Pius XI provides a brief summary of Catholic teaching on the subject of this chapter. “Original sin,” he explains, “is the hereditary but impersonal fault of Adam’s descendants, who have sinned in him (Rom 5.12). It is the loss of grace, and therefore of eternal life, together with a propensity to evil, which everybody must, with the assistance of grace, penance, resistance and moral effort, repress and conquer. The passion and death of the Son of God has redeemed the world from the hereditary curse of sin and death.”1
This summary indicates why the treatment of original sin does not belong exclusively to dogmatic theology. Rather, it must be considered in the treatment of Christian moral principles, for it conditions the whole of Christian life. The central principle of that life is the redemptive life of Jesus, whose obedience is related to original sin as an antidote to a poison. The specific demands of Christian life are hard; an understanding of original sin helps make it clear why they cannot be easy. Finally, the effects of original sin set many of the problems which Christian life must solve. For all these reasons, original sin must be considered and rightly understood, in order to grasp what Christian living is.2
To understand the redemptive work of Jesus, one must understand what faith teaches concerning original sin. Otherwise, the mystery of the redemption will seem absurd, because the suffering and death of Jesus will seem pointless—as if it were an arbitrary price exacted by a cruel Father, rather than an appropriate price paid by a Father whose merciful love is boundless. This brutal misperception of the sacrifice of Jesus can be an important obstacle to the acceptance of Christian faith.
Essentially, original sin is the alienation of the human race from God. This state of alienation came about by the immoral choice of the first humans. Death was introduced into the world with sin; with death comes a distortion of all our capacities. Attempts to revise the Church’s teaching concerning original sin are not defensible.
1. Pius XI, Mit brennender Sorge, 29 AAS (1937) 157; The Papal Encyclicals, 218.25.
2. A rich and helpful historical study: A. Gaudel, “Péché Originel,” Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, 12:275–606. A useful treatment of the Church’s teaching on original sin: T. C. O’Brien, O.P., “Appendix 2” and “Appendix 3,” in St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, vol. 26 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 110–20. The other appendices also are helpful; O’Brien clearly explains St. Thomas’ theology of original sin. Also see C. J. Peter, “Original Justice” and “Original Sin,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 10:774–81. Karl Rahner, “Original Sin,” Encyclopedia of Theology (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 1148–55, provides a summary treatment of original sin which, allowing for differences in metaphysics, comes very close to that given here. Rahner’s treatment seems weak in respect to human action and its material component, and so leaves some ambiguity about the existential (in my sense) reality of original sin and the realism of death as its punishment.