For us men, and for our Salvation
In 1946, Pius XII maintained that ‘men no longer remember sin, and thus, one might say, forget their existence.’ (Radio broadcast to the US National Eucharistic Congress at Boston). He saw, in this progressive loss of the sense of sin in the modern West, and above all, in the loss of an understanding of Original Sin, the root of all others, ‘the greatest danger in the present day.’ Because in denying, or in failing to recognise, his sinful state, a human being ceases to understand why he needs a Saviour. He lives, and therefore dies, a long way from Jesus Christ, whom he imagines he can do without, even though ‘there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved.’ (Acts 4:12)
Which is why, as John Paul II emphasised fifty years later, it is so important ‘to reflect, first of all on the truth of (Original) Sin in order to find the true meaning of the truth of the Redemption won by Jesus Christ.’ (Introduction to Catechesis on Original Sin, General Audience, 27 August 1986)
I Original Sin
Only the light of divine Revelation clarifies the reality of sin and particularly of the sin committed at mankind’s origins, the Church teaches us (CCC §387). It is, therefore, to the Church that we must turn, in order to understand the evil that prevails in us, and not as Pascal said, to the ‘superb insights of our reason’; otherwise known as our simple natural understanding of reality.
Holy Scripture, the foundation of Revelation, teaches us in this way that which we could not divine for ourselves. Here are the principal lessons, taught us by the first chapters of the book of Genesis.
1 Humanity before the Fall
Everything started well. So much so that the Creator was delighted with it: God looked on all that He had made and saw that it was very good. (1:31) The first couple were endowed not only with a faultless nature, but also with supernatural gifts, which reinforced the strength of that nature, and also enhanced its beauty. And to crown it all, the supreme gift: the state of grace, which raised Adam and Eve infinitely above their natural state, making them familiar with the Holy Trinity.
And because the Creator wanted to invite humanity into a relationship of love with Him, and not force them into a servile relationship, He also gave them a formidable faculty: free will. And so man was able to accept or refuse the marvellous plan that God had for him. One precept was to prove the free trust that man ought to place in the Creator: the prohibition on eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (2:17)
2 Man’s first sin
Man, tempted by the Devil…abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. That is what man’s first sin consisted of. (CCC §397) The first sin in human history, therefore, is a sin of disobedience to the divine law, due to a bad use of that liberty with which God had endowed man. How are we to understand this failing? Two factors joined together to push Adam and Eve towards it:
- A loss of trust in God, due to the calumny of Satan, who made Eve believe that the Creator wanted to keep them in an infantile dependence on Him: No, you will not die! God knows, in fact, that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened. (3:5)
- Pride, towards which the Devil pushed them. We should note here the Serpent’s ingenuity, who achieved his ends by flattering a legitimate aspiration of the human being’s. The temptation ‘you will be like gods’ corresponds effectively with the vocation to which God was calling them, as the Catechism suggests (§398) ‘Created in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully ‘divinised’ by God in glory.’ Only, and this is the problem, Satan invited Adam and Eve to attain that state not by the grace of God and according to His ways, but by seizing if for themselves, by force, with their own hands; ‘without God, before God and not in accordance with God,’ as St Maximus the Confessor summarises it.
The deadly consequences
In that sin, man preferred himself to God, and by that very act, scorned Him. (CCC 398)
St Augustine describes the double movement of that sin like this: ‘aversio a Deo, conversio ad creaturam’ that is to say the simultaneous rejection of God and the turning in on himself and on other created beings.
In practice, that implies: The breaking of friendship with God (Adam hid himself from God afterwards, and God drove him out of the Garden of Eden) and that loss of the supernatural gifts and of sanctifying grace, whose whole purpose was to enable man to live in friendship with God;
And by way of consequence, a wrong relationship with created beings (himself and others) due to a surge in the passions, which would from now on pull him in all directions, obscuring understanding and making it ever more difficult to love the true good. We call this state of our nature, which is since then always inclined to sin, ‘concupiscence.’
II Original Sin as it is passed on to all of humanity
1 Every human person is affected by Adam and Eve’s sin
By one man’s disobedience, many (that is all mankind) were made sinners. (Romans, 5:19)
‘There is nothing, Pascal said, which shocks our reason more than to say that the sin of the first man has made those guilty who are so far removed from it and seemingly incapable of participating in it. That consequence seems not only impossible but also unjust.’
Nonetheless, that truth can be understood, if we consider these things:
Firstly: The authentic responsibility with which God endowed Adam and Eve – for the whole human race, of which they were the head. ‘Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state.
Secondly: the fact that every human being is descended from this single primitive couple (which is called monogenism). In opposition to the theory of polygenism (which suggest that the human race descends from several couples) Tradition has always seen in Adam and Eve more than just a figure of speech, and more than just some moral characters who represent in fact a multitude of primitive couples. On this topic, Tradition has always read the first chapters of Genesis literally. As the Catechism teaches clearly and without ambiguity: ‘from one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth.’ (CCC §360)
2 Original Sin in Adam’s descendants
We must be clear that our first parents’ descendants cannot be held accountable for this fallen state. There is no question that God, who never acts in an arbitrary fashion, should consider Original Sin to be a personal fault in each human being, since none of the descendants of Adam and Eve committed that act.
Original Sin is only present in us as a state: by Adam and Eve’s disobedience, we are deprived of grace and the supernatural gifts, and the nature we receive at our conception is damaged. To put it another way, our nature is, from the start, in an inferior state compared to what it would have been if it had never been raised to the state of grace in the first place. As G K Chesterton summed it up in Heretics: ‘Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.’
That does not mean that our nature is totally destroyed (some beauty remains in it!) but that it finds it easier, alas, to turn to evil than to good, and that the human being is spontaneously inclined to fall into the same error as Adam: to believe, through pride, that he can reach his final end without the help of God.
III The Plan of Salvation: The Redeeming Incarnation.
1 What do we mean by this?
Happily, the Creator did not leave the Human Race to its sad fate. From amongst the many ways He could have chosen to save us, His Wisdom opted for the plan which made His infinite love for us the clearest: His eternal Son came Himself to pay the debt we had contracted by our sin. In order to do that, He became one of us, so as to share in our human condition, and He endured everything up to and including His sacrifice on the Cross.
The Redeeming Incarnation was the lever which did not simply allow each human being to escape from the rut of sin, but which also raised him up to a higher level than ever before. That is what St Leo the Great explained: The ineffable grace of Christ has given us blessings even better than those which the envy of the devil had denied us.’ That helps us to understand the great Easter chant, the Exultet, when it proclaims: ‘O happy fault, that won for us so great a Redeemer!’
2 The choice facing each human being
Because we still retain our free will, as it is more noble for a creature to cooperate with his own salvation than to receive it by force, and so that we may merit to enter one day into glory in the presence of the three Divine persons, God has willed that the salvation of Jesus Christ should be offered to each individual, who may accept or refuse it. That is the choice, ultimately quite simple, which the greatest Christian theologians present us with: to opt for life according to the flesh, or according to the Spirit (St Paul); for the darkness or the light (St John’s Prologue); for the city where ‘the love of God is pursued even at the expense of oneself’, or the city ‘where the love of self is pursued even at the expense of God.’
Today we see the clear proclamation of a proud transhumanism, formalised in 1947 by the biologist Julian Huxley, a eugenicist who was a believer in the redemption of man by way of technology, which he thought could improve the quality of human nature.
In the context of the 2011 Courtyard of the Gentiles, Fabrice Hadjadj questioned those who followed such ideas in these terms: ‘Is man’s greatness found in a technical ability to live a life of ease? Or is it rather found in that tear, in that opening like a cry towards Heaven, in a call to that which completely transcends us?’ (Brief reflection on the Transhuman, 24 March, 2011). He recalled that the word ‘transhumanise’ was coined by Dante, in a completely different context – a Christian one (cf The Divine Comedy). Dante meant that man infinitely surpasses man, to put it in terms Pascal used. That is to say, that he is not fully a man unless he accepts his finite and sinful condition, and unless he understands that he was not created to remain in that state, hitting his head against the walls of his finitude, or distracting himself so as to forget it; but rather, by living in Faith in Jesus Christ, to surrender himself to the Divine work. In that way, and only in that way, can he attain his true stature, which, according to his Creator’s design, is not only human, but humanity divinised. In this we recognise something that St Augustine says: ‘If you (only) love earth, you are earthly; if you love heaven, you are heavenly; and if you love God, you are, in some way, changed into God.’
Is there an image that speaks more eloquently than that of the pierced Sacred Heart; from which blood and water flow, to make us understand in a truly incarnational way that the human person cannot attain the fullness of fruitfulness which God wills for him (and thus become a perfect man) except to the extent that he allows his heart of stone to be transformed into a heart of open flesh, similar to that of Jesus?
‘Jesus, sweet and humble of heart, make my heart like yours!’