Recovering the notion of original sin




One of the topics that catechists preparing parents for the baptism of their child must explain is the notion of Original Sin, a topic that has, unfortunately, fallen by the wayside in recent decades.

One of the best explanations I know comes from Cardinal John Henry Newman, writing at the latter part of the nineteenth century. Newman asserts that the notion of Original Sin makes perfect sense, and that we can, in fact, experience Original Sin in the world in which we live.

First, Newman paints a picture of the condition of humanity and the world: “To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and, then, their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion.”

Newman goes on, then, to connect all this to Original Sin: “What shall be said of this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. . . . If there be  a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible original calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.”

A simpler way to explain Original Sin is to see it as akin to smog in the atmosphere. The newborn baby is born into a world in which to greater or lesser degrees the air is polluted. The baby did not create the smog, but if he or she is affected by it, and if he or she continues to be exposed to it, the result is ill health.

In baptism the smog of Original Sin is removed and the child is anointed with perfumed oil, with Sacred Chrism, which signifies the pleasing aroma of the Holy Spirit. The early Fathers of the Church often wrote of the perfume of the Chrism as the aroma of heaven.

A traditional way of viewing Original Sin is to see it as the Sin of Adam. In baptism, the Sin of Adam is exorcized by the Grace of Christ. The child is born into the World of Adam and by baptism is brought into the World of Christ.

The transition from the Sin of Adam to the Grace of Christ is not a matter of a few minutes of ritual. What the baptismal ritual symbolizes is not completed immediately, but goes on through the length and breadth of life. Original Sin continues to have its effects in us through our life. Only in the kingdom of heaven will the Grace of Christ finally triumph.


By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Salt Lake City. He holds a Ph.D in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America. He was founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995 and the founding editor of the Societys journal, Antiphon. At the invitation of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago he founded the Mundelein Liturgical Institute in 2000.





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3 comments

  1. thomraff Reply

    “. If there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible original calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.” This is assuming that there is a god, an assumption that never has been verified. If one is open to reality through science, these posts will help educate you. if not, then, stay in your dogmatic ignorance. Peace. https://understandrealitythroughscience.blogspot.com/search/label/Original%20Sin

  2. Patrick Gannon Reply

    What’s going on here? A redefinition of original sin? “A traditional way of viewing Original Sin is to see it as the Sin of Adam.” Seriously, the tradition??? Isn’t that dogma?

    Is the Church attempting to wiggle out of its longstanding definition of original sin? DNA evidence eliminates any two-person DNA bottleneck, and perhaps they are taking this to heart and trying to find a way around it. Here is the pertinent line from the catechism:
    .
    “390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man.264 Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.”
    .
    Up till now the Church has ardently denied the evidence that indicates that mankind came from a pool of several tens of thousands of early ancestors, rather than a single breeding pair – which is what the DNA evidence concludes. Is the Church on the verge of admitting this and looking for a way to reconcile it with what they have taught for centuries?
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    The Church has been adamant that original sin came from a single couple, but this author seems to be seeking a way to move from that – perhaps wishing to avoid another Galileo or Giordano Bruno incident.
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    “Newman goes on, then, to connect all this to Original Sin: “What shall be said of this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. . . . If there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible original calamity.”
    .
    The more likely position clearly is that there is no Creator. There is absolutely no objective evidence for this or any other god. When he says, “since there is a God” he is being dishonest because this is surely not proven, otherwise we wouldn’t still be debating it after all these centuries. Indeed with the advent of science and enlightened thinking, the embrace of logic, reason, and rational critical thinking, his god has been debunked. We have no need for gods to explain our natural world.
    .
    The Church dug itself into a hole some time back when the Popes began to accept evolution. They insisted however on the two-person DNA bottleneck. We may be seeing some movement away from that in this article. The first humans were not born into a garden paradise, They were on the menu. They woke up and scraped out a living on a day by day basis hoping to live long enough to reproduce. What exactly was their original sin, given that we know the Genesis version is a campfire story? Was it achieving a certain level of intellect and self-aware consciousness? Was original sin the first use of fire or tools? How about learning to talk? What exactly was it that created this condition if the “tradition” is not the “truth”?
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    This is the most critical issue facing the Church right now, as it tries to distract with silly issues like whether divorced and remarried people can take Communion. This is the real issue. This is why they are against abortion. Original sin sends the unbaptized to Hell. This means their god is outrageously evil, or they were for inventing the concept in the first place. Paul was wrong. He did not know about evolution, and Jesus didn’t inform him in his visions. (Both of them have no credibility having predicted an imminent end of the world which of course did not happen). This is their biggest issue, because it determines the legitimacy of the Church. Since there was no original sin, there is no need to believe, say and do the right things in order to be saved – there is no need for Jesus to save anyone in the first place.
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    We are a product of evolution. There was no original sin, and the Church seems to be trying to figure out how to absorb the knowledge we’ve gained that has refuted its very reason for existing. This should be interesting….

  3. Peter Aiello Reply

    Original sin is not the smog outside of ourselves. It is something that we are all individually born with. Saint Paul describes it in Romans 7:14-8:2 as doing the things that we don’t want to do; and not doing the things that we should. He calls this the law of sin. It is what weakens us so that we are more easily prone to doing sin actions.
    We are predisposed to it at birth even before we do any sin actions. It is not something that is learned from our parents or societal influences. It comes down to us from the fall of Adam and Eve. This is what Jesus Christ came to remedy. Even if we deny its existence, the reality within us remains.
    People deny its existence because it is not explained to them that it is something that we all experience and carry. It is not just a theological concept, as we are generally taught. If we understood it better, we might be less likely to reject the only remedy that there is.

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