In Defense of Original Sin

There is a very ambiguous statement in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium , Chapter 2, paragraph 16. It reads as follows:

. . . Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.

Taking advantage of the ambiguity, liberal theologians have attached a scandalous interpretation to this statement. Witness these comments by the liberal Karl Rahner, S.J.:

It was declared at the Second Vatican Council that atheists too are not excluded from this possibility of salvation. The only necessary condition which is recognized here is the necessity of faithfulness and obedience to the individual’s own personal conscience. This optimism concerning salvation appears to me one of the most noteworthy results of the Second Vatican Council.

Of course, based upon the weakness of the statement in Lumen Gentium , it is not surprising that such an interpretation can be made of an official document of the Church. After all, what does this ambiguous statement imply? The answer is a lot of things, including the above heresy of Fr. Rahner.

In a better day, the Church used to allow only one interpretation of officially declared statements and considered useless any text that allowed a multiplicity of meanings. Church teaching, up to recent times, always had the mark of clarity in the statements she made.

Today’s Pope, John Paul II, knowing that many things in the conciliar documents are vague, did state that the Second Vatican Council must be interpreted in the light of Tradition. What does this mean for Karl Rahner’s interpretation, which is shared by many Catholics and non-Catholics alike? On what is based this reliance of saving oneself simply by the dictates of human conscience? We need look no further than the errors of modern Rationalism.

Rationalism, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, is the operating principle for modern man’s economic, political, and social life. Based on how we think in these realms, it would be difficult to consider any other way when it comes to our religious life and how we think of God and His Church. But thinking in the traditional manner of Catholics about God and His Church is an absolute necessity if we are properly to know the tenets of our Faith in order to avoid the loss of our immortal souls.

Rationalism holds that whatever cannot be reasoned out by the human mind must be rejected out of hand. Therefore, the whole Supernatural Order — including the Incarnation, Redemption, grace, Divine Revelation, the angelic nature, etc. — is denied its existence.

If he has any concept of it at all, salvation is, to the Rationalist, something that one does for himself, based on the “dictates of his conscience.” This necessarily implies that the human conscience or intellect has the power within itself to accomplish its ultimate end. This is a direct denial of the fallen nature of man and, thus, an implicit denial of the dogma of Original Sin.

We can trace the history of this denial through the many erroneous philosophies and heresies that have existed throughout history.

For instance, John Locke (1632-1704), one of the fathers of modern society, whose ideas constitute our political, social, and economic lives today, himself denied Original Sin. He borrowed this thinking from the Socinians, 1 those heretics that brought up to date the heresy of Pelagius. 2

Another example is Father Isaac Hecker, one of the leading Americanist heresiarchs, who believed like Pelagius that original sin was no sin at all except the individual sin of Adam, and that our nature was not wounded by it. As he was the leading theologian for Cardinal Gibbons, his influence over the religious thought of Catholics in America was immense.

Going back further, the heresy of Pelagianism — and the more moderate form of the same error, semi-Pelagianism — found its roots in the pagan philosophy of Stoicism, 3 which philosophy taught that man in his origin began from a purely natural state, free and independent.

The Denial of Original Sin

In the early Church, the Gnostics and the Manichaeans denied the doctrine of Original Sin. They claimed that the moral corruption of humanity comes from an eternal principle of evil that is opposed to, but equal with, the eternal principle of good. It is a dualistic concept of God.

The Pelagians denied the doctrine of Original Sin, claiming that the sin of Adam was transmitted to posterity not by inheritance but through imitation of a bad example. They believed, like the Stoics, that death, suffering, and concupiscence 4 are not punishments for sin, but parts of a natural condition of man who was created in a state of pure nature. They believed that the Baptism of children is administered, not for the remission of sins, but as a sign of acceptance by the Church.

The Protestant “Reformers,” the Baians 5 , and the Jansenists, while believing in the reality of Original Sin, misunderstood its essence and its operation, because they regarded Original Sin as being identical with concupiscence. Many Protestants believed that the Fall completely corrupted human nature to the point of destroying free will.

The semi-Pelagians, while professing a belief in Original Sin, misunderstood the essence of the Fall and erroneously attributed too much power to man’s will. They believed that through the power of the will, without God’s grace, man accomplishes the beginnings of faith. Secondly, they believed that a claim to grace lay in man’s natural works; and thirdly, they believed that once justified, man may of his own strength persevere to the end.

The Historical Truth of the Fall

Against these denials and misunderstandings of Original Sin, Catholics can present a defense of this doctrine based upon Scripture and Tradition.

Since the Fall of Adam forms the basis upon which Original Sin rests, it would be good quickly to mention a few facts about our first parents. The Church has decreed that the literal historical sense of the story of Adam is not to be challenged. The Biblical Commission of 1909 stated, among several things, that not only did the Book of Genesis teach objective reality and historical truth, it is not to be doubted as regards the following particulars: a) the first man — Adam — received a command from God to test his obedience, b) that through the temptation of the devil who took the form of a serpent, Adam transgressed the Divine commandment, and c) that our first parents were deprived of their original condition of innocence.

Later books in Holy Scripture attest to the literal, historical truth of the Fall. Here are some examples:

Ecclesiasticus 25:33: “From the woman came the beginning of sin, and by her we all die.”

Wisdom 2:24: “But by the envy of the devil, death came into the world.”

And St. Paul —

2 Corinthians 11:3: “But I fear lest, as the serpent seduced Eve by his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted, and fall from the simplicity that is in Christ.”

1 Timothy 2:14: “And Adam was not seduced; but the woman being seduced, was in the transgression.”

Romans 5:12-14: “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned. For until the law sin was in the world; but sin was not imputed, when the law was not. But death reigned from Adam unto Moses, even over them also who have not sinned after the similitude of the transgression of Adam, who is a figure of him who was to come.”

Consequences of the Fall

Through sin Adam and Eve lost sanctifying grace and became subject to death and to the dominion of the devil. That is, Adam and Eve were deprived of the Divine gifts to which human nature had no strict right — the complete mastery of our passions, exemption from death, sanctifying grace, and the vision of God in the next life.

In its decree on Original Sin, the Council of Trent declared:

If anyone does not confess that the first man, Adam, when he had transgressed the commandment of God in Paradise, immediately lost his holiness and the justice in which he had been established, and that he incurred through the offense of that prevarication the wrath and indignation of God and hence the death with which God had previously threatened him, and with death captivity under his power, who thenceforth ‘had the empire of death’ [Heb. 2:14], that is of the devil, and that through that offense of prevarication the entire Adam was transformed in body and soul for the worse, let him be anathema. (Denz. 788)

Not only were Adam and Eve deprived of sanctifying grace, but their human nature was wounded in body and in soul.

The wounds to the body are sensibility to suffering and mortality. The wounds to the soul are four in number, as enumerated by Catholic theologians: 1) ignorance, that is, difficulty in knowing the truth, 2) malice, that is, the weakening of the power of the will, 3) weakness, that is, the recoiling before difficulties in the struggle for the good, and 4) desire for satisfaction of the
senses against the judgment of reason.

These four wounds of the soul work in opposition to the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance.

This fallen human nature, with its loss of sanctifying grace and the other gifts from God, is passed down from Adam and Eve to their descendants — the whole of the human race. And this happens by physical generation, not by imitation, as the Pelagians believed.

Scriptural proof is abundant on this point:

Psalm 50:7: “For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me.”

Job 14:4: “Who can make him clean that is conceived unclean?”

Ecclesiasticus 25:33 and Wisdom 2:24, quoted above, likewise attest to the Original Sin being passed down from our first parents.

St. Paul’s letter to the Romans provides the classical proof of the sin of Adam being transmitted to the whole of humanity:

Romans 5:12-21: “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned. For until the law sin was in the world; but sin was not imputed, when the law was not. But death reigned from Adam unto Moses, even over them also who have not sinned after the similitude of the transgression of Adam, who is a figure of him who was to come. But not as the offence, so also the gift. For if by the offence of one, many died; much more the grace of God, and the gift, by the grace of one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one sin, so also is the gift. For judgment indeed was by one unto condemnation; but grace is of many offences, unto justification. For if by one man’s offence death reigned through one; much more they who receive abundance of grace, and of the gift, and of justice, shall reign in life through one, Jesus Christ. Therefore, as by the offence of one, unto all men to condemnation; so also by the justice of one, unto all men to justification of life. For as by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners; so also by the obedience of one, many shall be made just. Now the law entered in, that sin might abound. And where sin abounded, grace did more abound. That as sin hath reigned to death; so also grace might reign by justice unto life everlasting, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Tradition undeniably testifies in favor of Original Sin and its transmission to all mankind by the fact that the practice of baptizing children for the “remission of sin” was commonplace in the primitive Church.

St. Augustine, the “Doctor of Grace,” when defending the teaching of St. Paul regarding Original Sin, was accused by the Pelagians for inventing the whole thing. St. Augustine replied by saying

It is not I who have invented original sin, which the Catholic Faith holds from of old, but thou, who deniest it, thou art without doubt a new heretic.

In St. Augustine’s formal proof of Original Sin he quotes eleven Church Fathers from both East and West — St. Irenaeus, St. Cyprian, Reticius of Autun, Olympius, St. Hilary, St. Ambrose, Innocent I, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, and St. Jerome — all of whom taught it. The Eastern Fathers were defending the doctrine in opposition to Gnostic-Manichaean dualism that was prevalent at that time.

The Council of Trent defined:

If anyone asserts that the transgression of Adam has harmed him alone and not his posterity, and that the sanctity and justice, received from God, which he lost, he lost for himself alone and not for us also; or that he having been defiled by the sin of disobedience has transfused only death “and the punishments of the body into the whole human race, but not sin also, which is the death of the soul,” let him be anathema, since he contradicts the Apostle who says: “By one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned [Romans 5:12]. (Denz. 789)

Regaining a Lost Inheritance

As the Original Sin of Adam is passed down to us, this means that we are born into the world without Sanctifying Grace — that precious gift that was lost by our first parents when they fell. It was with Sanctifying Grace that Adam and Eve were to gain entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven when their time came. It is by Sanctifying Grace that we are to gain the Kingdom of Heaven when our time comes.

We know by tradition that Adam and Eve regained Sanctifying Grace and were saved from Hell when they died. For this we go to the Church Fathers St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and St. Hippolytus. Later Fathers of the Church, relying on Wisdom 10:2, “She [Wisdom] brought him out of his sin,” teach that our first parents did atonement and were saved from eternal destruction.

The Church has defined infallibly that souls who depart this life in the state of original sin are excluded from the Beatific Vision of God.

The second General Council of Lyons stated:

The souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only, however, immediately descend to hell, yet to be punished with different punishments. (Denz. 464)

The Council of Florence defined this dogma in the same terms over a century later.

The scriptural reference for this dogma is found in the words of Our Lord:

Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. (John 3:5)

Likewise, as Baptism is a necessary requirement for regaining the grace we need, the Council of Trent also defined that the Catholic Faith is absolutely necessary, since the Catholic Faith is the root of all justification, i.e., the state of Sanctifying Grace (Denz. 787, 799, and 801).

Fallen, not Totally Depraved

Thus far, this article has dealt exclusively with a defense of Original Sin in opposition to those that deny its existence. However, a few words are in order to defend that doctrine against those who have misunderstood what happened to man’s nature after the Fall, particularly in relation to his regaining the grace necessary to save his soul.

Fallen man, though wounded in his nature, is not completely corrupted as the Protestants teach (or used to, anyway). To many of the so-called “Reformers,” man’s free will was lost after the Fall.

On the contrary, his free will remains intact, and he continues to possess the ability to know natural religious truths and is able to perform naturally good actions.

However, the nature of man, after the Fall, never possessed any intrinsic ability to merit grace from God. To think otherwise is to misunderstand completely the nature of man both in his original condition and in his fallen one.

Against the semi-Pelagian heretics, the Church has defined:

No supernatural merit preceded grace. (Denz. 191)

St. Paul, in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians (3:5), stated:

Not as if we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves: but our sufficiency is from God.

Here St. Paul is teaching that man, by nature, is incapable of salutary acts which lead to his eternal salvation.

The second Council of Orange, declared in Canon 5, in opposition to the semi-Pelagians:

If anyone says that the beginning of Faith and the act of Faith itself is in us naturally and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, he is opposed to Apostolic teaching. (Denz. 178)

St. Paul, in Hebrews 12:2, said:

Looking on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, who having joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God.

St. John Chrysostom, commenting on St. Paul, said:

He Himself implanted the faith in us, He Himself made the start.

Thus, the gratuity of grace demands that the beginning of faith and of salvation be the work of God.

Again, in opposition to the semi-Pelagians, the Council of Orange taught that those regenerated by Faith and Baptism must constantly pray for the help of God, so that they may attain to a good end, and that they may be able to persevere to the end (Denz. 183).

The Council of Trent calls perseverance to the end “a great gift,” and teaches that the justified, without the special help of God, cannot persist in the justification received (Denz. 832).

A special help of God is needed to persevere, and this help consists in a number of distinctive graces. They are: the grace of perseverance to the end of life, the constant cooperation of the justified with grace, and the ability to persevere in fact.

Holy Scripture ascribes the completion of the work of salvation to God:

St. Paul to the Philippians 1:6: ” . . . that He who hath begun a good work in you will perfect [complete] it unto the day of Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 2:13: “For it is God who worketh in you, both to will and to accomplish, according to His good will.”

St. Peter, in his Second Epistle (5:10): “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a little, will himself perfect you, and confirm you, and establish you.”

St. Augustine, in writing against the semi-Pelagians, stated:

Why is this perseverance besought of God, if it is not given by God? Or is this prayer to be a mockery, in that man seeks something from Him, of Whom one knows that it is not He who gives, but rather, that it lies in the power of man?

We shall complete this apologetic of Original Sin by returning to the scandalously ambiguous phrase from Vatican II that lies near the very heart of all the confusion reigning in the Church today.

Here again is the ambiguous statement from Lumen Gentium (a statement by the way, that Karl Rahner, S.J., had a hand in crafting!):

. . . Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.

Equipped now with a correct understanding of the nature of man in his fallen state, we can properly interpret Lumen Gentium in the light of Tradition. As it is God Who begins the process of sanctification in the soul of one who has yet to know the Gospel of Christ or His Church (remember: fallen man has difficulty knowing the truth), we know that, if he has good will, God will lead such an individual to an explicit knowledge of the Gospel of Christ and His Church, by this person’s receiving the Faith. We know that this person, if he continues to cooperate with God’s grace, will be baptized and become a member of His Church (God will have supplied this person with a supernatural desire for Baptism, since man’s desire on its own is a desire for satisfaction of the senses against the judgment of reason). And then God will complete the work of this person’s salvation by granting him the graces of final perseverance at death (provided, of course, that the person has cooperated with God’s grace on a continual basis.)

And we see much more clearly the erroneous basis on which Karl Rahner makes his interpretation of Lumen Gentium : “The only necessary condition which is recognized here is the necessity of faithfulness and obedience to the individual’s own personal conscience.” That is, relying completely on human nature, man, following his conscience sincerely, gains eternal salvation while remaining completely ignorant of the Gospel and the Church. This is quite an example of Pelagianism at work in our own time! Who said Pelagianism was an old heresy?

1 Socinianism was an anti-Trinitarian heresy that appeared during the “Reformation” in Poland. It is a progenitor of Unitarianism. Among its beliefs was the concept of “the social gospel” which exists today among liberal Catholics.

2 Pelagianism is an early heresy that denied Original Sin.

3 The Stoics taught that only material things exist and that the wise man is self-sufficient. They based the entire moral attitude of the wise man — conformity to oneself and nature — on a comprehensive concept of nature. They believed that Fate infallibly regulated the course of events. God is identified with the world-soul and the activity of matter.

4 Concupiscence is the desire for satisfaction of the senses against the judgment of reason.

5 Followers of Michael Baius who taught, among other things, that good works in the natural order sufficed for attaining eternal life.