For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.
Romans 3, 23
In Catholic teaching, original sin is a sin contracted rather than a sin committed. To say that all people are “guilty of original sin” is inaccurate. This idea implies that everyone is born guilty in a morally responsible sense and is blameworthy for having contracted this stain of sin. But the only sins we are morally responsible for are our own personal sins. The guilt of original sin should be understood in a legal sense, meaning that in our fallen state we are all liable to punishment for our sins which we are naturally inclined to commit. And because we normally do sin and freely choose to sin against God, we are morally liable to Him. Adam’s personal sin is not imputed to us as if we are morally responsible for his actions. Original sin does stain our souls when we are conceived and born but through no fault of our own.
However, since we all are inclined to sin because of our innate selfishness, we can say that we are implicated in the sin of Adam. None of us are born more innocent than the other. We are equally born under the condemnation or curse of the law, for each of us will certainly violate it at some point in our lives (even at least once if it were possible) on account of our inbred selfishness, weaknesses, and disordered desires which constitute the state of original sin.
When we commit personal sins, we are held morally culpable for them. Adam’s personal sin demonstrates what it means for each human being to offend God by their free will. Through temptation we lose our trust in God’s will for our true well-being and happiness; we aspire to be like God, but apart from God and against God’s will. And so, we abuse our free will by disobeying God, preferring that which we feel, or judge, is better and more personally beneficial to ourselves, thereby acting on our errant inclinations. Thus, original sin is a state of guilt insofar all human beings are “deprived of the original holiness and justice.” And, according to Catholic teaching, “it does not have the character of a personal fault” in any of us who have descended from Adam. [Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 405].
With the view that all humanity is implicated in the sin of Adam by being biological descendants of his, the Council of Trent declares that the “guilt of original sin” contains the “whole of that which belongs to the essence of sin,” viz., the deprivation of justice and sanctity. Baptism does not merely legally “remit” or “cancel” this contraction of sin, but fully “takes it away.” With respect to our personal sins, we read in Isaiah 1, 18: ‘Though my sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though red like crimson, they shall be like wool.’ And Isaiah 43, 25: ‘I am He who blots out your transgressions and forgets your sins.’ In other words, God is so powerful that He brings about a genuine change in ourselves by his efficacious grace through the redeeming merits of Jesus Christ.
God blots out (exalipho/ἐξαλείφω) our sins by the healing power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Col 2:14). Sin is eliminated, albeit its remnants, and not merely covered up ( See Rom 4:3 elogisthe). God does not simply declare us to be righteous but makes us personally righteous no less than Jesus is righteous in his humanity, though not absolutely because of his divinity, by His sanctifying and justifying grace ( 2 Cor 3:18; 5:17). This same principle applies to the stain of original sin. The sacrament of baptism completely blots this stain out from our souls by God’s sanctifying and justifying grace, though the penalties of original sin – suffering and death – remain part of our natural condition along with our faults and weaknesses. Although the moral ill-effects of original sin remain, viz., the concupiscence of the eyes and of the flesh, and the pride of life, the grace of baptism sanctifies the soul rendering it justified before God. We forfeit the sanctification of our souls by the commission of mortal sins.
God reveals what He has decreed to accomplish in us through the prophet: ‘I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sin like mist’ (Isa 44:22). We mustn’t deny that God has the power to “create a clean heart” and “put a pure and right spirit” within any of us. With the forgiveness of sin and the removal of guilt comes cleansing and washing which we initially receive when we are baptized (Ps 51: 7-10; cf. Ezek 36: 26-27; Acts 22:16; 1 Cor 6:11; Eph 4:22-24). The remission of sin is coupled with inner cleansing and healing. Our justification and regeneration form two sides of a single coin.
If we aren’t simply declared righteous, though still dead to sin, it’s because the soul is sanctified and thereby justified. According to the Council of Trent, sanctification is the formal cause of justification. Paul uses the two terms interchangeably. Prenatal and infants have no past personal sins that need to be remitted, so morally they aren’t culpable for any actual sins of their own. But they are deprived of the original justice and holiness which is forfeited by our human condition. Given the chance to develop morally, they will most likely sin by having been conceived and born as a child of Adam. Anyway, there is a distinction between original sin and actual sin. Essentially the former is a primeval state of moral corruption which by nature we are imbued with but by no fault of our own.
Thus, we are not personally guilty of original sin. The sin of Adam is no more imputed to our account than the righteousness of Christ is when the stain of sin is blotted out in our souls. Actual sin is a deliberate rejection of God by which we personally do incur moral guilt upon ourselves by abusing our free will. The stain of original sin renders us guilty by association. The Psalmist laments our fallen condition and implicitly appeals to God to consider our common wounded state in His mercy, but he takes full credit or moral responsibility for his transgressions in his act of contrition: ‘Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me’ (Ps 51:4-5).
Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all,
so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.
For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners,
so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
Romans 5, 18-19
As a result of original sin, our desires can become insubordinate to the dictates of reason since there is a tendency in our human nature to sin. This condition of ours is what the Catholic Church calls concupiscence in the strict negative sense of the word. Because of original sin, our sensitive appetites are often spontaneously directed to what our imagination portrays as pleasant and away from whatever it deems as painful or unpleasant against God’s will for our wellbeing. This natural condition of ours includes pride and the unruly inclinations of the will such as envy, greed, and lust: sins of the flesh. There are two basic forms of concupiscence in Catholic theology: of the eyes and of the flesh.
Concupiscence and the guilt of original sin, however, are distinct from each other. Original sin doesn’t mean original guilt since original sin is a sin contracted and not a sin committed. Baptism cures us of original sin but not concupiscence which is a lasting effect of original sin. Despite the lasting effects of original sin, which also include physical suffering and death, despite our being baptized since we are inclined to commit sin and shall sin, we still receive the initial grace of justification and forgiveness when we are baptized by no just merit of our own (Eph 2:8-10). On account of what Christ has merited for us by his blood, spiritual death is no longer an absolute certainty for all eternity. This is because we have been initially justified and sanctified by our baptism notwithstanding our inbred sinful inclinations and tendency to sin because of Adam, or the Adam in us who have ever been conceived in the womb, and born, except the Blessed Virgin Mary by the intervening grace of her Immaculate Conception.
We might ask how it is original sin is a sin though not something we have personally committed and are morally responsible for. Original sin may be taken to mean in a Catholic sense the consequence of the first sin ever committed by Adam and the hereditary stain or trait we have all received from our primordial parent. St. Augustine writes: “The deliberate sin of the first man is the cause of original sin” (De nupt. et concup., II, xxvi, 43). When we personally commit a mortal sin, the result is spiritual death. And since we are born with a tendency to sin and do, in fact, sin without exception because of the effects of original sin, as descendants of Adam, we enter this world spiritually dead. His sin isn’t imputed to us, but he has “transmitted sin to us with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the death of the soul” (CCC. n.403).
For this reason, infant baptism is imperative in the Catholic faith, as well as in mainstream Protestantism. Again, original sin is a sin contracted but not committed. We are not the “cause” of original sin but are affected by it in our standing with God. By our nature, we fall short of His glory inasmuch we all have sinned through our indeliberate contraction of original sin. Meanwhile, we mustn’t hold God morally responsible for having created this state of affairs. God has given each one of us sufficient grace and strength to direct our will towards what is good and to resist evil temptations. When we do sin against God, our selfishness or inordinate love of self is to blame. St. Paul assures us: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor 10:13). St. James concurs: “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (Jas 1:14-15).
God asked Adam, “Who told you you were naked?” (Gen 3:11). The answer is his conscience told him. Adam and Eve knew of the existence of good and evil and that they were not to experience and judge for themselves what was good and evil for them. Yet they did. They should have simply put their faith in God’s judgment and obey His command rather than making themselves out to be like God. The couple felt ashamed of themselves all of a sudden knowing that they had done wrong. Their conscience condemned them, for they acted against God by their own free will.
“Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You” (Ps 119:11). David knew the difference between right and wrong and understood that he should abide by God’s word. But not unlike our primordial father Adam, he succumbed to temptation and fell from God’s grace by committing two mortal sins: adultery and murder (2 Sam 11:1-26). He was just as much personally responsible for his sins as Adam and Eve were for theirs, all because of a selfish desire and putting himself before God. God could certainly be faulted if He left us all alone in our natural state without instructing us what we should or should not do and then punish us for doing what we shouldn’t. But God has written His law in every human heart and has given us a conscience to warn us when we contemplate a sinful act and condemn us when we choose to violate His law. David lamented over what he had done and implored God’s forgiveness with a humble and contrite heart that rendered his sin offering pleasing and acceptable to God (See Psalm 51).
The following excerpt is taken from the Council of Trent, Session V,5:
“If any one denies, that, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is conferred in baptism, the reatum of original sin is remitted; or even asserts that the whole of that which has the true and proper nature of sin is not taken away; but says that it is only razed, or not imputed; let him be anathema.”
Dr. Taylor Marshall tells us that many English translations of this anathema inaccurately read “the guilt of original sin is remitted”, which obviously may confuse people. The original Latin of the Council reads “reatum originalis peccati remiti.” This is important for us to note since the term reatus does not mean “guilt” in the strict sense. In Roman law, reatus means liable to or indicted, or a penal sentence. Alternatively, the Latin word culpa means an actual act of wrongdoing. Reatus refers to the state that accrues because of a culpa. The following two terms have been adopted by the Catholic Church: Reatus culpa is guilt associated with the sentence (that is, culpability). Reatus poena is the penalty of the sentence (the word penalty comes from poena). Receiving only the penalty of sin (reatus poena) by definition of the Church is the loss of sanctifying or justifying grace and the preternatural gifts, suffering, and death because of original sin.
If a person commits armed robbery, the reatus culpa would be his intentional, personal act of robbing someone. He could be declared guilty of committing a felony. The reatus poena would be the penalty or sentence passed by the judge associated with the gravity of the crime. In this case, he might end up serving ten or more years in prison. Regarding Adam and Eve, they incurred both the personal guilt (reatus culpa) of original sin and the penalty (reatus poena). All their descendants from the time they are conceived in the womb are not guilty of eating the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve consumed, but they do receive the penalty (reatus poena) of this sin. Human beings are not penalized for the personal sins of Adam and Eve. But once they attain reason and are morally responsible for their actions, they universally do in fact commit sins and incur personal guilt (reatus culpa) by being descendants of Adam with his hereditary traits.
Now, there are Catholic theologians who use the word culpa when referring to original sin. But the word is usually qualified as culpa contracta which does not mean personal guilt, but guilt by association. All babies who are born are naturally capable of committing their first sin and countless other personal sins once they have attained the age of reason and moral responsibility. It is this state of nature that we have inherited from Adam and Eve that alienates us from God and incurs divine justice. This is the middle ground between total innocence and total depravity. Infants and young children under the age of moral reason do suffer the penalties of original sin, including premature death, though they aren’t mature enough to deliberately sin and be held liable for it.
However paradoxical it may sound at first, there is a subtle distinction between being personally guilty of having committed a grave sin with full knowledge and consent and being guilty by implication. Yet original sin is a state of guilt insofar as the soul is deprived of the original justice and holiness forfeited by Adam, and thus it cannot ever see God unless this stain (not act) of sin is remitted and removed by the cleansing and regenerating water of baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit in and through the saving merits of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who ransomed us from sin and death by the outpouring of his most precious blood.
Early Sacred Tradition
“He stood in need of baptism, or of the descent of the Spirit like a dove; even as He submitted to be born and to be
crucified, not because He needed such things, but because of the human race, which from Adam had fallen under the
power of death and the guile of the serpent, and each one of which had committed personal transgression. For God,
wishing both angels and men, who were endowed with freewill, and at their own disposal, to do whatever He had
strengthened each to do, made them so, that if they chose the things acceptable to Himself, He would keep them free
from death and from punishment; but that if they did evil, He would punish each as He sees fit.”
St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 88:4
“Everyone in the world falls prostrate under sin. And it is the Lord who sets up those
who are cast down and who sustains all who are falling. In Adam all die, and thus the world
prostrate and requires to be set up again, so that in Christ all may be made to live.”
Origen, Homilies on Jeremias, 8:1
(post A.D. 244)
“Through him our forefather Adam was cast out for disobedience, and exchanged a Paradise bringing forth wondrous
fruits of its own accord for the ground which bringeth forth thorns. What then? Some one will say. We have been
beguiled and are lost. Is there then no salvation left? We have fallen: Is it not possible to rise again? We have been
blinded: May we not recover our sight? We have become crippled: Can we never walk upright? In a word, we are dead:
May we not rise again? He that woke Lazarus who was four days dead and already stank, shall He not, O man, much
more easily raise thee who art alive? He who shed His precious blood for us, shall Himself deliver us from sin.”
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 2:4-5
“Adam sinned and earned all sorrows; likewise the world after His example, all guilt.
And instead of considering how it should be restored, considered how its fall should be
pleasant for it. Glory to Him Who came and restored it!”
St. Ephraem, Hymns on the Epiphany, 10:1
“And further, above this, we have in common reason, the Law, the Prophets, the very Sufferings of Christ,
by which we were all without exception created anew, who partake of the same Adam, and were led astray by the
serpent and slain by sin, and are saved by the heavenly Adam and brought back by the tree of shame to the tree
of life from whence we had fallen.”
St. Gregory of Nazianzen, Against the Arians, 33:9
“How then did death come in and prevail? “Through the sin of one.” But what means, “for that all have sinned?” This; he
having once fallen, even they that had not eaten of the tree did from him, all of them, become mortal…From whence it is
clear, that it was not this sin, the transgression, that is, of the Law, but that of Adam’s disobedience, which marred all
things. Now what is the proof of this? The fact that even before the Law all died: for ‘death reigned’ he says, ‘from Adam
to Moses, even over them that had not sinned.’ How did it reign? ‘After the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the
figure of Him that was to come.’ Now this is why Adam is a type of Christ …[W]hen the Jew says to thee, How came it, that by the well-doing of this one Person, Christ, the world was saved? thou mightest be able to say to him, How by the
disobedience of this one person, Adam, came it to be condemned?”
St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Romans, 10
“Evil was mixed with our nature from the beginning…through those who by their disobedience introduced the disease.
Just as in the natural propagation of the species each animal engenders its like, so man is born from man, a being
subject to passions from a being subject to passions, a sinner from a sinner. Thus sin takes its rise in us as we are born; it
grows with us and keeps us company till life’s term.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes, 6
(ante A.D. 394)
“This grace, however, of Christ, without which neither infants nor adults can be saved, is not rendered for any merits, but
is given gratis, on account of which it is also called grace. ‘Being justified,’ says the apostle, ‘freely through His blood.’
Whence they, who are not liberated through grace, either because they are not yet able to hear, or because they are
unwilling to obey; or again because they did not receive, at the time when they were unable on account of youth to
hear, that bath of regeneration, which they might have received and through which they might have been saved, are
indeed justly condemned; because they are not without sin, either that which they have derived from their birth, or that
which they have added from their own misconduct. ‘For all have sinned’–whether in Adam or in themselves–“and come
short of the glory of God.’”
St. Augustine, On Nature and Grace, 4
“But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart,
and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts-murder, adultery,
sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”
Matthew 15, 18-20