Original Sin


Many people these days are utopians
of some variety. We think that we can get rid of the doom that stands over us by our own efforts. We can reorganize the polity, the family, education, or the economy so that things will be fine. We cannot accept that the issue has to do with ourselves, or with what began when human life began. And if it must be this way, it has to be God’s fault, not ours. Here lies one of the major sources of hatred of God in the modern world.
Most people recognize that something is wrong among us. While good things exist, other things always seem to go astray. Natural disasters — floods, earthquakes, or, on somewhat fuzzier grounds, global warming — are never caused by impersonal “nature”; they have human culprits whom we can blame for causing them.

What is different about Catholicism is that it provides a basis for thinking about this original sin. Aristotle, in the Politics, wrote: “For to be under constraint and unable to do everything one might resolve to do is advantageous. The license to do whatever one wishes cannot defend against the mean element in every human being.” Aristotle suspected that things would go wrong when we have “a license to do what we wish.” This license that we claim for ourselves, when exercised, makes things ever more chaotic.
Herbert Deane summarizes Augustine’s take on the same question thus: “Even if we conjure up a situation in which material goods were so abundant that all the desires of egoistic men can be satisfied without conflict . . . struggle and war would not disappear. . . . Even if all material desires were satisfied, the lust for power and glory would remain” (Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine). Many will think this is hard doctrine. No doubt it is sobering.
In his book on Genesis, In the Beginning, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the question: Why does original sin exist among us in spite of all efforts to deny it or eliminate it? Original sin is often pictured as a mark on our souls. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s take was somewhat different: Man is a being who lives among, comes from, and flourishes among others. No one is sufficient to himself. “Human beings have their selves not only in themselves but also outside of themselves: in those whom they love and in those who love them and to whom they are ‘present.'” Sin has to do with closing ourselves to others. By ourselves, we cannot be whole.
Sin, as we know it, “is a rejection of relationships because it wants to make the human being a god.” This was the original temptation of Adam and Eve — as, in another way, it was for Lucifer. Each sin that any human being commits is but a repetition of this initial sin, the one we call original sin. What Adam and Eve put into the world from the beginning was an action that lacked the good due to it. Each of us is born into the history of this sin and of all that imitated it. “Sin is always an offense that touches others.”
We come into a world in which disordered relationships exist among all those we know. We cannot avoid this. The being we encounter is, of itself, good; but more often than not, it lacks what should be there. We are torn about what is the right way — the way of the commandments and love or the way of the disorder we confront in the relationships we experience with others or put into the world ourselves. As Cardinal Ratzinger puts it, “Sin pursues the human being, and he or she capitulates to it.”
Why do we so capitulate? Both Aristotle and Augustine had it mostly right. We find it difficult to defend ourselves against “the mean” or disordered actions coming from human nature. Each human act is either good or bad in practice. This is true at all times and places. Even if we had everything we wanted or needed, still our desire is pulled to power and glory. We attribute these latter exclusively to ourselves.
Granting the truth of these remarks, can we maintain that original sin is a doctrine that brings us to the rest intended? I think so. Original sin does not mean that salvation is not open to us. It is open to us, but on its own terms, not ours. Original sin teaches us the following: Our final personal end is not and cannot be in this world. Our final end is in eternal life alone. Nothing that this world finally offers to us, either sin or worldly power, is what we want or what is sufficient for us. Original sin, consequently, is a consoling doctrine that prevents us from ultimately finding only ourselves.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017).

  • Bob Stone, CM

    Here we just finished a three-day triduum marking the 350th anniversary of the death of St. Louise de Marillac. The preacher, Rev. Thomas McKenna, CM, pointed out that Louise had to let go of her obsession with her illegitimacy, of her worry over her salvation, and of her lack of relationship with her own mother by 1) seeing herself as a child of God; 2) accepting fotrgiveness as a gift; and 3) making Mary hwe mother, viewing the Immaculate Conception not only as a privilege, but as a sign of the grace extended to us all. These terms were not hers; she had to find them–in her Catholic faith, from her spiritual directors (especially St. Vincent de Paul), and from her service of the poor and her preparing women for the service of the poor. Fr. Schall’s comments are very a propos.

  • Adam Wood

    About a year ago I had a conversation with a pagan (New Age) friend of mine. Talk turned to beliefs and spirituality, and she said she couldn’t be a Christian because she couldn’t believe in original sin and the need for salvation.

    I found that to be striking. She can believe in the supernatural and the spiritual, she had no problem with the idea that God could come as a human and do miracles or that someone could die and rise from the dead. Original sin and the need for salvation was the stumbling block.

    I’m amazed at this, because, of all the things that Christians believe in without hard proof or direct evidence, the one thing that seems plainly observable in the physical world is that people are crappy. Everywhere you look, from the idiot who cut me off in traffic today to the most evil of mass murderers, believing in the inherent not-goodness of humans seems like the most logical conclusion.

    As to the related question, a need for a savior, this too seems easier to believe in than most other things. If we are looking forward to eventual full communion with God, how can we NOT need to be healed? Total depravity isn’t required here. Even the best of us mere mortals cannot be “holy as God is Holy.”

    I think these utopian, feel-good versions of spirituality are more problematic than the popular atheism of Dawkins et al. People long for heaven, so atheism tends to come to naught. But people can easily be seduced by: “Get all the benefits of God… without the hassle of God.”

  • Michael


    In your second paragraph you said, “Most people recognize that something is wrong among us.” I take this as self evident.

    Then you want on to say, “While good things exist, other things always seem to go astray. Natural disasters — floods, earthquakes, or, on somewhat fuzzier grounds, global warming — are never caused by impersonal “nature”; they have human culprits whom we can blame for causing them.”

    This seems to be a bit of a sidetrack for the main thrust of the article – but I found it interesting. I don’t think most people believe or understand how “natural” disasters could have human culprits to blame for these disasters. Could you explain further?

  • Dch

    “Natural disasters — floods, earthquakes, or, on somewhat fuzzier grounds, global warming — are never caused by impersonal “nature”; they have human culprits whom we can blame for causing them.”

    Earthquakes – uh, basically no – just Big Nature. The tectonic plates are moving driven by the heat in the earth seeking equilibrium in a timescale beyond human history. (There have been minor localized quakes caused by drilling.)


  • Nick Palmer

    As always, Rev. Schall provides a pointed and helpful reflection for Lent. Lest we be tempted to the modern sociological blather, Augustine, in Book I of Confessions bids us consider the radical selfishness of even a day-old infant as evidence of our fallen state. Whether looking at human selfishness, or at natural disasters, our “enlightened” paradigm oversimplifies and cheapens the depth of The Fall. I don’t understand it, yet I see it all around.

    I’ve been toying with a faux-profound line of thought lately. We all suffer from the delusion, nay the demand that we each be the center of the universe. I certainly do. When one reads a novel, one finds the protagonist IS the center of that authors sub-created universe — the plot and characters all revolve around him. We, however, need to rid ourselves of this “center” conceit. It is the mark of original sin.

    But, when we do so, even for a short time, we find that paradoxically, the universe DOES seem to revolve around us. In fact, God, the Great Author, has created the real universe in such a fashion that it revolves around each one of us, as if we were its sole protagonist. What complexity! By freeing ourselves from selfish-centeredness, we open ourselves to the steam of gifts and opportunities that God’s universe has been offering us all along. I believe that what many call “coincidence” is merely perceiving and grasping what God is offering us — constantly.

    Near the end of “The Last Battle,” C.S. Lewis presents us with the unbelieving dwarfs sitting in a sunny open world. Yet they refuse to see it, believing themselves suffering in the dark. The gift is always there. As a friend noted to me, “God will give me all the help that I’m willing to accept.”

    Sorry for running on. Just the musings of a simple mind…