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The Church’s teaching on original sin

Catechesis by Pope St John Paul II in his series on Jesus Christ
General Audience, Wednesday 24 September 1986 - in Italian & Spanish  

"1. Thanks to the previous catechesis of the present series, we have before our eyes, on the one hand, the analysis of the first sin in human history according to the description contained in Genesis 3; on the other, we have an ample view of what divine revelation teaches on the universality and hereditary nature of sin. This truth is constantly proposed, over and over again, by the Church's Magisterium, even in our own time. Here we must refer to the documents of Vatican II, especially to the Constitution Gaudium et Spes, and with a special mention of the post-synodal Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (l984).

2. The source of this teaching is above all the passage of the Book of Genesis, in which we see that man, tempted by the evil one ("when you eat of will be like God, knowing good and evil" Gen 3:5), "abused his liberty, setting himself against God and seeking to attain his goal apart from God" (GS 13). Then "the eyes of both were opened" (that is, of the man and of the woman), "and they knew that they were naked" (Gen 3:7). When the Lord God "called the man and said to him: 'where are you?' he replied: 'I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself'" (Gen 3:9-10). This is a very significant reply. Man in the beginning (in the state of original justice) spoke to the Creator with friendship and confidence in the whole truth of his spiritual-corporeal being, created in God's image. But now he has lost the basis of that friendship and covenant. He has lost the grace of sharing in God's life—the good of belonging to him in the holiness of the original relationship of subordination and sonship. But sin has immediately made its presence felt in the existence and the whole comportment of the man and the woman—shame for their transgression, the consequent condition as sinners and therefore fear of God. Revelation and psychological analysis are united in this page of the Bible to express man's "state" after the fall.

3. We have seen another truth emerge from the books of the Old and New Testament: a kind of "invasion" of sin in the history of humanity. Sin has become the common lot of man, his inheritance from his mother's womb. "In sin did my mother conceive me," exclaimed the Psalmist in a moment of existential anguish, in which repentance is coupled with the invocation of divine mercy (Ps 51). St. Paul frequently referred to this same anguishing experience, as we saw in the previous catechesis. He gave a theoretical formulation to this truth in the Letter to the Romans: "All are under the power of sin" (Rom 3:9). "Let every mouth be stopped, and let the whole world be held accountable to God" (Rom 3:19). "We were by nature children of wrath" (Eph 2:3). Biblical scholars comment that these are all allusions to human nature left to itself, without the help of grace. They refer to nature as it is reduced by the sin of our first parents, and thus to the condition of all their descendants and heirs.

4. The biblical texts on the universality and hereditary nature of sin lead us to examine more directly the Catholic teaching on original sin. It is as though sin is "congenital" in nature in the state in which everyone receives it at the moment of conception from one's parents.

It concerns a truth transmitted implicitly in the Church's teaching from the beginning. It became the object of a formal declaration of the Magisterium in the fifteenth Synod of Carthage in 418 and the Synod of Orange in 529, principally against the errors of Pelagius [1] . Later, during the period of the Reformation, the Council of Trent solemnly formulated this truth in 1546 (cf. DS 1510-1516). The Tridentine decree on original sin expresses this truth in the precise form in which it is the object of faith and of the Church's teaching. We can refer to this decree for the essential content of Catholic dogma on this point.

5. Our first parents (the decree says: Primum hominem Adam), in the earthly paradise (and therefore in the state of original justice and perfection) sinned gravely, by transgressing the commandment of God. Because of their sin they lost sanctifying grace; likewise they lost also the holiness and justice in which they were "constituted" from the beginning, and they drew down on themselves the anger of God. The consequence of this sin was death as we now know it. One must recall here the words of the Lord in Genesis 2:17: "Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." In the previous catecheses we spoke of the meaning of this prohibition. As a result of sin Satan was able to extend his "dominion" over man. The Tridentine decree speaks of "slavery under the dominion of him who has the power of death" (cf. DS 1511). Being under the "power" of Satan is described as "slavery."

It will be necessary to return to this aspect of the drama of the origins to examine the elements of "alienation" that sin brought with it. Meanwhile we note that the Tridentine decree refers to the "sin of Adam" inasmuch as it was our first parents' own personal sin (what the theologians call peccatum originale originans). But it does not fail to describe its fateful consequences in the history of the human race (the so-called peccatum originale originatum). It is especially in regard to original sin in this second meaning that modern culture raises strong reservations. It cannot admit the idea of a hereditary sin, connected with the decision of a progenitor and not with that of the person concerned. It holds that such a view runs counter to the personalistic vision of man and to the demands which derive from full respect for his subjectivity.

However, the Church's teaching on original sin can be extremely valuable for modern people. Having rejected the data of faith in this matter, they can no longer understand the mysterious and distressing aspects of evil which they daily experience. They end up by wavering between a hasty and unjustified optimism and a radical pessimism bereft of hope.

In the next catechesis we shall pause to reflect on the message faith offers us on a theme so important for the individual and for the whole of humanity.

After the Catechesis, Pope John Paul II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai fedeli di lingua francese

Parmi les pèlerins de langue française, je suis heureux d accueillir les Frères maristes, auxquels je souhaite un bon ressourcement spirituel, dans l’esprit du bienheureux Marcellin Champagnat, pour accomplir leurs tâches éducatives et missionnaires.

Je salue aussi les membres de l’Association nationale française de la presse catholique de province: Mesdames et Messieurs, dans une trentaine de journaux adaptés à vos régions, vous aidez vos lecteurs à accueillir les événements de l’actualité dans un esprit objectif, fraternel, chrétien, sans négliger l’information religieuse, avec un souci d’évangélisation, un sens de l’Eglise qui vous honorent. Je vous encourage de grand cœur.

Enfin, sans quitter le domaine des médias, je veux rappeler aux membres de l’Association UNDA-Europe combien l’Eglise compte sur leur service qualifié. Chers amis, comme le disent les statuts de l’Association catholique UNDA à laquelle vous êtes rattachés, vous êtes “le point de convergence des activités professionnelles et apostoliques des catholiques dans le domaine de la radio, de la télévision et des moyens de communication audiovisuels qui leur sont liés, en vue de l’évangélisation et du développement humain”. En Europe, où le foisonnement des programmes est immense et leur qualité informative et éducative très diverse, efforcez-vous d’y être très présents et actifs, avec votre souci chrétien de la vérité, de l’art, du respect de l’homme et de l’ouverture aux valeurs spirituelles et à Dieu. Et, malgré vos moyens limités, élargissez votre entraide: dans la perspective de l’assemblée mondiale de l’UNDA l’an prochain à Quito, n’oubliez pas que les jeunes Eglises des autres continents ont besoin de votre solidarité agissante. Que saint Gabriel et sainte Claire vous assistent!

A vous, et à tous les pèlerins de langue française, notamment de France et de Suisse, présents à cette audience, je donne de grand cœur ma Bénédiction Apostolique.

Ai pellegrini di espressione inglese 

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I am very happy to offer a cordial welcome to the visitors and pilgrims from Scandinavia: to the group of Lutherans from Sweden, the members of the parish of Tervo in Finland as well as the visitors from Norway and Denmark.

* * *

My warm and affectionate greetings go also to the sick and disabled persons, together with their assistants, who are taking part in the ACROSS TRUST Pilgrimage from England.

Upon you and all the English-speaking people from England, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Malta and the United States I invoke God’s special graces and blessings of peace and joy in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ad un gruppo di giovani dell’Università “Sophia” di Tokyo 

Sia lodato Gesù Cristo!

Dilettissimi studenti dell’Università “Sophia”, di Tokyo, è ancora nella mia memoria la visita da me compiuta alla vostra Università, e più volte mi ricordo di voi nella preghiera.

Questo nostro incontro qui in Vaticano sia di stimolo per la vostra vita e vi dia conforto.

Con questo augurio vi benedico di cuore.

Sia lodato Gesù Cristo! 

Ai fedeli di lingua tedesca 

Liebe Brüder und Schwestern!

Dabei grüße ich heute besonders die Dechanten des Südvikariates in Wien mit Herrn Weihbischof Kuntner. Ein herzliches Wilkommen in der Liebe Christi auch für die Gruppe evangelischer Pfarrer aus der Württembergischen Landeskirche. Einen fruchtbaren Romaufenthalt wünsche ich dann den Schwestern von der Göttlichen Vorsehung, die in ihrer Gemeinschaft mit der Einführung junger Mitschwestern ins Ordensleben betraut sind; reiche Gaben des Heiligen Geistes erbitte ich auch einer Gruppe von Missionsschwestern vom heiligsten Herzen Jesu auf ihrem Erneuerungskurs. Ferner möchte ich die Pilgergruppe der Kölner Kirchenzeitung erwähnen sowie eine Gruppe von Gläubigen aus den Militärpfarren von Westösterreich. Einen besonderen Gruß richte ich schließlich an die Teilnehmer der Laufstafette von Eisenstadt nach Rom, die auf ihre Weise das 25-jährige Bestehen ihrer Diözese feiern wollen. Den genannten Gruppen und allen an deren Besuchern deutscher Sprache wünsche ich für ihren weiteren Lebensweg Gottes steten Schutz und weise Führung.

Ai numerosi pellegrini spagnoli

Me es grato saludar ahora a todos los peregrinos de lengua espanola, procedentes de España y de América Latina.

Dirijo mi saludo, de modo particular, al grupo de Legionarios de Cristo, que han venido a Roma para cursar estudios de filosofía y teología. Que vuestra estadía en la Ciudad Eterna os ayude a seguir descubriendo la universalidad de la Iglesia para amarla cada vez más profundamente.

También quiero saludar a la peregrinación de la parroquia de Arén (Lérida) y a la numerosa peregrinación de la parroquia de San Andrés de Llavaneras (Barcelona), acompañada del grupo de “Armas de Mataró”. Que Nuestra Señora de la Merced, patrona de vuestra diócesis y cuya fiesta se celebra hoy, mantenga viva en vuestros corazones la fe cristiana y conceda copiosos frutos a la santa Misión que estáis realizando.

Con grande afecto imparto a todos mi Bendición Apostólica.

Ai connazionali polacchi 

Serdecznie witam wszystkich pielgrzymów z Polski, z różnych stron, z różnych diecezji i parafii: z parafii św. Maksymiliana Kolbe w Mistrzejowicach - Kraków; służbę zdrowia równiez z Krakowa; pielgrzymkę od oiców redemptorystów z Krakowa; witam pielgrzymkę duszpasterstwa akademickiego diecezji łomzynskiej z ks. biskupem Juliuszem Paetzem; pielgrzymkę katedralną z Tarnowa; z diecezji katowickiej pielgrzymkę z parafii Matki Bożej Uzdrowienia Chorych w Dąbrówce Wielkiej; z parafii św. Antoniego w Chorzowie oraz oazę rodzin trzeciego stopnia; witam również pielgrzymów z archidiecezji gnieznienskiej; z archidiecezji warszawskiej z parafii Niepokalanego Poczęcia Matki Bożej w Pruszkowie-bikowie na 750-lecie istnienia parafii; z Katolickiego Universytetu Lubelskiego pielgrzymów z Wydziału Prawa Kanonicznego, również studentów i profesorów historii sztuki; z Kielc - pielgrzymów z parafii św. Krzyża; z Krosna - pielgrzymkę Klubu Inteligencii Katolickiej; z Poznania - pielgrzymów młodzieżowej wspólnoty modlitewnej z kościoła ojców karmelitów bosych; z diecezji chełminskiej - z parafii św Stanisłava Kostki z Gdyni, księża jezuici; z Wrocławia - z parafii św. Mikołaja, z parafii św. Bonifacego oraz z parafii Najświętszego Serca Pana Jezusa - służba zdrowia; z diecezji opolskiej - z parafii na Górze św. Anny; z parafii św. Bartłomieja z Glivic, księża jezuici, z parafii Królowej Aniołów z Popielowa; z parafii św. Katarzyny z Dobrzynia Wielkiego oraz z dekanatu Olesno, z diecezji szczecińsko-kamietiskiej - z parafii Narodzenia Matki Bożej z Choszczna; dominikanów na 25-lecie święceń kapłaíískich; Chór Akademicki Akademii Teologii Katolickiej w Warszawie; również grupę chorych Polaków w ramach pielgrzymki, " Across " z Anglii; prócz tego członków Towarzystwa Przyjani Polsko-Włoskiej - tódz; członków Stowarzyszenia Elektryków - Białystok; kolejarzy z Gdańska; górników z Górnego Aląska; z Palistwowych Zakładów Teletransmisyjnych - Warszawa; wreszcie uczestników grup turystycznych Orbis z Warszawy; Sport-Tourist, Turysta - Wrocław, Kraków, PKS z Warszawy, Almatur w Poznaniu, Juventur - Katowice . . . Korzystam z tak licznej obecności rodaków z różnych stron Polski, z różnych archidiecezji, diecezji, parafii, środowisk, azeby za waszym pośrednictwem przekaza moje naiserdecznieisze wyrazy łącznosci wszystkim, których tutaj reprezentujecie: waszym rodzinom, waszym środowiskom pracy, waszym środowiskom kościelnym, parafiom, dekanatom, zakonomj wszystkim rodakom. W szcćgólny sposób łączę się, jak już wspomniałem ostatnio, z rolnikami, z ludmi pracy, którzy w ostatnią niedzielę mieli swoją pielgrzymkę na Jasną Górę i przysłali mi telegram z tej pielgrzymki, oraz z tymi, którzy szykują się do rozpoczęcia nowego roku pracy na wyższych uczelniach, z profesorami i studentami wyższych uczelni w Polsce. 

Ai gruppi italiani 

Rivolgo il mio cordiale saluto a tutti i pellegrini - singoli o in gruppi - venuti in pellegrinaggio a Roma, e formo voti perché l’esperienza della visita alle Basiliche e alle Tombe dei Martiri e dei Santi rafforzi la loro fede cristiana.

In particolare, il mio affettuoso pensiero si rivolge ai Rappresentanti dei Sordomuti della Provincia di Caserta. A voi, carissimi, va la mia sincera simpatia e l’augurio che il Signore vi conceda le sue grazie perché possiate dare una fervida e serena testimonianza di vita cristiana, animata dalla carità verso Dio e verso il prossimo.

A voi tutti, ai vostri familiari ed alle persone care la mia Benedizione Apostolica. 

Ai giovani 

Cari giovani, la vostra presenza è sempre motivo di gioia per il vostro entusiasmo e per la spontaneità che vi è propria. Il nuovo anno scolastico vi offre la possibilità di una crescita umana e spirituale che dovete cercare di realizzare nel migliore dei modi. Vi esorto ad impegnarvi generosamente e vi auguro un anno scolastico che sia proficuo per voi e per l’intera società. Vi benedico di cuore. 

Agli ammalati 

Il mio saluto ora è rivolto a voi, carissimi fratelli ammalati, che siete sempre tanto vicini al mio cuore.

Voi state sperimentando che la sofferenza aiuta a comprendere gli autentici valori umani e cristiani, fa apprezzare soprattutto la ricchezza dell’amore e della pace, che sono sorgenti di serenità, anche nei momenti di prova. Nella vostra malattia abbiate la gioia di testimoniare il valore dell’amore, della serenità e della pace. Vi sia di conforto la mia Benedizione Apostolica. 

Agli sposi novelli 

Infine rivolgo il mio saluto a voi sposi novelli.

Vi auguro di essere sempre testimoni dell’amore di Dio e del vostro amore. Quella che avete fatta in Chiesa è una promessa solenne che dovete mantenere giorno dopo giorno, è un patto che va rinnovato in continuazione. Il vostro amore è un bene che va difeso con tutte le precauzioni perché è esposto a pericoli. Custoditelo con la buona volontà e con l’aiuto della grazia divina. Nelle vostre famiglie ci sia la preghiera, essa è garanzia dell’unità familiare e la prima condizione per adempiere con gioia i doveri che Cristo e la Chiesa pongono dinanzi agli sposi cristiani. Nel nuovo cammino vi accompagni la mia Benedizione.

Un appello affinché le “Autorità coinvolte” consentano il passaggio degli aiuti alimentari destinati alla regione meridionale del Sudan, dove circa due milioni di persone vivono in condizioni assolutamente indigenti e sono bisognose di ogni genere di soccorso, è lanciato questa mattina dal Santo Padre al termine dell’udienza generale in Piazza San Pietro. Queste le parole del Papa.

Desidero richiamare l’attenzione vostra e di quanti mi ascoltano sulla tragica situazione in cui versano circa due milioni di persone nella regione meridionale del Sudan. Quei nostri fratelli corrono il pericolo di morire di fame, se non giungeranno loro, nel più breve tempo possibile, soccorsi di cibo e altri aiuti. Si ha notizia che vari Paesi hanno risposto generosamente all’invito di Organizzazioni internazionali di aiuto, e in particolare del “Programma Alimentare Mondiale” delle Nazioni Unite, mettendo a disposizione derrate alimentari e altri aiuti di emergenza. Rivolgo volentieri un appello ai governi interessati e a tutte le autorità coinvolte, perché vogliano permettere il libero passaggio degli aiuti di emergenza destinati alle persone bisognose del territorio meridionale del Sudan. Sono certo che di fronte ai bisogni elementari della vita di tanti esseri umani prevarrà in tutti il sentimento della solidarietà fraterna, che deve superare ogni altro motivo o interesse di parte.

© Copyright 1996 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana