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.

  • 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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