Our son, Bob, goes to a Catholic high school, and we keep careful track of what he is getting by way of religious education. The school’s program seems sound, and we have been pleased with it. However, our son made friends with a classmate whose dad is an ex-priest, and this man told the boys a story about original sin that Bob enthusiastically reported to us and we are sure is wrong.
The underlying idea is that original sin is not something that was done by the earliest people, a long time ago, but is simply the immaturity everyone suffers from and the impact sinful social structures have on people, especially as they are growing up. Immaturity leads people to give in to their natural impulses, and sinful social structures involve everybody in injustices. Also, according to this story, death is the natural end of bodily life and not really a punishment, but sinfulness makes people afraid of death. In looking forward to another, happier life, their fear of death is overcome so that they no longer mistakenly regard death as bad. Finally, according to this story, the Blessed Virgin’s immunity from original sin means only that she was providentially protected by her angelic disposition, good upbringing, and place in society from the irresistible temptations most people experience, and she was entirely free of fear of death.
Bob never before raised objections to what he learned in religion class and what we taught him ourselves. But now we are up against this ex-priest’s influence. We tried to explain the doctrine of original sin to Bob, and he did think about it. But he raised some questions we do not know how to answer. How can a sin be inherited? Why wouldn’t God have prevented the first man from sinning? Wouldn’t it be unfair for God to punish everybody, including babies, for something done by some cave man long ago? Isn’t death really natural, since all living things in the world eventually die? And if original sin were part of our hereditary make up, how could God prevent Mary from inheriting it?
We do not know what to tell our son about all these things. Also, we are not sure how important they are, since believing in original sin and the Immaculate Conception is not like believing in the Trinity or the Incarnation. We also wonder whether we should confront Bob’s friend’s dad about this.
This question concerns both parental responsibility with respect to the religious education of children and every Catholic’s responsibility with respect to difficulties about matters of faith. The parents should be encouraged to continue to discuss their son’s views with him, and, in doing so, to take a moderate stance, neither treating as acceptable doubts about truths of faith nor pressing him to stifle the questions that trouble him, but striving to help him strengthen his faith and grow in it. The parents’ question concerning the importance of the doctrines of original sin and the Immaculate Conception should be answered by clarifying the responsibility to believe all the truths of faith. Whether the parents should talk with the father of their son’s friend is a matter for conscientious judgment.
Do not be surprised that your previously docile son is now raising questions about some of the truths of faith. Thoughtful young people often develop a critical attitude around Bob’s age, and something else probably would have started him asking questions even if he were not being influenced by his friend’s dad. Your son’s questions are a good sign insofar as they indicate that he is earnest enough about religious truth to take such matters seriously. Some young people are so religiously indifferent they casually set aside truths of faith or never even think about or discuss such matters. And some would never bring such questions up to parents who are vigilant, as you are, about orthodoxy. That Bob discusses these questions with you is a sign that you have built a sound relationship with him, and that he respects and trusts you.
When young people experience difficulties and crises of faith, their parents have a special opportunity and responsibility to help them resolve their problems and encourage them to reaffirm their faith with a clearer, more self-conscious commitment. You also should realize that being unable to provide satisfactory answers to your son’s questions challenges you to clarify and strengthen your own faith. In doing that, you will become able to help Bob. Do not let this matter rest, as if it were acceptable to doubt truths of faith or his questions were unimportant. At the same time, do not assume he is sinning against faith and do not exert any sort of pressure on him.
The teaching of Vatican II with respect to religious liberty applies to young people and their parents. Young people should seek truth in matters religious, embrace what they believe to be the truth, and live by it (see DH 2; LCL, 707). But they cannot fulfill these responsibilities unless they are free of pressure from their parents. Therefore, you should talk with Bob much as you would with an adult friend, seeking to clarify the points at issue so that he will see the truth for himself and accept it as his own: “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power” (DH 1). Of course, this teaching presupposes that God makes religious truth available to us and that his grace ensures that a sincere quest for it will not be vain. Thus, with prayer for that grace, patient inquiry, and discussion, you and Bob should work together to preserve and strengthen his faith and yours.
Help your son deal not only with the particular difficulties of faith that currently concern you but with the many others he is sure to encounter. Warn him that even some individuals and programs within the Church either altogether lack Christian faith or are letting it slip away. Having some alternative notion about what will make life worth living, some Catholics fail to appreciate the importance of many truths of faith, and can be expected to challenge them. Since the religious education program at your son’s high school seems sound, encourage him to take advantage of it by raising questions in class when appropriate or discussing them after class with his religion teacher. But beyond that, show him how to use sources such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church and to look for solutions to difficulties about matters of faith in sacred Scripture, by reading it with readiness to hear what God wishes to tell him.
The story about original sin and the Immaculate Conception that you have summarized includes the claim that people experience irresistible temptations. Whether the idea that some temptations are irresistible came from the father of Bob’s friend or somewhere else, do not let it go unchallenged. Since succumbing to something truly irresistible would be guiltless, this claim, especially in the context of the statement that “immaturity leads people to give in to their natural impulses,” is bound to be seductive for someone experiencing powerful and not-yet-mastered desires, as your son might well be at his age. The claim also is incoherent. An irresistible impulse simply would not be a temptation, and someone undergoing such an impulse would have an experience, not of giving in to it, but of simply undergoing it, as one experiences falling asleep despite trying in vain to stay awake during a boring class, homily, or entertainment. You ought to explain this point to Bob, and in any case you should be trying to help him understand and deal with his temptations, not least his sexual desires.1 As part of this effort, assure him that he can resist and master temptation by using all available means, including prayer and the sacraments (see LCL, 216–26 and 669–78).
In revealing himself in Jesus, God invites human persons to become his children, whom he wishes to bring up to be adult members of his family, sharing forever in his life and joy. Hoping for heaven, believers accept this invitation. Since the truths of faith articulate God’s invitation, they are like truths two people share with each other as they become acquainted with a view to becoming true friends. Such truths are not mere matters of fact or pieces of impersonal practical information; they are sharings of each person with the other. Each such truth is precious, and all of them are to be cherished and pondered. Though understood, such truths can never be exhausted, so that questions will always remain—questions that should draw a person into deeper intimacy. Thus, truths of faith are divinely given elements of a Christian’s self-understanding, necessary for enjoying his or her identity as a child of God and living according to it.
As you rightly say, the truths about the Trinity, the redemptive Incarnation, and the calling of human persons to become God’s children are more fundamental than those about original sin and Mary’s Immaculate Conception, which are subordinate. Still, one should believe all these truths with the same faith, since God has revealed all of them (see UR 11; LCL, 3–6, 40–42). Someone who believed only the more fundamental secrets another shared about himself or herself would lack the trust necessary for genuine friendship. As the liver and kidneys are vital organs, though less important than the heart and brain, even these subordinate doctrines are essential to the living body of faith, so that faithful Catholics will believe them along with everything in Scripture or tradition that the Church teaches as belonging to God’s revelation (see DS 3011/1792).
Therefore, when one hears a story denying or calling into question what one has received as the Church’s faith, one should make sure one knows the authentic Catholic teaching on the matter and should take it for granted that the teaching is true. Relevant, unanswered questions should be regarded as difficulties to be investigated, not as indications that an alternative “story” might be acceptable. Rather, the inquiry should proceed with confidence that all the difficulties can and will be resolved, and the truth of faith vindicated and, perhaps, more fully and accurately understood.
In dealing with your son’s questions, take this attitude and try to communicate it to him. You are right that the story his friend’s dad gave him about original sin and the Immaculate Conception is mistaken. The Church definitively teaches that, at the beginning of human history, our first parents committed a sin by which they lost God’s friendship, that this sin is handed down to their descendants, that both our first parents and we suffer death as a punishment for this sin, that baptism takes away this sin by the merit of Christ’s sacrifice, and that, in anticipation of that same merit, Mary enjoyed the special grace of being preserved from this sin from the first moment of her conception.2
Since baptism obviously does not overcome immaturity or sinful social structures, the false story implicitly denies that it takes away original sin. Even more important, since baptism is effective through Jesus’ redemptive suffering, death, and resurrection, the story implicitly calls into question both the need for God’s redemptive work in Christ and its effectiveness (see CCC, 389). Then too, while hope of resurrection and everlasting life makes death acceptable to Christians as an unavoidable passage, its fearsome reality as personal dissolution remains—“The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15.26)—and devout Christians rightly continue to fear it both for themselves and for their loved ones (see q. 43, below). Moreover, the false story makes it impossible to understand how the anticipated merit of Jesus’ redemptive act preserved Mary from original sin and why her Immaculate Conception was a singular privilege rather than a fortunate state of affairs that in principle could be shared by others. Accepting this story would seriously disrupt the body of doctrine, much as replacing the liver with a more attractive organ that could not perform the liver’s function would lead quickly to death.
Your son has asked several interesting questions bearing on the authentic doctrines of original sin and the Immaculate Conception.
First, how can a sin be inherited? Part of the answer is that the Church does not teach that our first parents’ sinful choice is inherited, but only that part of the state of sin resulting from that act is handed on, together with the consequences of that sinful condition (see CCC, 404–5; CMP, 348–51). God gave the first humans grace—the capacity to live together as his own family—and called them to be the beginning of the community of humankind actually living together in the world as his family. Someone whom we call “Adam” was in a position to determine the course taken by the initial human community, considered as a social body. Had Adam not sinned, each new person procreated in the human community also would have shared in grace. That community also would have been God’s human family, undivided in itself and living at peace with God. But, having sinned, Adam and Eve were no longer at peace with God or each other, and so they passed on human nature deprived of grace, and weakened in its natural capacities, to offspring whose conflict was deadly and whose descendants divided into many communities. Even the best of those communities, God’s chosen people, was only one small nation, warring constantly with other human communities. Thus, people coming into existence in fallen humankind cannot receive grace along with their human nature and, considered simply as members of the human race, are not members of God’s family. That is why God sent his Son to establish the new covenant, which is the Church, and called all human beings to enter it and form his family on earth. And it also is why babies are not members of the Church merely by being born of Christian parents but only by baptism, in which they are born again by water and the Spirit, so that they no longer are members only of fallen humankind but also of the family of God on earth.
Second, why wouldn’t God have prevented the first man from sinning? Though God did not intend that sin and could have prevented it, he allowed it to be committed so that he could draw forth something better, as St. Thomas explains (see S.t., 3, q. 1, a. 3, ad 3; cf. CCC, 412). The exultant proclamation sung at the Easter Vigil explains:
Father, how wonderful your care for us!
The first man’s sin is not called a “happy fault” and a “necessary sin” as if in itself a sin could be either fortunate or inevitable, but because it turned out to be to humankind’s advantage: Adam’s wrongdoing posed a question to God the Father that evoked his supremely loving answer: his Word made man, given in sacrifice, and raised to glory.3 Likewise, following Jesus through suffering and struggle to glory—as Mary, the martyrs, and all the saints did—becomes possible only in a world fallen and redeemed. And just as Jesus’ wounds remained in him after he rose from the dead (see Lk 24.39–40; Jn 20.20, 27), so he remains the man he became in laying down his life for us, and so his followers will remain the splendid characters they become by playing their own parts in the drama of salvation. For this entire drama, as it takes place in this world, is but the prologue for an unending performance, the heavenly marriage feast, in which every person, having come to be himself or herself, will play his or her unique role.
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!
Third, wouldn’t it be unfair for God to punish everybody, including babies, for something done by some cave man long ago? To see why not, one must take into account the difference between human and divine punishments. Human punishments for crimes are chosen from among various possibilities and imposed on criminals, and if one imagines that God similarly chooses and imposes punishments for sins, the punishment of original sin will seem unfair. But God’s punishments for sins are their inevitable bad consequences considered insofar as he permits them in dealing appropriately with the sins (see CCC, 1472). In the case of original sin, the consequences are indeed horrible, yet, as explained in answer to the second question, God permits them because they make possible great goods—ultimately the goods of salvation and everlasting life through Christ Jesus (see Rom 5.12–21). Still, though these goods might explain why God allows people who did not commit original sin to suffer its consequences, the consequences would not count as a punishment if those suffering them did not somehow share in the sin. But, as explained in answer to the first question, all of us do share in original sin simply by coming to be as members of fallen humankind.
Fourth, isn’t death really natural, since all living things in the world eventually die? Death is natural in two senses. In the world as it is, death is naturally inevitable; and human persons, insofar as they are bodily, are in principle susceptible to death. As the destruction of the bodily person, however, death is a great evil and hardly appropriate for persons created in God’s image and called to communion with him. So, following indications in sacred Scripture, the Church teaches that humans would have been preserved from bodily death if they had not sinned (see GS 18; CMP, 346–48).
Fifth, if original sin is something included in humankind’s hereditary makeup, how did God prevent Mary from inheriting it? Original sin is not included in humankind’s hereditary makeup as an essential part of human nature. It is not something added—for example, in the genes—that corrupts and replaces human nature as it was in the beginning. If it were, Mary (and, for that matter, Jesus himself) could not have come to be without inheriting original sin along with human nature. But original sin did not change human nature in itself. It only put human nature in a sorry state—a bad condition in which people do not receive grace along with their nature, and are both wounded in their capacities and unable, insofar as their nature is fallen, to reestablish a human community in friendship with God. But God’s intention for Mary was that she be the first person to cooperate fully and directly in Jesus’ redemptive act, countering what Eve did by cooperating fully and directly in original sin. So, God brought Mary into being full of grace and he predestined her to participate in advance in Jesus’ redemptive act, when the angel announced to her that she was to be the mother of the savior (see Lk 1.26–38) and she agreed to the Father’s plan: “Let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1.38). Jesus’ redemptive act would overcome original sin by establishing the new covenant into which all human persons are called to form a universal and inclusive community in friendship with God. So, Mary, destined to say “let it be,” always belonged to the new covenant community, and her human nature never shared the sorry state of fallen humankind, incapacitated to form a community in friendship with God.
Finally, you wonder whether you should “confront” your son’s friend’s father. An aggressive approach probably would not be helpful, but whether you should talk with the man is a reasonable question. I cannot give you a definite answer, since there may be good reasons both for and against. Your first responsibility in this situation is to your son. For you to confront this man might get in the way of your son’s talking with his friend, interfere with the boys’ friendship, and make it more difficult for you to help your son. Still, if you already know the man and talk with him from time to time, you might bring up the matter in a friendly way, hoping to encourage him to reexamine his views. In that case, you are more likely to help him by asking questions than pressing arguments, especially since, having been exposed to some formal theological training, he is unlikely to be receptive to direct criticism of his theological opinions.
1. See Pontifical Council for the Family, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family, Origins, 25:32 (1 Feb. 1996): 529, 531–52; also see LCL, 710–12.
2. See DS 1511–16/788–92, 2803–4/1641; CCC, 385–412, 490–93, 1008; CMP, 335–36. The tradition regarding original sin is especially manifest in the liturgy, which makes clear the doctrine’s inseparability from the doctrine about redemption by and in Christ; see G. M. Lukken, Original Sin in the Roman Liturgy: Research into the Theology of Original Sin in the Roman Sacramentaria and the Early Baptismal Liturgy (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973), esp. 352–94. On Mary’s Immaculate Conception, see Bernard A. McKenna, The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception: Historical Development and Dogmatic Fulfillment (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1929), and bibliography, 572–601.
3. See Lukken, op. cit., 291–92, 391–94.