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.