong in human nature is not a Christian invention, though it is a Christian explanation. Jews generally do not interpret the Fall in Genesis as Christians do because it implies a Savior from this “original sin.”

Aristotle noted an abiding “wickedness” in human nature. Travel literature, knowledge of historic and modern cultures, and honest insight into ourselves eventually come around to the fact that something seems wrong near the roots of an otherwise good human existence. And philosophers who deny such a problem are usually the first to display it in their own lives for everyone but themselves to see.

One of my nieces told me recently, “Uncle Jim, before I was married, I had no idea how soon that moral and disciplinary problems appear among children.” We had been laughing about a visit we made with her brother and his family. Both she and her brother have children, a boy and a girl, just under two. Whenever these two little cousins have met, even at one, they engage in turf wars. The boy is about twice the size of the girl, but she is the more aggressive. The last time they were together—I witnessed this with my own eyes—each had one of my nephew’s large, furry slippers; one had the left foot, the other the right. Both children proceeded to battle each other because each wanted the other identical slipper. The scene was both amusing and instructive.

As I have been teaching a course on Augustine, all this is mindful of the famous account in The Confessions of how early tendencies to sin are manifest in children and, if not corrected, appear later in worse forms. Augustine wrote:


So I would throw my limbs and voice about…though truly they did not effectively convey what it was that I wished. And when I was not satisfied…I grew indignant that my elders were not my subjects. I was indignant too that those on whom I had no claim did not wait on me. I took my revenge in tears. I have been able to learn that infants are like this by watching them—and they, unknowing, have more truly shown me what I was than have the recollections of my nurses who knew me then.

Augustine also recalls his mother, Monica, as a young girl, secretly nipping at the wine jug. Another friend has two granddaughters, one just a few months old, the other about two. The grandmother told me that the older child does not seem to like the baby too much. Every now and then she “slips her a pinch.”

One of my little grandnephews made his first confession recently. He came home proudly to tell his mother that he was brave as he went to confession “face-to-face,” none of this screen stuff. Then he added, much to his mother’s amusement, “But I didn’t tell him everything.” The family has been engaged in wondering what the secret sins of my grandnephew might be!

Still another friend told me that he has grandchildren, a boy, eight, and a girl, eleven. They had been at CCD, during which they were discussing confession. The girl told her mother that she did not need to go to confession. When asked “Why not?,” she replied that she “had nothing to report.” Her little brother, listening to this, interjected, “Let me go in with you, and I can sure tell the priest what you have done!” It would indeed be easier if others could confess our sins for us.

And from the other side of our being, I was at dinner with some friends. They have a girl about one and a very lively boy, maybe three. Somehow I had been talking about Plato’s idea of punishment in the Gorgias, that we should want to be properly punished for what we do wrong. Though there was probably no connection, the mother told me later that the next morning at breakfast her son said to his father, “I like it when you punish me, Daddy.” On being asked why, the boy replied, “Because sometimes I’m naughty.” Platonist at three!

Nothing much needs to be added to these accounts. We are fallen and redeemed, and rather amusing in both conditions.

Fr. James V. Schall


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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