Friday, 4 January 2013

Original Sin

Of all the errors in the modern approaches to teaching and proclaiming the Faith, it strikes me that one of the most foundational is the fear of teaching about Original Sin.

Without understanding this, the Redemption itself makes no sense: if we are not fallen, from what do we need to be saved?  Why should we need to die with Christ in baptism if our unbaptised state is natural blessedness?

Further, how do we understand our experience without a proper understanding of our damaged nature? Why do we experience such conflicts between our desires and what we know to be good; and such difficulty in adhering to our good intentions?  Without realising that we are not as God designed us, this makes little sense.

Finally, how can we begin to understand the glory of Our Lady's Immaculate Conception unless we know what she, uniquely, was preserved from, by the grace of Her Son's love for her?

Original sin seems to me to be the most clearly observable of doctrines.  Betjeman (who often surprises by being so much better than one remembers) caught it well in his poem Original Sin on the Sussex Coast, which concludes:

Does Mum, the Persil-user, still believe
That there's no Devil and that youth is bliss?
As certain as the sun behind the Downs
And quite as plain to see, the Devil walks.

Why then are we so shy of the subject?

I think that there are two reasons.  

One is that, although easy to observe, it is quite difficult to explain. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes many paragraphs to it, which demonstrates both its importance and its complexity.

The other is that it is against the spirit of the times.  We don't like to talk about negative things.  I seem to remember Archbishop Nichols, for example, saying that talk of sin was a misguided attempt to motivate people.

But without an understanding of sin in general, and Original Sin in particular, we are completely uncatechised: ignorant in our Faith.

As the Catechism says:
God is infinitely good and all his works are good. Yet no one can escape the experience of suffering or the evils in nature which seem to be linked to the limitations proper to creatures: and above all to the question of moral evil. Where does evil come from? (§385)
And further,
Sin is present in human history; any attempt to ignore it or to give this dark reality other names would be futile. (§386)

With regard particularly to Original Sin, the Catechism continues;
The Church, which has the mind of Christ, knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ. (§389)
The Catechism also describes the effects of Original Sin on each one of us:
Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: 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". Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle. (§405)
Later on, the Catechism goes into this issue of concupiscence in more detail:
Etymologically, "concupiscence" can refer to any intense form of human desire. Christian theology has given it a particular meaning: the movement of the sensitive appetite contrary to the operation of the human reason. The apostle St. Paul identifies it with the rebellion of the "flesh" against the "spirit." Concupiscence stems from the disobedience of the first sin. It unsettles man's moral faculties and, without being in itself an offense, inclines man to commit sins. (§ 2515) 
Because man is a composite being, spirit and body, there already exists a certain tension in him; a certain struggle of tendencies between "spirit" and "flesh" develops. But in fact this struggle belongs to the heritage of sin. It is a consequence of sin and at the same time a confirmation of it. It is part of the daily experience of the spiritual battle: 
For the Apostle it is not a matter of despising and condemning the body which with the spiritual soul constitutes man's nature and personal subjectivity. Rather, he is concerned with the morally good or bad works, or better, the permanent dispositions - virtues and vices - which are the fruit of submission (in the first case) or of resistance (in the second case) to the saving action of the Holy Spirit. For this reason the Apostle writes: "If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit." (§2516)
This is all really important to understand at the present time.  Frequently, one hears people say: oh, it’s the way God made me, to justify various aspects of their personality.  

A proper understanding of Original Sin enables us to see past that, and protects us from drawing false conclusions from what we observe and experience.

Thus I may genuinely have been born with some disorder, whether mental, psychological, emotional, spiritual, or sexual; further that disorder may incline me to certain types of behaviour - over-eating, jealous fantasies, watching pornography or whatever.  But to conclude that these are natural to me (part of my God-given identity) and therefore morally allowable, is a false step.

As long as I do not willingly consent to these aberrant thoughts, or act on them, then I am completely without guilt.  However, I am morally responsible for my reaction, and if I react in ways that are against the law of God, then I am guilty of sin.

At present, that is particularly relevant in the realm of sexual identity.  People are quick to say: God created me a homosexual.  But the logic is no different from saying God created me a voyeur, or a paedophile, or bulimic.  If the state is disordered, then the correct response is to resist the resulting temptations, pray for grace, repent if one falls, and persevere in hope.  The mere fact of the inclination does not excuse or justify any resulting behaviour, and certainly does not tell us anything about the morality of such behaviour.

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