Original Sin

Original Sin is a hard teaching. The Christian assertion that innocent newborn babes are tainted with Original Sin ab initio, and before they have had a chance either to will or to perform any rational act, is ugly. No one wants to think of babies as involved in sin.

But they are. They just are.

This is not to say that innocent babies are wicked sinners, but rather to say that they are doomed to sin by the unfortunate circumstances of their birth.

The ugliness of the doctrine of Original Sin derives from its honest accounting of the ugliness of our predicament. It acknowledges our inescapable involvement in a causal order that is defective. When the world was created it was wholly good, and then with Lucifer’s first errant act of origination in disagreement with the Divinely provided optimum path, it was forevermore deflected from that path. The damage Lucifer’s sin inflicted on the whole created order was permanent, because a fact of history cannot be unmade. It must be recognized by all its successors as a fact, and its effects admitted into their own constitutions, as aspects of the world that they inhabit, and which produced them.

To see this, think of a newborn babe born into this world who somehow managed to be born into a world where the French Revolution had never happened. It’s not a coherent notion: if the baby had been born into a world where the French Revolution had never happened, he would not have been born into this world at all, but into some other. The fact of the French Revolution must inescapably influence every baby born since.

Likewise for all historical facts. They cannot be gainsayed. We may de-emphasize them, or compensate for them, and indeed most action is made up of just such compensations, emphases and adjustments; but we may not disregard them.

Likewise, then, a fortiori, for Lucifer’s Fall; and for the Fall of our First Parents; and for the Fall of our own fathers and mothers. Every subsequent sin, every petty creaturely fall, is a participation in Lucifer’s first, gigantic Error – an echo and reverberation of his archetypal rebellion, that perfuses the whole system of the world as pervasively as the remnant heat of the Big Bang.

No creature can compensate fully for the sin he willy nilly inherits from his past. None of us can climb unaided out of the deep hole of history in which we begin our life’s journey. Indeed, almost all of our frantic scrabbling about serves only to deepen the hole of misery destined to our future selves, and so, horribly, to our sons and daughters. The ineluctable effects of Original Sin, at work in our psychic economies, account for the otherwise quite mysterious fact that, no matter how self-disciplined we are, we repeatedly do what we know we ought not to do, even when we don’t very much want to, and indeed even when we very strongly desire not to. They account for the fact that there is no moral health in us.

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27 thoughts on “Original Sin

    • Only if they want to. If they don’t want to, then *by definition* they want to obey God. It seems to me then that murdered innocents are in rather the same moral situation as martyrs – or, as, say, a man shriven who turns from the communion rail and drops dead before he has had even an unclean thought. Their sin is stripped away by their deaths in a state of obedience to God, before they have a chance to ruin everything by sinning again.

      • Babies who die before being baptised going to hell? What happened to the idea of limbo?

        Maybe I’m a simpleton but are you saying that newborn children can “want”, or not “want”, to go to hell?

      • Babies who die before being baptised going to hell? What happened to the idea of limbo?

        Well, it’s just that. “An idea.” A theological hypothesis as the Holy Father put it; at least potentially worthy of belief but the Church does not and cannot command belief in it.

        It’s worth remembering that Limbo is still, strictly speaking, Hell, i.e., separation from God. But it is Hell without torment and, indeed, with all natural happiness. It lacks only the supernatural happiness which can be attained only through communion with God.

      • Actually, in suggesting that newborns might want to disobey God, I was speaking tongue in cheek; probably a bad idea, given the subject matter.

        I take it as obvious that no one natively wants to disobey God. We are naturally constituted to want the Good, which flowers in the Summum Bonum of perfect obedience. But we grow confused.

        The newborn is like a young paratrooper who is floating down from the heavens with his body and mind intact – clean, healthy, sane, fit, clean shaven, his kit in perfect condition, his weapons and tools all in their proper places, the whole bit – but who has no idea who he is, or what is happening, or that he is descending into a battle, or what a battle is, or indeed what descent is (so that he has no notion how to land properly), or how he is supposed to behave, or what any of his kit is for. How things will turn out for him, and which side he will end up fighting for, depend crucially on where he lands, and how; on the first few men he meets, and the first few experiences he has. Still, in a battlefield world such as ours, he will be more or less instantly corrupted by what happens to him, no matter how fortunate his first few meetings. And, even if things turn out well for him, so that he finds some boon companions and fights well with them, on the right side, the battle keeps going until all the warriors are dead, so he will certainly end by being destroyed.

        It’s a terrible situation.

        Like the world, like any product of divine creation, the baby begins wholly good. But he must confront a world that is corrupt, and this corrupts him. The stain is permanent, and there’s no way to avoid it and still be a member of this world.

      • Limbo is part of Hell, and unbaptized babies go there—this is the explanation given by St Robert Bellarmine to rationalize various statements on the subject. The claim that this is a difficult teaching is strange. Nothing bad happens to unbaptized babies in Limbo. Limbo is a much better existence than the one we have now. The view that this is a difficult teaching seems to me to drink deeply of our modern entitlement mentality and extreme, pervasive squeamishness.

        There is a fine sermon on Limbo here. The Church has not taught, clearly and de fide, that Limbo exists (or, obviously, that it does not). But there is material in the Magisterium to recommend Limbo—Pius VI condemned the Jansenist teaching that Limbo was a Pelagian fable, for example.

        The Conciliar Church has not gotten rid of Limbo, either. Rather, it has replaced rather clear statements like “Since infant children have no other means of salvation except Baptism, we may easily understand how grievously those persons sin who permit them to remain without the grace of the Sacrament longer than necessity may require, particularly at an age so tender as to be exposed to numberless dangers of death.” (from the Catechism of Trent) with vague ones like “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God” (CCC 1251) Since the CCC doesn’t actually say much of anything, it isn’t contradictory to the former, of course, but, for the same reason, you can’t learn much by reading the CCC.

        There was a dust-up a while ago over the 2002 document of the International Theological Commission, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised. It makes for interesting reading. The document is an argument against Limbo and in favor of hope for salvation for unbaptized babies. The weakness of the arguments offered is stark. They amount to “God wants everyone to be saved” and “it would be pastoral to think that unbaptized babies are saved, especially today.”

        And the Church definitely can command belief in Limbo. That’s what Her teaching authority is for. Both VI and VII considered commanding belief in Limbo and chose not to.

      • It’s a difficult doctrine because it is prima facie difficult to understand how a baby who has not yet actually rationally willed or done anything might nevertheless be stained by sin of any sort.

      • In the Catholic Church, we consider the babies murdered by Herod to be martyrs (Feast of the Holy Innocents). I see no reason why aborted babies couldn’t conceivably be in this category.

      • The Holy Innocents were pre-Resurrection. The rules for salvation were different before the Resurrection.

  1. This is one of the doctrines that I accept as a matter of obedience, but with which I struggle. My thought as to how I may accept it is as follows: The brain of an infant, because of being undeveloped cannot choose in favor or against God. However, his soul could. I think of the brain, in this case, as the screen in which our soul projects our thoughts or moral choices. Even if the moral choice has been made by our soul, it projects imperfectly into our brain: just like we project three-dimensional objects into a two-dimensional canvas. We cannot then, understand that choice in an undeveloped brain, as we cannot discern what’s going on in a movie when the screen is deformed or incomplete. Under that premise, the infant’s soul could have chosen…

    Now, my intellectual struggle is the following: Why would God create a soul that, without living or having a chance of being baptized be immediately condemned to hell? It goes to this predestination discussion to which I am not versed, but troubles me.

    • This is probably the right attitude to cultivate. For myself, I just don’t think about it. It’s not relevant to me. There is an answer to the question, but I am not capable of discerning it nor understanding it in its entirety even if I did. Whatever the “true” answer is, I know it must accord with what we also know to be true about God, i.e., that He is love itself. That’s enough for me to entrust it all to Him.

      Which, incidentally, is pretty much the Church’s official position at this point: “trust in Him.” Sage advice for times lacking in that.

    • Ralph: recall that the rite of baptism is a sacrament; a sign that is itself an instance of the thing signified. It is effectually salvific, but rather by virtue of the thing signified than the signification. The thing signified – reconciliation to God – is not limited to the sign. The option toward reconciliation to God is ever open to all things, forasmuch as God himself pervades all things.

      Not to diminish the importance of priestly work, but the priest baptizes *only* as a medium, a locus and focal point, for the immediacy of Grace. Indeed, the priestly office consists entirely in operating as such a medium, locus, and focus (which is why priests are so important). Thus it is not finally the priest who baptizes, nor the rite he enacts, but God, through the good offices of the priest. God is not limited to priestly offices, or to liturgical rites.

      Thus in the River Jordan it was not the movements or words of John that baptized Jesus, although they certainly played a role in the occasion, but rather the descent of the dove. John, his rite, and the Jordan – the whole created order – were but, and precisely, the *occasion* of the baptism effected by the Holy Spirit.

      So a baby unbaptized may be reconciled to God, and immersed in the flux of his Grace, whether or not some corrupt vicar is there to mediate the transaction.


      Occasion: “grounds for action; opportunity; cause, origin; an occurrence, chance, event,” from O.Fr. occasion, from L. occasionem (nom. occasio) “opportunity, appropriate time,” from occasum, pp. of occidere “fall down, go down,” from ob “down, away” + cadere “to fall.” The notion is of a “falling together,” or juncture, of circumstances. (Online Etynmology Dictionary)

  2. Modern North Americans have a “Hallmark-Card” attitude to infancy, an inheritance very likely from Victorian sentimentality. The realistic theoretician of infancy was St. Augustine, who, in his Confessions, Book I, points out that babies are savages and tyrants, who would compel under lethal threat in order to bring about their will, had they but the power. The helplessness and complete dependency of the infant mitigates the parental intuition of that feral condition and makes possible the domestication of the brute. Part of original sin is that infantile libido dominandi that civilized adult people have learned, often painfully, to suppress.

    • But, is that original sin, or concupiscence? My kids were baptized as infants, and I can tell you, they are still little tyrants. Baptism didn’t take that away.

  3. To understand Original Sin I think we need to understand why we have a mortal life – and that is difficult to understand.

    My (feeble) understanding at present is that mortal life is a high risk high reward opportunity. Those who succeed end very high (i.e. the Saints) those who fail end very low (in Hell). Those who never get started – unborn, those who die in early childhood, those born with handicaps etc, miss the opportunity (which is why death is an evil) but also lose the chance of failure.

    (Life is hierarchical, Heaven is hierarchical, and ‘saved’ humans in Heaven are in a hierarchy.)

    AS CS Lewis pointed out in Screwtape letters, most humans born through history have lived only a short time, those who survive to adulthood (and reproduction) are a very small minority of humans.

    We who survive to adulthood have the greatest opportunity – to succeed or to fail.

    According to this view, Humans just-are creatures who (unlike angels) have been through this sorting of mortal life. That is our nature.

    • While we’re at it, is there any rational or empirical reason to believe in the existence of Original Sin? (Or is the asking of that very question supposed to be proof of Original Sin in itself?) Why would an intelligent and compassionate God ordain the universe in such a way that a talking snake’s deception of one of our remote ancestors — even assuming that this ancestor existed to begin with — could manage to impart a mysterious hereditary curse to future generations and, with it, all manner of suffering and death for billions of people in this mortal world, not to mention the inevitability of eternal torture for the majority of human beings in the world to come (since as Jesus says, the road to destruction is wide and well- travelled)? Does any of this sound plausible to you? Really?

      Let’s face it: all of this theological speculation is the embellishment of an imaginary edifice resting on a nonexistent foundation. You believe it simply because other men claiming to represent the authentic voice of God (as they always do!) have told you to believe it. When they say, meat on Fridays is a mortal sin that can send you to hell if you die while unconfessed, you believe it; when they later change their minds so that meat on Fridays is no longer of any particular concern, at least outside of Lent, you believe that too. And if anyone points out how utterly insane this blind deference to human authority is, you will resort to invective and bogus psychologizing (of the sort that will inevitably follow this post, if it is permitted to appear in the thread.) Please, my friends, learn to think for yourselves.

      • Niall, if you can’t tell that you are infected with sin from your birth, then either you are already wholly given over to evil, so that you apprehend no painful difference between what you know you ought to do and what you actually do, or you are a sociopath, so that the defects of your expression of human nature include an inability to tell right from wrong in the first place.

        Original Sin is not something that a bunch of nasty old clerics invented out of thin air to torment and control their deluded marks. Nor am I such a mark; nor did I begin to believe in Original Sin because some priest told me I should. It is a fact of human experience, which cries out for explanation. We know we ought to do the right thing, and we fail to do it. This is true for everyone who is not a moral idiot. There’s your rational and empirical reason to believe in Original Sin.

        In respect to your question about the mystery of the hereditary curse, the essay to which you have posted your comment was written to clear it up. Perhaps you should read it again, carefully, to see if you can get the gist.

        As to why a loving and omnipotent God would arrange the universe so that it might involve sin: good question — indeed, *the* great apologetical problem, the Problem of Evil. The short answer is that it is metaphysically impossible to generate a world, properly so called, that is not capable of evil. I’d expatiate on that now, if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been meaning to post on the Problem of Evil for some time. Stay tuned.

  4. This is not to say that innocent babies are wicked sinners, but rather to say that they are doomed to sin by the unfortunate circumstances of their birth.

    We do not become sinners because we commit sins. Rather, we commit sins because we are already sinners … ab initio. Ergo, even “innocent babies” are “wicked sinners”.

    • Yes, good. This is a much better and more accurate way of saying it than what I said. It would have been better if I had said something like, “This is not to say that innocent babies are *guilty* of sin, and therefore blameworthy — they are not, for they have not yet had an opportunity to *do* anything blameworthy — but rather that they are doomed through no fault of their own, and by the unfortunate circumstances of their birth into a fallen world, to begin their immortal careers as sinners.”

      This way of putting it, suggested by Ilion’s comment, emphasizes the horror and tragedy of the fallen creaturely predicament.

  5. The short answer is that it is metaphysically impossible to generate a world, properly so called, that is not capable of evil. I’d expatiate on that now, …

    The short answer is that it is logically impossible for God to create a world, any world, that does not contain what we call “natural evil.” And, if God creates any world containing rational creatures, it is logically impossible that that world not contain the potential for what we call “moral evil.”

    The reason for the latter should be elf-evident to any rational (and honest) creature.

    The reason for the former is that anything God creates is, definitionally, ‘that-which-is-not-God’ — for ‘that-which-is-God’ cannot be created, not even by God. ‘That-which-is-not-God’ is always radically imperfect*, it cannot be otherwise.


    * ‘perfection’ does not refer to “maximal goodness”, but to wholeness, completion, integration.

    • Ilion, I’m sympathetic to this point, but could you please provide some clarification? Why does radical perfection – i.e., radical wholeness, completion, integration – imply death?

      Do you mean that a creature that had no jot of potentiality in it, no remaining potency to perform work or to move or to act – this being the only way it could have no capacity for further sin or error – would be over, finished, done with? That makes perfect sense.

      • I can see that how I phrased that last comment is unclear; and could be read quite opposite of what I meant (the perils of making a quick comment). So, to back up a bit …

        There are at least two properties which must be true of an entity which is ‘radically perfect’ –

        1) It has no potentiality: it does not / cannot change; for, could it change, had it changed, it would not be perfect, it would not be complete;
        2) It must be self-existant, its existance must itself; it cannot “come to exist”, it cannot have been caused to exist.

        So, when I wrote “… and, for that matter, if the Creation — ‘That-which-is-not-God’ — were to be radically perfect, then it would be dead ” I was referencing both point #1 above (while disregarding point #2), and referencing what I’d previously written (“The reason for the former is that anything God creates is, definitionally, ‘that-which-is-not-God’ — for ‘that-which-is-God’ cannot be created, not even by God. ‘That-which-is-not-God’ is always radically imperfect*, it cannot be otherwise.”) AND, I was speaking of a physical/material world (that being the only kind we can actually comprehend).

        Taking all that together, a better way to have written it would be something like this –

        1) It is logically impossible for God to create anything which is self-existant: thus, God cannot create anything which is truly ‘radically perfect’;
        2) If we were to consider, for the sake of argument, a world almost ‘radically perfect’, that is, a world lacking only self-existence (and, of course, we probably have to studiously ignore whether it “came into being”), then such a world would be unchanging.

        But, a physical/material world, a world of time-and-space, which does not and cannot change, is not one that is alive, is not one that contains living beings. Or, certainly not living beings as we understand living. Such a world is dead … and I don’t mean merely in terms of biology.

        So, see (I hope), the comment wasn’t about sin or error or even the potential for sin or error, it was about the potential for change.

        Now, perhaps God can create an entirely mental/spiritual world which is both alive and unchanging … though, of course, being a creation, it is still lacking in self-existence. I can see no logical reason against it (I also might be overlooking something).

        But, such a world isn’t the sort of world people are talking about when they irrationally whinge about “evil” being such a problem for “theism”.

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