Article 41 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Do you recall all the cuts, scrapes and other boo-boos you endured as a child from falling off a bike or from a tree? Do you also recall the mysterious red liquid called mecuricome that your mom would use to treat the minor cut, scrape, sore or other external infection? Mecuricome was used throughout the world by millions of moms in the 1960′s and 70′s. The liquid was only sold in small quantities, since one application was extremely effective.
Like one application of mecuricome to cure cuts and scrapes, one Savior with the gift of one baptism cures the stain of original sin.
“Original sin” is a topic that causes confusion for many people. The question often asked is: “Why should I be punished for the sin of others, namely Adam and Eve?” or, as the Catechism puts it, “How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants?” (ccc 404). Whatever the cause, the consequence of original sin is more significant, according to the Catechism, because by way of original sin “death makes its entrance into human history” (ccc 400).
What did original sin essentially consist of? The Catechism explains: “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command” (ccc 397).
Recently when I preached at holy Mass on the topic of original sin, a parishioner came forward after Mass and suggested that original sin can be compared to a person having a defective chromosome. The transmission of original sin by Adam would be analogous to someone with a defective chromosome transmitting a disease or tendency toward an illness down to subsequent generations. Another parishioner proposed the notion of collective punishment as a possible analogy to the concept of original sin. This practice, which punishes family members of a suspected criminal who are not directly responsible for committing a crime, was popular in Nazi Germany and continues to be practiced in North Korea.
The Catechism tells us that “all people are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice” and, although “the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand … we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature” (ccc 404). By yielding to the temptation of Satan, however, “Adam and Eve committed a personal sin (and) their sin affected all humanity” (ccc 404) causing us to be deprived of the original holiness and justice that God intended us to receive through our first parents. Rather than transmitting original holiness, our first parents transmitted original sin or “a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice” (ccc 404). Therefore, we can say that “the devil … acquired a certain domination over us humans, even though we remain free” (407).
The good news is that our Catholic faith teaches “human nature has not been totally corrupted” by original sin (ccc 405), unlike the perspective of Protestant reformers who taught that original sin totally corrupted human nature. The Catechism explains, “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’” (ccc 405).
Our first parents “transmitted to us a sin … which is the ‘death of the soul’” (ccc 403), and that is why new life for the soul through the waters of baptism is necessary. No wonder Jesus teaches, “Unless you are born again of water and the Holy Spirit, you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:3). Baptism takes away original sin (as well as all actual sins in the case of adult baptism), and restores us to God’s grace. This helps explain why even infants who have not committed personal sin are baptized for the remission of sin.
Although baptism erases the sin of Adam and Eve and turns us back towards the holiness and justice of God, “the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in us and summon us to spiritual battle” (ccc 405).
Quoting Saint Pope John Paul, the Catechism says that our “wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors (even) in the areas of education, politics, social action and morals” (ccc 407).
Original sin, coupled with the personal sins of human beings, places the world in an unfortunate sinful condition. The consequences of both are appropriately described in the Gospel of Saint John as “the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Saint Pope John Paul tells us that “this expression can also refer to the negative influence exerted on people by communal situations and social structures that are the fruit of men’s sins” (Cf. John Paul II, RP 16).
The Catechism asks: “why did God not prevent the first man from sinning?” (ccc 412). Saint Leo the Great explains in one of his sermons, “Christ’s inexpressible grace gave us blessings better than those the demon’s envy had taken away.” Saint Thomas Aquinas states in his famous Summa Theologia (III,1,3, ad 3): “There is nothing to prevent human nature’s being raised up to something greater, even after sin; God permits evil in order to draw forth some greater good” (308). Finally, Saint Paul tell us: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). This grace is personified in Christ, the New Adam, who because he “became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8), makes amends superabundantly for the disobedience of Adam. Therefore, in the Easter Exsulet we can joyfully sing, “O happy fault … which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”