By George J. Desnoyers
In this consideration of the
doctrine of original sin (OS), I will for the most part be limiting my treatment
to the Catholic ideas surrounding the doctrine of OS, and its related topic, the
state of unbaptized infants. The Catholic Church downplays the question of
infants, pretty much limiting itself to saying that it is impossible to be sure
of the fate of infants who die without baptism, that we entrust them to the
mercy of God, that there is some reason in the words of Jesus to be hopeful
concerning their fate, and that the uncertainty regarding unbaptized infants is
reason to baptize them (CCC 1261). However, the literature of Christian
theology (including the CCC) reflects an association between the state of
infants and the doctrine of original sin, suggesting that an examination of the
latter is incomplete without some consideration of the former.
Protestants hold many different views on OS. Some Protestants hold views very similar to those of the Catholic Church, but with this difference. The Catholic Church has a unique belief regarding the role of grace imparted through the sacrament of baptism. So, for many Catholics, assurance in the safety of infants depends on whether they’ve been baptized. This would not be the case for nearly all Protestants. In discussing OS with Protestants I would not have to emphasize, when considering the state of infants, that I was considering unbaptized infants only. For Protestants, the implications of a sinful state of any and all infants poses a challenge to the idea of OS. For Catholics, the challenge is posed only by the implications of the sinful state of unbaptized infants. Of course both Protestants and Catholics can dismiss all such concerns by adopting the “divine wink theory,” the theory that God lets all deceased infants into heaven with a wink. I’m not going to address that theory. How could I address such a theory? But I do find the divine wink theory cute, and a pretty good commentary on the state of some Christian theology. Likewise with the theory that get infants into heaven on the basis of a supposed real - however inchoate - desire for baptism. That theory is at least several decades old. [I first heard it from a nun at my Catholic high school back in the 1950s.]
This post will comment on some basic ideas involving OS doctrine, and discuss some past and present RCC teaching on the subject. Also, it will address some related sub-topics, like the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the virginity of Mary, and an attitude frequently exhibited by believers in original sin when they are engaged in discussions about it.
The doctrine of original sin (OS) appeared in embryonic forms before Augustine, but I’m going to skip the embryonic forms. The Catholic Church officially adopted many ideas of Augustine on OS when it condemned the teachings of Pelagius. Most of those ideas persisted for well over a thousand years, surviving Trent, and there hasn’t been a lot of change even to the present day. What has changed, and much for the better, is the Church’s language and emphasis. [More on those changes below.]
At the outset, let me state my own strong personal belief that all infants are safe, baptized and unbaptized. Also, there is no limbo, so it’s really good that the Catholic Church has never officially declared that there is one. Suffice it to say that, when the term “limbo” was first used (by Pelagius, although the RCC has sometimes said otherwise), the word didn’t refer to a place of eternal existence – like heaven and hell, but was simply a name used for the unknown fate of infants. If the word is going to be used, it should be used that way.
I wish that more people would be able to know, just from common sense and their instinct for justice, that infants are safe. It simply should be plain to all that, if you haven’t personally sinned, then you are not personally guilty of sin, and cannot be punished for sin. But there has been so much horribly erroneous teaching on the subject, over such a long period of time, that common sense and an instinct for justice don’t always rule. For those who have long been subjected to the teaching that deceased infants who had not been baptized may not make it into heaven, consider these Scriptural texts that are indicative of Jesus’ great love of children: Mt. 18:1-6,10, Mt. 19:13-15 and Mk. 10:13-16, and Mark 9:36-37. Many people have been comforted by those words. It seems inconceivable to most readers that Jesus could have spoken them unless all deceased infants, baptized and unbaptized, were certain to be admitted into heaven.
In considering original sin and the state of infants, I follow the customary practice of speaking primarily of young infants. The reason I say "young infants" is because at least one Biblical word often translated as "infant" can mean "suckling." It would be theoretically possible for a five-year-old child to have sinned and still be nursing. When I make statements about "infants" (or "young infants"), I am referring to unbaptized infants less than one year old. Or, in case there are some really precocious infants out there, it should be understood that I am only referring to unbaptized infants too young to have been able to personally sin, infants at least very close to the way infants are at the time of birth. I am trying to present the toughest possible case to the RCC’s theologians who still insist on a possibility that unbaptized infants do not make it into heaven. There are some other mighty challenges to the idea of OS, like the one offered by unbaptized people born with serious mental defects. But usually it is the state of young unbaptized infants that is considered the toughest case for Catholics, and the case that should be considered in discussions of OS.
A real fundamental idea in scripture is that a person is guilty of, and punished for, his/her own sin, and not his/her parents’ sins (Ezekiel 18:19-20). [Read all of Ezek. 18 to see the context, and remember the clarity of vv. 19-20 later on when we look (in the second post) at the supposed “proof texts” for OS.]
That we do not believe that people are guilty of their parents’ sins should be obvious from the way we treat each other. I cannot remember ever being punished for my parents’ sins, or being made to feel guilt on account of them. On the rare occasions when that kind of thing happens, people who witness it are usually quick to protest the injustice. If I am not guilty of my parents’ sins, and their parents’ sins, why on earth would I be guilty of the sins of Adam and Eve?
Of course there is truth in the teaching that God sometimes deals with people in groups. The OT is loaded with evidence of that. But it also true that the Bible teaches individual responsibility, and the preeminence of love and justice. When God was “punishing” a group, it should be understood that some members of that group were guilty and truly being punished. Individuals within the group who were innocent of the sins being punished were not themselves being punished, but were suffering a temporal consequence of the sin of others.
[There are occasions, according to reason and scripture, when a person can be guilty of the sins of another. When a person willfully, or with gross negligence, encourages another person to commit a sin, then the first person can reasonably be charged with the second person’s offense (see, e.g., Mt. 18:6). But consideration of this kind of responsibility and guilt doesn’t belong in a discussion of OS.]
It is necessary to address something that is sometimes offered as a “proof” of original sin, the fact that infants do die. The argument runs: the wages of sin is death; infants die; therefore infants collect the wages of sin and must be sinners. The death of infants is not a proof that they are sinners. It is a proof that infants are mortal. An infant’s death could be a temporal consequence of the sin of others. In fact, the effects of sin sometimes can be felt generation after generation. Children do often suffer for the sins of their parents and ancestors. But the suffering and death of an infant cannot be punishment of the infant for any sin or guilt of the infant. The infant is pure and innocent. The infant hasn’t committed any personal sins, and carries neither the sin nor the guilt of the parent or ancestors. Note that I am not denying that the wages of sin is death. People do sin, and they collect the wages of sin, death. But, until a person sins, that person’s death cannot be the wages of his/her sin.
Another idea (actually, its more an attitude) that is necessary to address is the nuts and bolts view of humanity - the idea that we are like nuts and bolts, and God is the Great Forger who casts us for his own purposes and can do with us whatever He/She likes. The reason this theory is sometimes brought into the discussion of OS is purportedly to bring home to us that there is a great gulf between humans and God, and that the humans’ view (the nuts’ and bolts’ view) of sin and justice is not what is important, but only God’s (the Forger’s). The idea is that we should scrap our limited and faulty human ideas about sin and justice. We have no more right to question God regarding the fairness of OS than nuts and bolts have to question their maker (or clay to question the potter, etc.). We should not question the idea that God might punish (or withhold the blessing of heaven from) unbaptized infants who never personally sinned, but who carried in some mysterious way the sin and/or guilt of Adam and Eve.
[For those who wonder why theologians historically considered Adam’s sin much more often than Eve’s, it was because until the nineteenth century the seeds of the human race were believed to be contained only within the male. Theologians felt it was Adam’s sin that was passed on in conception, not Eve’s. Nowadays the RCC will admit that Augustine and Aquinas were wrong about the seed being only in the male (although the 1994 CCC continues a past error along this line – more below), but the Church still insists that they were right on OS.]
Basically, the nuts and bolt analogy (or any other similar analogy) is intended to convince us to accept original sin as a mystery divinely revealed, something we should not expect, or attempt, to thoroughly understand with our limited abilities. The gulf between God and ourselves is huge, and God can charge us with sin and do with us as He/She sees fit.
I would agree that there is a large gulf between the nuts and bolts, and their maker. And I would agree that the nuts and bolts have absolutely no complaint when their maker casts them back into the fire, for whatever reason or defect - they don't fit exactly right, they just don’t suit his/her purposes anymore, they have a black stain, et cetera. But the analogy is defective. In the case of nuts and bolts being thrown back into the fire, justice is not being violated. Justice is not even involved. The nuts and bolts are not being punished for their sins, or their maker’s sins. Their being thrown into the fire may be a consequence of something else (i.e., there may be a reason for it), but it is not a punishment, and it has nothing to do with justice.
Well, what about the gulf between God and man? Isn’t it huge? The answer to that isn’t so simple. We recognize two qualities in God that are unusual in the same being, transcendence and immanence. In terms of God’s transcendence, the gulf between God and man is huge, in fact very far greater than even the gulf between the maker of nuts and bolts, and the nuts and bolts themselves. The gulf is infinitely greater than the gulf between the highest king or queen and lowest subject. When considering God’s transcendence, God is viewed as totally outside the universe, but perhaps holding the entire universe with great ease in one hand. In God’s transcendence, God does not take questions about original sin and His/Her treatment of infants.
In terms of the immanence of God, which is very real, the analogy of the nuts and bolts and their maker is totally inadequate. The immanence of God is His/Her nearness, His/Her permeating the universe, His/Her being all around us and even in us. We feel God’s nearness. In terms of immanence, there is not a great gulf between God and humans. Like the nut-maker designed and made the nut, God did design us and make us. Other than that, the relationships are not very analogous. Doesn’t the immanent God also infinitely love us, watch over us, have concern about us every moment, desire only good for us, inspire us through the Holy Spirit, appoint guardian angels to help us, maintain personal relationships with us – speaking and listening to us, and always act toward us fairly and justly? Do you want to maintain, along with the Catholic Church, even the possibility that this kind of God would slam shut the door of heaven to unbaptized infants who died before they personally sinned? Where would they go after the door of heaven were slammed shut, to hell or purgatory? Would the immanent God treat infants who never personally sinned worse than He/She treats people who sinned and then repented?
Infants are not in need of a savior because they are already safe in Jesus. Jesus loves them. Remember those texts cited above. God would not treat infants who never sinned worse (eternally) than He/She treats those who sinned and repented. Sometimes the infants do suffer temporally worse things than sinners, even sinners who don’t repent. But suffering the temporal consequences of the sins of others, or of the state of the world, or of the laws of nature, is not -for young infants - punishment.
As I said above, the idea of original sin became well-defined in the time of Augustine. That happened when Augustine undertook to answer what he perceived to be erroneous teaching by Pelagius on the subject of free will. Why was original sin involved? Basically, because both men felt that a consideration of the natural state of people, including all their natural tendencies - even if not fully developed, was important to determining whether free will existed. Pelagius’ side of the debate is not well known because the Church systematically destroyed his writings, just as it did those of most heretics over several centuries. Nearly all of what is known of Pelagius’ arguments is known through the writings of Augustine. We will probably never know the extent to which Augustine reconstructed Pelagius’ arguments out of straw before knocking them down.
What were the basic ideas of Augustine related to original sin that were incorporated into official Church doctrines?
First, Augustine believed in an idea that was already ancient in his day, the idea that sex, and its results, were dirty. Several dozen Biblical texts could be cited to show conclusively that a belief in the dirtiness of sex was shared by the Bible’s authors. In the NT, even Mary was supposedly in need of purification on account of giving birth to Jesus, despite it being a miraculous virginal birth of the Son of God. Concerning Augustine, it is generally recognized that he had a large amount of baggage from his life prior to conversion that made him quite extreme in his belief in the dirtiness of sex. After his conversion, Augustine rebelled completely against his former associates, the Manicheans. They were a peculiar sub-group of Gnostics. Manicheans taught that all forms of sex were okay as long as a child wasn’t conceived. Conceiving a child would result in a spiritual being that would be imprisoned in a physical body. That was bad because the most important goal of the living was to become more of a spiritual being, one freer and freer of the influence of matter. Most Gnostics differed from the Manicheans by teaching that sex was dirty to begin with, whether or not there was a conception, and it was all the more dirty if you enjoyed it. It was this form of Gnosticism that heavily influenced Augustine following his conversion, with enormous effects on the Church and its faithful up to the present day. For one thing, from the time of Augustine up to the twentieth century the Church taught that the purpose of sex is procreation, and not pleasure.
Second, Augustine saw a connection between sex and the lapse. He was far from alone in that belief. Many people argue, from Gen. 3:7, that the lapse involved a sexual sin. Historically, biting the apple has very often been taken as a metaphor, as can be seen in many works of art. Not only did the fall likely involve a sexual sin, but Augustine also believed that it resulted in a weakening of the will that made men unable to control the lower appetites the way Adam was able to in his pre-fallen condition. The weakening of the ability of the will and intellect to control the lower (animal) passions is what theologians are referring to when they speak of concupiscence resulting from the fall.
Third, Augustine strongly believed that original sin, with all its effects (like the weakened will and intellect, guilt, and debt of punishment), was passed down through the sex act. So, for Augustine, it was extremely important that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born, and even afterward. For Augustine, the virgin birth was the guarantee that Jesus was born without OS. The idea that OS is passed down through the sex act is also the reason why the Catholic Church still maintains that Mary always remained a virgin. The Church could never accept the idea that sin passed from Mary to anyone else, which would supposedly be the case if she ever participated in a sex act that resulted in conception. Like Jerome, who wrote a treatise, “The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary,” Augustine opposed Helvidius' position rejecting the concept of Mary’s perpetual virginity and understanding the Biblical "brethren" of Jesus to be Mary’s biological children.
Today, people speak of virginity as physical, psychological, spiritual, or even “born again.” But such was not always the case; there was a time when virginity was physical, period. When Church Fathers came up with the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity, the idea referred to MORE than Mary’s never having had intercourse with Joseph or anyone else. For the Church Fathers, as was the case in many cultures, a virgin was a woman whose hymen was intact, not torn or damaged (noticeably stretched). This definition was applied in the Church for centuries.
There are many old writings, some by Church Fathers, in which disagreement is expressed with the above definition of virgin, in some cases for the very same reasons that physicians would give today. But the definition made sense to most folk, and the Church accepted it. It had the important benefit of making it easy for priests or others to determine whether a woman was a virgin (in some places a requirement for marriage). Priests did not do the inspections, but they sometimes caused them to be performed. [By the way, the Church determined a person’s gender by whether male genitalia were present.]
Today the idea that a virgin is a woman whose hymen is intact and undamaged is universally deemed silly. Some women were born without a hymen. And it’s nearly universally accepted both that an intact and undamaged hymen is no guarantee that a woman has not had sexual relations, and that a torn or damaged hymen is no guarantee that she has.
Regarding Mary, however, the official position of the RCC has continued to be that, while Jesus’ birth was a normal one, Mary’s hymen was miraculously preserved intact during and after the birth of Christ. Without that miracle, Mary could not have been called or deemed a perpetual virgin (the most common expression throughout history has been “ever virgin”) by the Church’s standard.
Interestingly on this point, in the Gospel of James (ca 150 AD), sometimes called the Infancy Gospel of James or Protoevangelium of James, there is an account of an inspection of Mary immediately following the birth of Jesus. After the midwife claims that a miraculous birth has occurred, Salome says, "As the Lord my God lives, unless I insert my finger and investigate her, I will not believe that a virgin has given birth.” (v. 19:19) Chapter 20 of the Gospel of James then reports: the positioning of Mary (vv. 1-2), the inspection carried out by Salome via insertion of a finger, and the resulting burning up of Salome’s hand (vv. 2-3), the regret of Salome for having doubted the virgin birth and having tested the living God, and Salome’s prayer asking for forgiveness (vv. 3-7), an angel’s instruction to Salome to pick up Jesus in order to receive salvation and joy from him (vv. 8-9), Salome’s lifting up of Jesus, worship of him, and her recognition of him as “born a king to Israel” (v. 10), the healing of Salome and her leaving the cave justified (v. 11), and a sudden instruction to Salome, “do not proclaim what a miracle you have seen until the child comes to Jerusalem." (v. 12)
If Jesus was protected from original sin only by His virgin birth, it is natural to ask what it was that protected Mary. The Immaculate Conception of Mary (her being conceived free of original sin) had already been proposed at the time of Augustine. Theologians discussed the concept a lot through several centuries. But the doctrine was only officially declared infallibly in 1854. The long holdup was due to its apparent denial of the Augustinian position that original sin was passed on through the sex act leading to conception. Mary’s birth was not a virgin birth. The Church, however, to satisfy the nineteenth century’s Augustinian faction, stressed that the Immaculate Conception was a very special act of grace on the part of God, a miraculous intervention into the normal rule of things. From her conception, Mary was kept free of original sin by a special grant of prevenient grace, i.e., grace made possible by the sacrifice of Christ but applied to Mary in advance of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross because of her very special role as mother of the divine Jesus.
The Church has never said that original sin is not normally passed down through the act of sex (it does now downplay talk about the sex act – more below). But is has said that it didn't happen in the case of Mary. It isn’t only original sin that never touched Mary. The Church also teaches that she never personally sinned. Luke 1:46-47 says, “And Mary said, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.’” One might wonder about those two verses and ask, “Why did she ever need a savior, since one’s need for a savior is usually thought to be due to one’s sin? The Catholic Church has an answer for that question. It says Mary did need a savior. Her salvation came from the application of the prevenient grace which was granted her at the time of her Immaculate Conception. Remember, although granted to Mary ahead of time, the Catholic Church’s position is that the prevenient grace applied to Mary was made possible through the [later] sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Jesus was the savior Mary needed.
Many of the Church’s past teachings about sex are absolutely amazing to modern ears. Sex today is not considered so dirty and sinful. There is no connection at all between sex and any “original sin” with which all people are born. First, sex is a God-given mechanism for procreation, and the pleasure derived from it is nature's (and God's) way of seeing that it is successful. Both sex used for procreation, and sex used pleasure, may properly be considered blessings from God. Of course the pleasure of sex, and even its use in procreation, can present people with temptations and opportunities to sin. But the same is true of very many other blessed gifts from God. Any connections theologians have made between sex and original sin are wrong. The second, and more important, reason there is no connection between sex and original sin is that there is no original sin (unless you limit it to Adam and Eve). C. Dennis McKinsey is probably close to the truth when he says (The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, Prometheus Books, 1995, page 190) that the doctrine of original sin is one of the most preposterous concepts ever generated by the mind of man.” People become sinners when they sin personally. They are not born carrying the sin, guilt, or debt of their parents, of their ancestors, or of Adam and Eve.
Modern theologians and preachers who accept the doctrine of original sin usually try to argue on its behalf without all the sexual baloney of Augustine (and the theologians of the thousand-plus years after him). They find much of that stuff embarrassing. They generally prefer simply to argue for OS as something supernaturally revealed in scripture, and not something that can be understood from reason (CCC 404). But they do usually maintain the following: (1) that infants are born with a fallen nature, a nature that, without the intervention of God’s grace in baptism and/or at Calvary, would certainly lead them into actual personal sin and hell; (2) that the fall did result in the weakening of the human will and intellect, with a resulting inability to suppress or control the lower (animal) instincts; and (3) that all people are born sharing in the sin and guilt of Adam.
Regarding those three points, there seems to be a greater variety of sub-views on the third point than on the first two. For one important example, the Catholic Church says that, although we all share in original sin, “original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants.” (CCC 405) Also, the Church maintains that “original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ – a state and not an act.” (CCC 404) Both of those teachings are consistent with the Catholic Church's acceptance of Thomas Aquinas's belief that original sin is primarily a deprivation of grace. That last idea, that original sin is only called “sin” in an analogical sense, is extremely important, and could stand further development, development that might bring many of original sin’s believers and unbelievers together.
The Catholic Church also is much more careful today in teaching about the transmission of original sin than it had been in the past. The Church says original sin “is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind” (CCC 404). However, the Church no longer talks specifically about the part played by the act of intercourse itself, but only mentions that the doctrine of original sin has a history that includes more thorough treatments. At one time there was a lot of emphasis on the act of sex. In fact, when the Church taught that the pleasure derived from sex was sinful, it flirted with the idea that sex performed by a couple solely out of the duty to procreate – and without any pleasure at all – might be able to produce a conception without the passing on of original sin.
One past mistake that the Catholic Church continues to make is to focus the transmission of original sin on Adam, without Eve (CCC 402, 403, 404). It’s a mistake that is also continued by other Christian churches, because they perceive Scriptural encouragement for it. As mentioned above, the Bible’s authors believed that the seed was contained only within the male. We now know that the seed of the human race was in Adam and Eve together, and not in either one alone. It is time to teach correctly concerning this, and to point out that the Bible’s authors were short on facts.
In language used, the Church’s present-day teachings on OS are a huge improvement over its teachings of past centuries, particularly with regard to the role of sex, and the nature of original sin’s effects on individuals. (People usually don’t talk about a “black stain” anymore.) However, the very carefully drafted language comes short of outright rejection of the older ideas. The Church doesn’t seem to acknowledge any need to admit to some bad teaching in the past before moving on to superior teaching. Rather, the Church seems to rely people’s forgetteries (instead of memories), and on historians to ignore large areas of turf they would normally find exciting. With most folk, the Church may be successful in moving on to improved teaching without any clear denunciation of past mistakes. Memories are short. But historians are another matter. There may forever be historians calling on the Church to admit that some of its past teachings were erroneous. The special difficulty for the Church is that it must do so while somehow preserving its teaching that the Church is specially and supernaturally gifted by God in its ability to determine truth. Not an easy task!
If there is no original sin, when do people become sinners? And when do they become sinners worthy and capable of eternal punishment? As I said above, people become sinners when they sin personally. There can be sins that are not willful, but pre-birth and young infants are not capable of committing them. Young Infants are both pure and innocent. Even when children do acquire an ability to commit sins that are not willful, those sins are not deserving of eternal punishment, but the children may experience a temporal result of unwillful sin that is sometimes thought of as a temporal punishment. Eternal punishment is not deserved until a willful sin is committed. And it is very debatable whether every willful sin merits eternal punishment. My own belief is that some don't, but don’t ask me to prove it from the Bible. I have noticed that many of the “mortal sins” of the 1950s are venial sins today. Maybe the time is coming when it will require a doctorate in moral theology to commit a mortal sin.