1. There is another perennial difficulty about original sin. If it has the character of true sin and somehow affects the will, how is it also transmitted by propagation as part of the human heritage? How can true sin be inherited? Sin seems of all things the most personal, while what is inherited by all alike seems to belong to humankind as a species. The problem is to account for our involvement in guilt prior to our personal self-involvement, without reducing guilt to the status of illusion or attributing its source either to a superhuman power other than God or to God himself.
2. The response to this difficulty is as follows. If Man and the rest of the initial human community had not sinned, the family of Man would ipso facto have accepted its role as God’s human family. Human creatureliness supplied a natural basis for communal fulfillment in friendship with God, while God for his part extended to humankind as a natural community a divine calling to intimacy. This possibility could and should have been realized through the cooperation of the initial human group.29 Their sin blocked its realization. In the beginning, humankind fell short of its common responsibility by a communal sin.
3. It follows that, precisely insofar as one shares humanity with Man, one shares something which is not as it could and ought to have been. One does not inherit the initial sinful choice. The positive reality which is transmitted is human nature itself. This nature ought to be handed on in a human community in friendship with God. Every human person ought to voluntarily share in that community. Instead, human nature is handed on in a humankind divided in itself and so also religiously divided. The central privation which constitutes the evil of original sin is simply the absence of grace from concrete human nature.30
4. This absence of grace has the character of sin because humankind’s present privation of a common will to genuine religious community is a consequence of social irresponsibility from the beginning. For each new person, this existentially defective social situation is not a personal, actual sin, however, since the original possibility of the human family’s cooperating with God no longer exists. Still, if we sin seriously, we personally endorse and contribute to the human heritage of sin.
5. We come to be in this condition of privation simply by coming to be as human persons. By nature we are members of a human family which lacks natural solidarity in genuine religious community and has lost its opportunity for heavenly citizenship. This loss affects each human being merely by his or her natural membership in humankind; thus the privation of original sin accrues to each by propagation, not by personal imitation of a prior sin (see S.t., 1–2, q. 81, aa. 1–3; q. 82, aa. 1, 4; S.c.g., 4, 52).31
The children of Man are like the children of a displaced person who has a chance to apply for American citizenship. If he does so, he may immigrate to the United States and his children will be born American citizens. However, he fails to apply and loses his chance to immigrate. His children are born outside the United States and are deprived of the citizenship they should have enjoyed. Similarly, the children of Man are born outside the genuine religious community of which they should have been members just by being human persons.
But in this case, there would be no genuine religious community to which any human person could belong apart from God’s redemptive work. It is as if the displaced person’s failure to apply for American citizenship had prevented the United States from coming to be. However, by the grace of Jesus, the People of God is constituted and all human persons are called to be citizens of it.
6. The reality of original sin must not be distorted by considering it outside the context of God’s persistent love. God does not leave men and women to their fate: “. . . after their fall his promise of redemption aroused in them the hope of being saved (cf. Gn 3.15), and from that time on he ceaselessly kept the human race in his care, in order to give eternal life to those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation (cf. Rom 2.6–7)” (DV 3).
Someone might object that St. Paul’s teaching that the gift of redemption is greater than the offense seems inconsistent with his teaching about the universality of sinfulness, both among pagans and among Jews, apart from faith in Jesus. For, it might be argued, even if grace is available to all, the remedies Christianity provides against the consequences of original sin are not available to all. Hence pagans did in fact fall into idolatry, and Jews were in fact unfaithful. In the actual conditions, without the full benefit of Christian faith and life, the works of human persons hardly can be what they ought to be, yet God renders to each according to his or her works (see Jer 17.10; Mt 16.27; 1 Cor 3.8; Rv 2.23; and so on).
The answer is that God also assesses works according to the talents each one is given (see Mt 25.14–30)—that is, with full consideration for all of the circumstances in which one lives one’s life.32 Sin by anyone, Jew or Greek, deserves punishment, “but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality” (Rom 2.10–11). No partiality: It makes no difference when one is called to God’s vineyard; what matters is one’s willingness to do as best one can what one is called to do when one is called to do it (see Mt 20.1–16).
7. The difference between the human condition before original sin and since the redemption is this: Before, friendship with God was given with human nature itself; now it depends on membership in the community of faith. Had it not been for original sin, the family of Man would have been the human family of God. As it is, God offers membership in his family to each person individually. The possibility of a family of God grounded in nature and therefore centered upon Man is lost by sin. In its place, by divine generosity and the human cooperation of Jesus, is the possibility of realizing a family of God grounded in free commitment and centered upon Jesus, the Son of Man (see S.t., 1–2, q. 81, a. 3, ad 3; 3, q. 1, a. 4; q. 8, a. 3).33
8. We do not inherit humanity without grace but with everything else intact (see S.t., 1–2, q. 85, aa. 1–5). On the contrary, the human world itself resists God’s love more or less extensively and maliciously (see Jn 15.18–20). Moreover, concrete human nature carries with it sin’s consequences, including death, and the cumulative effects of the fear of death. Among these are concupiscence and weakness of will. Thus, without the special help of God’s grace, no human being can long avoid falling into grave personal sin.
9. But God’s grace is given in Jesus. Faced with the need to overcome death and other evils, redemptive Christian life is harder than human life would have been if Man had not sinned, yet holiness is not less possible. The life of Jesus is more noble than Man’s could have been, and Christian life is more noble than human life would have been without original sin.
Toward the end of the first part of the Liturgy of the Easter Vigil the Church exultantly proclaims Easter. The Proclamation praises God the Father and our Lord Jesus, and then explains why:
For Christ has ransomed us with his blood,
The Church then offers to the Father the liturgy to follow, together with the Easter candle, which represents Jesus.
and paid for us the price of Adam’s sin to our eternal Father!
This is our passover feast, when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain,
whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.
This is the night when first you saved our fathers:
you freed the people of Israel from their slavery
and led them dry-shod through the sea.
This is the night when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.
This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.
Father, how wonderful your care for us!
How boundless your merciful love!
To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.
O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!34
The most important truth about original sin is that we are redeemed from it. Jesus redeems us from all defilement, from the chains of death, from slavery, from alienation from God. He restores us to grace, gives us the power to grow in holiness, restores our innocence, brings us joy, weds heaven to earth, and reconciles humankind to God. Somehow all of the evils which our Lord Jesus overcomes sprang from original sin; all redemption from these evils comes from the Father through our Lord Jesus. And so Man’s sin is called a “happy fault” and a “necessary sin,” not as if in itself a fault were a good or a sin inevitable, but because in Man humankind misspoke itself in the dialogue between its freedom and God’s freedom, and in doing so evoked from him the splendid response of so great a redeemer: the Word made flesh in glory.
29. This point—that a group can have responsibilities which ought to be fulfilled through certain definite persons whose failure therefore puts the whole group in the wrong—is the essential truth in the notion of corporate personality (see 2‑H). Problematic aspects of that notion have been pointed out: J. W. Rogerson, “The Hebrew Conception of Corporate Personality: A Re-examination,” Journal of Theological Studies, 21 (1970), 1–16. But these aspects are not essential to understand the inheritance of original sin.
30. See St. Thomas, Summa theologiae, 1–2, q. 82, aa. 1–2; also O’Brien, op. cit., 133–43. More radical than the view presented here, but in many respects similar: Jesús Cordero Pando, O.P., “La naturaleza del pecado original: Ensayo de formulación teológica,” in Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, op. cit., 425–62.
31. Trent’s teaching that original sin is communicated to all human persons by propagation does not demand a specific mode of transmission, but rather excludes transmission by example only and requires a universal, automatic communication: Segundo Folgado Florez, O.S.A., “La transmisión del pecado original en el Magisterio de la Iglesia,” in Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, op. cit., 295–324. Hence, the formulation I provide concerning transmission is purposely constructed with sufficient openness to accommodate the polygenetic origin of humankind. There is no need to suppose that all of us are lineal descendants of the original sinners, but only that they created a human situation into which all subsequent humans naturally come to be without the human community the original sinners could and should have initiated.
32. Dubarle, op. cit., 201–17, deals well with this point.
33. For an analysis of the essence and transmission of original sin somewhat like that presented here, see Karl Rahner, S.J., “The Sin of Adam,” Theological Investigations, vol. 11, Confrontations I, trans. David Bourke (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), 247–62.
34. From the “Short form of the Easter Proclamation,” the Easter Vigil, New Roman Missal. The Christological perspective of the Easter proclamation on original sin is not the only instance, though it is the most splendid one, in which the liturgy clarifies this important link of the truths of fall and redemption: see Lukken, op. cit., 352–94.