Evil is a privation arising primarily from the sinful abuse of freedom. Yet, although we sin freely, in a sense we also sin inevitably. Somehow our condition is such that we are preconditioned to sin. It cannot have been this way at the beginning, however, for sin cannot have originated with God. Only an abuse of freedom by Man at the beginning can account for the present misery of humankind.
The Council of Trent teaches definitively that Man (Adam) was constituted in justice and holiness, disobeyed God, lost justice and holiness, incurred the punishment of death, and was changed for the worse in body and soul; that Man passed on sin to the whole of humankind; that this sin is communicated by propagation, not imitation, and is remedied only by Christ; that therefore even infants contract original sin, and it is right to baptize them; and that original sin is really taken away in baptism, but concupiscence remains. The Council of Orange adds that it would be wrong to say the punishment for sin, but not sin itself, was passed on to us, since in that case God would be unjust.
Various unacceptable attempts have been made to revise the Church’s teaching on original sin. One identifies original sin with inevitable aspects of the human condition, another with the sociocultural environment of sin in which we live. Theological revisions which set aside faith remove the essential presupposition for theology itself. They also threaten a doctrine far more important than original sin—redemption.
There is no incompatibility between the doctrine of original sin and the biological theory of evolution as an account of the organic existence and attributes of humankind. But intelligence and the capacity for free choice are not merely organic. They—and therefore human persons—can be accounted for only by a special act of divine, creative power. While Pius XII and Paul VI cautioned that polygenism appears to be incompatible with faith, it is not clear that they proposed monogenism as the position to be held definitively. Thus there is room for an account of original sin compatible with polygenism.
It needlessly complicates the task of understanding and defending the doctrine of original sin to add nonessential details to the account of the initial human condition. What is essential is that God created Man good, without sin, and with the power of free choice, in friendship with himself, and with the potential to be immortal. Man was free of unruly desire tending toward sin; he was well disposed toward integral human fulfillment; yet this did not rule out a normal inclination toward a good which it would be wrong to choose, for otherwise he could not have sinned.
Scientific evolutionary theory suggests the need for an initial human community of some size. Granting polygenism for the sake of argument, therefore, it is still possible to give an account of Man’s sin which protects the essentials of the Church’s doctrine. Even supposing polygenism, there is no reason to deny the original human community had a single leader (Man) whose action was decisive for the community’s action; furthermore, it is obvious that groups can be carried away by emotion and go wrong together, particularly at the instigation of a leader. As for our involvement in the sin of the original human community and Man in particular, it follows from our solidarity with them, a solidarity which is not only biological but also existential.
As a result of sin, death became inevitable. Fear of death distorts the whole human emotional make up, and this distortion affects the fundamental processes of human experience. This in turn generates false moral judgments and deprives language and other products of culture of the rationality and pure usefulness they should have. Once begun, the entire process is perpetuated in a vicious circle. Each individual and the whole human system are changed for the worse. Even the will is weakened, in the sense that some possibilities which should not be chosen are now more attractive—and so more tempting—than they would have been. Also, the disruption of community by sin makes persons less inclined to pursue the good disinterestedly and more inclined to do as they please.
It remains a question how death can be a consequence of sin, since it is a natural, physically necessary process. The problem is insoluble according to a purely naturalistic world view. But science tells only how the world is; it tells nothing about how the world would have been without sin. Faith does not deny that, as the world is now, death is inevitable; it only says that, without sin, the world would not have been as it is now. Supposing faith’s view of God’s purpose in creating, it seems fitting that bodily persons should have been created with a power to avoid death.
The guilt of original sin is transmitted by propagation. For the positive reality which is transmitted is human nature itself; and, as a result of Man’s sin, concrete human nature is not as it could and ought to have been. Each new human person comes to be without thereby sharing in a human family united as a peaceful community in friendship with God. Sin thus accompanies human nature; grace is absent from it, and this absence is the central privation which constitutes the evil of original sin.
But God has not simply left human beings to their fate. His love persists, redemption is a reality, and, where originally the family of Man would have been the human family of God, God now offers membership in his family to each of us individually.