Original Sin

Dear Reader,

As long promised, I want to talk about how the Roman Catholic Church views sin. In my posts on indulgences and Purgatory, I concluded by saying that these doctrines, which seem so bizarre to Protestants, are based upon a very different (from a Protestant point of view) understanding of sin and therefore also of salvation. So now it is finally time to look at how the Catholic Church views sin, which I am going to do primarily by looking at the doctrine of Original Sin.

I don’t actually like to say that I believe in Original Sin, which I am sure sounds quite heretical, but I say so because it means so many different things to different people. By the Catholic Church’s definition, no, I don’t believe in Original Sin. (I do believe in the Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity however.)  What then is Original Sin?

Defining Original Sin

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) Original Sin is in antithesis to the state in which Adam and Eve were created, that of Original Holiness (CCC 399). It is among the consequences of Adam’s first sin which affect both mankind and creation (CCC 400). From the Fall onward the history of mankind becomes inundated with sin which is universal among men (CCC 401). “All men are implicated in Adam’s sin” (CCC 402) which is contrasted with the salvation which comes through Christ. It is because of this first sin of Adam’s that we have evil and death for “he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the ‘death of the soul'” (CCC 403). Thus “we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ – a state and not an act” (CCC 404; emphasis theirs).

A lot of this will sound pretty kosher to us Protestants. We too believe that Adam and Eve originally had holiness, that sin came through Adam as salvation through Christ, that creation and mankind both fell through Adam’s sin, and that death thus entered the world. We also believe that Adam’s personal sin affected the nature of his descendants and that they are now in a fallen state.

But the Catechism goes on:

“[Original Sin] is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.” (CCC 405)

Here is where we begin to differ — firstly on the degree of corruption which results from Adam’s sin. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) defines original sin as follows:

” . . . the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.” (WSC 18)

The Catholic Church’s position is intentionally phrased in such a way as to reject the idea that man’s whole nature is corrupted (CCC 406).

A second, but by no means lesser, issue is how this corruption can be dealt with. I am part of a church which baptizes infants. This sacrament marks the children of believers as members of God’s covenant community. It is a means of grace to them.  But we do not believe that, as the Catholic church says, baptism “erases Original Sin.”

The Nature of Sin

How sin is and can be dealt with is very much a factor of the nature if sin itself. The Catholic depiction of sin makes it something very tangible, a concept to which I am not inherently opposed. I actually discussed just that issue in an earlier post, The Nature of Sin (and the Cat in the Hat). The idea is that sin almost has weight; it has to go somewhere. In the Old Testament era, the high priest would once a year place the sin of the people on the scapegoat. In the Catholic Church, sin is like a stain on a garment —  it can be removed, but each new stain needs to be removed individually. In this analogy, the doctrine of Original Sin says that our garment comes soiled. In baptism this original stain is removed, along with any others that may have been committed up until that time. The person is then, at least temporarily, clean. But if and when they sin again, there are new stains which must then be removed. If a person dies with the stain of sin still upon them, then they either go to Hell, if the sins on their person be mortal, that is serious, sins, or go to Purgatory where the remaining sins are in some fashion burnt away (see my earlier post on Purgatory for more on that). There are people who die without the stain of sin upon them, these are the Saints as declared by the Church. There are also people who never commit sins. John the Baptist is in this category. He is believed to have been cleansed of his Original Sin in the womb and in his life never personally sinned. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was never even subject to Original Sin:

“Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ’s victory over sin: she was preserved from all stain of original sin and by a special grace of God committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life.” (CCC 411)

And, of course, Jesus himself was neither subject to Original Sin nor did He commit personal sins in His lifetime.

In contrast, the Westminster Shorter Catechism says of baptism:

“Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.” (WSC 94)

Thus baptism to  a reformed Protestant is more about a relationship. It signifies that the individual has become part of  — has been “ingrafted” into — the body of Christ. It is more of a legal judgment than a laundry issue. There is no illusion that the individual will no longer sin or could, if they live any length of time, manage not to sin further. And yet all their sins, past and present, have been paid for. If we were to continue to apparel analogy, we would say that their garment is declared, legally, to be white and free from stain, though we are aware that they will not be seen as such until Christ receives them into His Presence, at their death or His second coming. At this point “the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory” (WSC 37).

A better analogy would be that of citizenship. To be holy in the Bible means to be set apart for divine use. Thus the bowls and forks used in the Temple service are holy while those used in one’s private house are not. To be holy is to belong to God, to be able to live in His kingdom. In Moses’ day this kingdom was represented by the Israelite camp. Those who did not belong or who were, perhaps temporarily, unlclean were sent outside the camp, just as the scapegoat was sent outside into the wilderness. To be holy for us, then, means that we belong in God’s camp, that we are citizens of His kingdom. Though we temporarily still live in this fallen world, we are citizens of another Kingdom. Baptism declares us as such.

Though we both say that we believe in Original Sin, there are a number of very significant differences between the Catholic and Reformed positions:

  • In Catholicism the corruption of Original Sin is not complete. In Reformed Protestantism, man’s whole nature is corrupt and fallen.
  • For Catholics baptism removes Original Sin and the possibility exists that the person could then continue without ever sinning (or sinning again) in their life.* For Protestants, baptism is the outer witness of inclusion in God’s covenant community. Man’s sinful nature, however, remains until his physical death, though by God’s grace His people are enabled to do good works in this life.
  • If a Catholic does not continue to be sinless, each subsequent sin must be dealt with. If one dies with unconfessed mortal sins, one is not saved but goes to Hell for eternity. In Reformed thinking, once one has become a citizen of God’s Kingdom, that status cannot be lost. One’s sins, past and present, have all been forgiven; there is no lingering stain.

*A corollary of this belief is that those who are not baptized cannot be saved since the stain of Original Sin has never been removed from them. (This is an idea the Catholic Church has been moving away from as it allows for the possibility that those outside the Church and even outside of Christendom may be saved.)

Purgatory and Indulgences

In the Catholic conception, it is possible for one, having once been cleansed, to not sin again and to remain unstained by sin. For those of us who don’t (which is most of us), there needs to be some way to remove each new stain. In this life this is accomplished through the sacrament of penance. Many will still die not having confessed their sins. For those who die with the stain or venial (lesser) sins on their souls, there is Purgatory which is meant as a mercy since it gives one another chance after death to remove the stain. Indulgences too are a mercy in that they allow one, or one’s loved ones, to spend less time in the admittedly brutal fires of Purgatory.  On the other hand, those who die with mortal sins on their souls, which would include the likes of murder, adultery and idolatry, are unable to be saved from Hell whether they have been baptized or not.

Another thread which plays into all this is the power of the Church’s apostolic leadership. In the Catholic understanding, Jesus gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and told him that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. This is taken to mean that the Pope (the successor of Peter) and whomever he designates the power to can declare men’s sins forgiven or not as they choose. Thus the Church has the power to remove the stain of sin through the sacraments of baptism and penance. The flip side of this is that if the Church has not done so, as in the case of a person who dies without having had a chance to go to penance again, then the stain of sin remains.

The Big Picture

My own opinion is that this one difference — how we view sin — is one of if not the most fundamental one that exists between the Roman Catholic Church and Reformed Protestantism. So much else flows out of it. And so much stands behind it as well. The Catholic view would seem to be a higher view of human nature; it is not all corrupt and people are able to go through life without committing actual sins (as opposed to the sin they inherit from Adam). On the other hand, the Reformers exalted Christ’s work since it deals with all our sins, past and future, at once with no lingering stains to be cleaned up (though the sinful nature is not removed until death). The Catholic view might be said to be more optimistic about people’s abilities. The Reformed view  is one which I personally, having lived in both camps, find more comforting in that it does not depend on me.




One response to this post.

  1. […] of man’s fallen nature, how this is interpreted and what it means varies widely (see this post or this one).  The Roman Catholic Church, and many Protestants as well, accept the idea of […]


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