The Mechanics of Sin and Redemption in Catholic Theology

By Taylor Marshall

Protestants are often confused by the precise language of Catholic theology as it regards human salvation. I've spoken of this before, but I thought it might be nice to have lexicon or glossary of terminology for reference. Here goes. I'll try to keep it all in logical order.

Original Sin (peccatum originale) - In Catholic theology, original sin is the absence of original righteous and grace. Is it not strictly some "thing" in the soul. Hence, newborn babies have original sin because they lack grace and righteousness or justice in their souls.

Original Righteousness (iustitia originalis) - Adam and Eve were constituted as righteous. The transgression led to the loss of this gift - that is, it led to the state of original sin.

Catholic theology, drawing from Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, identifies three results from original sin. They are:

  1. Corruption of Human Nature
  2. Stain of Sin
  3. Debt of Punishment

Let's take a look at each.

1) Corruption of Human Nature - Human nature was corrupted by original sin with "four wounds" according to Saint Bede and Saint Thomas Aquinas:

  1. weakened intellect (wound of the intellect)
  2. loss of original righteousness (wound of the will)
  3. physical death and weakness (weakness of the body)
  4. concupiscence or "fomes peccati" (the inordinate desire toward sin)

2) Stain of Sin - This refers to what remains in the soul after original and mortal sin: "Is it a small thing to you that you sinned with Beelphegor, and the stain of that crime remains in you to this day?" (Josh 22:17). Thomas Aquinas teaches that the "stain of sin" only applies to mortal sin, not to venial sin (Summa theologia I-II q. 89, a. 1 - more on the mortal-venial distinction later).

3) Debt of Punishment - This is an idea rejected in Protestant theology. Catholic theology distinguishes between eternal and temporal punishment arising from sin. Eternal punishment is hell. Temporal punishment relates to the consequences pertaining to a sin.

When we are forgiven, the eternal debt is paid, however, God in his mercy assigns temporal punishment. This kind of punishment pertains to penances, indulgences, and purgatory. Think of it as the means of our sanctification - making satisfaction for the wrongs that we have committed. If you reject the debt of temporal punishment (as Martin Luther did), then in one swoop you rid the Christian Faith of penances, indulgences, and purgatory.

Even after sin is forgiven, there remains a temporal debt of punishment. As Saint Thomas Aquinas says: "We must, therefore, say that, when the stain of sin has been removed, there may remain a debt of punishment, not indeed of punishment simply, but of satisfactory punishment" (Summa theologiae I-II q. 87, a. 6). Saint Augustine also writes the same thing about the debt of punishment: "all punishment is just, and is inflicted for a sin" (Retract. i).

If a Christian dies in a state of grace and forgiven by God, but yet without making things right on earth (forgiving neighbor, making restitution for stolen goods, etc.) then he will undergo purification in Purgatory. See 1 Cor 3:15.