Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Original Sin: What is it really and why does it matter?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 16, 2017

I had a very interesting exchange over the weekend with a man who raised two important questions: First, does the Church teach that the human soul is created at conception? Second, how does the soul contract original sin from Adam? A great deal can go wrong in considering both of these questions.

The Church has always held that the human person is a union of a body and a rational soul, and that each soul is created individually by God. But over the centuries there have been theological debates over exactly when the soul is created and infused into the human body. Revelation does not answer this question, but the Church has always answered philosophically in this way: The soul is created in the same instant in which it is infused into the body, and that happens as soon as the matter is suitable. In other words, biology plays a key role in answering this question.

This is why, in the medieval period, most theologians held that the soul is created and infused at the time of “quickening”, which is essentially when we become aware of the movement of the baby in the womb. However, we now know that the “matter”—the body—is distinctively human from the moment of conception, when the sperm and egg unite to form the zygote. There is no time after successful fertilization that the embryo is or can be anything other than human. Consequently, Catholics can now confidently state that the soul is created by God and joined to the body at the precise moment of conception. In addition, of course the soul remains united to the body until the matter becomes unsuitable, that is, until death—after which the soul continues in a disembodied state.

Original Sin

Original Sin is a tougher nut to crack. I explained that our first parents were created in a state of what is called Original Justice, which is essentially a share in God’s life which ensures that our passions always operate in full accord with reason (so no concupiscence) and our bodies need not undergo the corruption of death (which, left purely to nature, must occur). But our first parents disrupted the relationship between grace and nature through pride. They trusted their own judgment more than they trusted God’s judgment, and so lost Original Justice. That is, they lost the special graces that elevated their human nature to a higher preternatural state.

From this point on, we like to say that our first parents could not pass on to their children what they themselves no longer possessed, and so all of their descendants are born into a state of separation from God which we call Original Sin. Looking ahead, of course, it is the mission of Jesus Christ to remedy that problem and draw us back into union with God by means of the sanctifying graces He won for us through his universal atonement for sin.

To my surprise, my correspondent responded to my answers by saying the following: “I believe the soul is there at conception but don’t believe God creates a sinful soul or a soul in the state of death.” This told me immediately that my explanation did not address some of his key concerns. Given his particular assumptions about sin and death, a fuller discussion is vital to a proper understanding.

The State of Nature

Many theologians in the 19th and early 20th centuries over-emphasized the state of nature, but considering what is purely natural to man does help with some questions. For example, to understand Original Sin we must recognize it is not a state of personal sin but simply our natural state, the state of the human person when left solely to his own natural abilities. With respect to animal souls, for example, we do not suggest that God creates souls in sin or creates dead souls simply because animals are not united to God and so they die. Rather, we understand that the animal soul is a principle of life which corresponds perfectly with the animal’s nature. When the animal’s bodily matter ceases to be what it is designed to be, the animal soul goes out of existence. Animal souls are not rational souls. The animal nature does not admit of a spiritual dimension that transcends mortality.

Up to a point we can apply the same logic to our own case. Left to the capacities of nature itself, both our separation from God and our mortality are perfectly intelligible without assuming that God has created our souls sinful or dead. Rather, God has created us without that share of supernatural life which enables us to transcend what is purely natural, escape bodily death, and aspire to union with Him. Original Sin is not any kind of personal sin, and it ought to go without saying that our souls are not created “dead” (for if so, we would never exist as human persons at all). But since Adam and Eve sinned, God has not chosen to endow us at the moment of conception with all the graces—that is, the share in His life—which He has designed us to receive in reaching our highest perfection.

We can acknowledge that the usual explanation—that Adam and Eve “could not pass on what they did not have”—is shorthand for a deeper mystery. It may well have been part of God’s design that, had they not sinned, our first parents would have had the ability to pass on their state of Original Justice through procreation. We do not know. But what we do know is that after they sinned they were not able to do so. Here, however, we must introduce a caution against carrying the “state of nature” argument too far, as applied to human persons. For the main truth to be grasped is that God created man, even in the natural order, with a capacity to participate in the life of grace.

Stepping back and looking up

We are, of course, dealing with Divine mysteries here. We cannot fully grasp them. But we can say that, by giving the human person intellect and will, God has made him in His image and likeness. Through his unique rational soul, then, the human person has an affinity for God (which animals lack), can love God (which animals cannot do), and can be elevated to a supernatural perfection which transcends their natural perfections (a capacity that animals lack). We also know that God has created us with this capacity to love Him because He loves us. In fact, since He also knows that He Himself is the highest good, He wants us to possess the everlasting joy of union with Himself.

This means that the question of Original Sin is part of a much larger question about how God plans to bring us to this ineffable joy. When speaking in shortcuts (and the whole story of the creation and fall is full of them) it is possible to be thrown off by some detail in the shortcut that strikes us as significant, but in a way that is incorrect. A typical example would be to devalue the lessons of Genesis because the author seemed to believe that the knowledge of good and evil grows on trees. Another would be to equate personal sin and/or dead souls with Original Sin because, as a shortcut, we describe it as a kind of separation from God. However, it is a degree of separation only in comparison with what Adam and Eve initially enjoyed. For we are never in this world completely separated from God, or completely without grace of any kind. If we were, we would cease to exist.

An important key to understanding these things properly is to avoid seeing God’s effort to bring us into union with Himself as a series of mistakes which cause him to change tacks. The Fall does not necessitate a change of plan; it is a part of the plan. Everything is present to God; He need not try different options only to reject the ones that do not work. No: From all eternity He knew that the very best way to unite us with Him through His surpassing love was to create our first parents in what we call the state of Original Justice, even though He knew that through pride they would lose this state for themselves and their descendants. This is a mystery, of course, but it is perfectly safe to say that God has known from all eternity that our experience of sin and our awareness that something is wrong would be the surest way to draw the greatest possible number of us into union with Himself, without violating the freedom of our wills—a freedom which is, after all, essential to our capacity for love.

So what was the purpose of the state of Original Justice? Again, we can penetrate mysteries only so far, but we can also see how beneficial it is for us to have an awareness, through Judeo-Christian culture, of how God embraced the human person from the beginning, giving us all a foretaste of our true destiny. Surely this gives greater substance to our understanding of what is in store for us in “the new heavens and the new earth”—as foreseen by the prophet Isaiah (65:17, 66:22), endorsed by Peter (2 Pet 3), and shown in a vision in the Book of Revelation (21:1).

Whether we understand all this well or badly, it is in fact The Plan. It has always been The Plan. There have been no changes, no resets, no starting over from scratch with some other plan. This should enable us to see that the Church certainly does not teach that God has given us sinful souls, or dead souls. What He has given us is a nature open to Himself, knowing that God is God and we are not, and restless until we can rest in Him. What He has given us is the best possible nature, and the best grace-filled options, for freely cooperating with His plan for our eternal happiness.

What We Believe

The other aspect of my correspondent’s response that startled me was his declaration that “I believe” this but “I don’t believe” that. I do not know exactly how he meant this to be taken. I presume it is simply an honest declaration that God has not revealed that He has given us sinful souls or dead souls, so why should anyone believe it? But many today could say similar things from a far different motive. Such a statement could easily indicate that the writer chooses to sit in judgment of Revelation itself, as if it is up to each of us to cobble together a series of religious beliefs which suit our own insights and preferences. Isn’t this the dominant form of “religiosity” in our time?

Yes, and nothing could be more foolish. We can know very little about either God or His plan of salvation through our own natural abilities. All we can know is whatever is obvious in the natural law. Thus, as St. Paul said, we can (and ought to) know that God exists because of the created things that could only have come from Him; and, as Newman has noted with particular cogency, our experience of conscience teaches us that we live under a judgment, and therefore there must be a Judge. In other words, God must care about how we behave.

If we can know by nature that God exists and that He cares about how we behave, we can reason to a third and crucial point: God wishes to communicate His will to us, and so we must expect a Divine Revelation. But here our mastery of supernatural reality ends. If we do not find a credible Revelation, we must patiently pray for one. And if we do find a credible Revelation, we must use that Revelation—and that alone—as the only possible source of information about what God’s plan is, and how it unfolds in time.

In other words, none of us may say from his own lights that “I believe” such-and-such about God and His plan for us, but “I don’t believe” something else about God and His plan. We have no possible basis for passing a judgment based either on our own imagination or on the widespread fashions or prejudices of the culture which has formed us. On our own, we have almost no idea what God “must be like”. Instead, all of us are bound to say “I believe” this because God has revealed it to be true, and I reject that because it contradicts what God has revealed. Beyond this, we can increase our understanding of God by studying His revelation, reflecting on and reasoning about the various revealed facts and principles, and discerning the connections among them in order to better grasp the whole.

We must recognize that there is no other option by which any of us can know the slightest particular of God’s salvific plan. We cannot sit in judgment of these particulars. Either He has revealed them or He has not. Our job is to seek to understand and live what He has revealed. If the story of our first parents teaches us anything, it ought to teach us that the worst possible mistake we can make is to approach God’s plan with pride, sitting in judgment on what we will or will not accept as true and good. We can believe only by the authority of God revealing. To second-guess God is to participate, once again, in the Original Sin.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - May. 19, 2017 5:12 PM ET USA

    Randal Mandock: I hedged my statement by qualifying death "as we ordinarily understand it." All things considered, it is inconceivable that Mary should have undergone what we call the corruption of death, which is the wages of sin. This is why the tradition in the East speaks not of her "death" in normal terms, but of her "dormition", or falling asleep. I would say the ground is very solid here.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 19, 2017 4:02 PM ET USA

    "Mary's Immaculate Conception and subsequent sinlessness would certainly eliminate death as we ordinarily understand it." This is a noble opinion, but again I raise the question of the level of certitude of your statement. In 2007 you published an article titled "Mary's Death and Bodily Assumption," which was an extended excerpt from a larger work titled "Mariology," pp. 461-492. This scholarly article provides evidence of those who believed Mary did die and those with the contrary opinion.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - May. 18, 2017 5:11 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this. I found myself recalling the words of the Easter Proclamation as I read. 'O Happy Fault! O necessary sin of Adam! Which gained for us so great a Redeemer.'

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - May. 17, 2017 5:17 PM ET USA

    davidSanDiego: In this case, I would say that the reasons are "both and" rather than "either or". Certainly God created Mary free from Original Sin, which means she enjoyed graces which were at least similar in many ways to those that constituted Adam and Eve in Original Justice. We assume that Adam and Eve, had they not sinned, would have been somehow "translated" into the full beatific vision without undergoing anything more than a kind of falling asleep, perhaps. In the same way, since we know that death is "the wages of sin", Mary's Immaculate Conception and subsequent sinlessness would certainly eliminate death as we ordinarily understand it, though of course she suffered in ways that Adam and Eve would not have suffered in Paradise. And yet we also know that all of these things were unique prerogatives of Mary, and no one else, because she was called to be the Mother of God. In the East, the feast of Mary's "dormition" is celebrated; the understanding is that she did indeed "fall asleep" before her Assumption. But in any case, Mary is our tainted nature's solitary boast because she was not only given the gifts appropriate to the New Eve, but remained absolutely faithful to those gifts throughout. By both her singular preservative redemption and her total cooperation with God, she merited the signal honors she received when entering heaven. Perhaps I might add one more point: Mary's prerogatives might seem to be "unfair" to the rest of us, but actually the opposite is the case. As with all the gifts He bestows, the Father made Mary not just for the good of Mary, but for the good of us all.

  • Posted by: davidSanDiego - May. 17, 2017 4:37 PM ET USA

    I've pondered the connection between Mary's Immaculate Conception and her Assumption. I tend to view the Immaculate Conception as a re-instatement of Eve's original nature into Mary at her conception along with the attendant effects of that. This means the Assumption was not a special grace given to Mary but rather a consequence of her created nature and her sinlessness after creation. The distinctions you're making makes this thinking less attractive to me. I would love to know your thoughts.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - May. 17, 2017 11:01 AM ET USA

    Randal Mandock: Yes, and some moral theologians (such as St. Antoninus of Florence) have also argued that abortion is a mortal sin because either it murders an innocent person or it prevents a person from being, as he or she would have otherwise come into existence. To tighten my text a bit, I have changed paragraph three to read, "Consequently, Catholics can now confidently state" instead of "Consequently, the Church can now confidently state". This avoids mistakenly ascribing this conviction to the Magisterium, when it is in fact one step removed—a logical application of the relevant Magisterial and philosophical principle to the biological knowledge in question.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 17, 2017 9:56 AM ET USA

    Outstanding explanation of original sin. However, one of my favorite words was left out: privation. Regarding the soul, the Church does not maintain 100% certitude "that the soul is created by God and joined to the body at the precise moment of conception." It is true that rational philosophical argument can bring us to this conclusion. But I still prefer the moral argument. The reason why abortion is evil is because our conscience is doubtful about the exact moment that the soul enters the body

  • Posted by: msrsm19887530 - May. 16, 2017 10:05 PM ET USA

    This will be helpful in explaining the doctrine of Original Sin to Muslims. I believe they understand Original Sin to mean that the personal sin of Adam and Eve is imputed to their descendants.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - May. 16, 2017 9:36 PM ET USA

    Thanks again for another good article.