Original Sin: Why should we be punished for someone else's sin?

"How can any reasonable person accept the Catholic doctrine of ‘original sin.’ Why should we be punished for the alleged sins of others committed so long ago?"

Original Sin is the consequence of the sin of our first parents Adam and Eve. This sin involved their disobedience through pride in eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil located in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3, 6).

Our first parents, Adam and Eve were endowed with various supernatural and preternatural gifts. By definition, a gift is something freely given that is not owed. The supernatural gifts were given by God to raise man above his nature so as to share in the divine life, to know and serve God far beyond his natural capacities, and to behold God in the Beatific Vision in the next world. They included sanctifying grace, the supernatural theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, the supernatural infused moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Concomitant with sanctifying grace is Uncreated Grace, or the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity (St. John 14, 23). The preternatural gifts were given by God to perfect man as man, not actually to elevate him above his nature. These gifts included immortality, impassability, integrity and infused knowledge. Through natural generation, all these gifts were to be transmitted to the whole human race. By their disobedience, Adam and Eve lost them for themselves and hence for all future generations.

The loss of sanctifying grace is the greatest consequence of Original Sin. It carried with it the privation of the supernatural destiny God willed for humanity, that is, heaven, as well as concupiscence, or the rebellion of the lower appetites against reason and will. Man was also expelled from the Garden of Eden and became subject to sickness, suffering and death. Pain and sorrow in childbirth, together with subjection to the lust of men, were to be the special lot of women. The natural elements, plants and animals, were no longer subject to man, and a curse came upon the earth, hence, the necessity for sweat and hard labor (Gen. 3, 16-24).

Nevertheless, the loss of sanctifying grace did not so corrupt our natural powers as to leave them incapable of natural virtues. Nor does it consist, as Luther and Calvin mistakenly believed, in such a decadence of our nature as to leave it totally depraved, our reason incapable of understanding and our will without freedom. Rather, our natural powers were "wounded" - ignorance in the intellect, malice in the will, concupiscence in the concupiscible appetite, and debility in the irascible appetite.

During the period of the Protestant Revolt, the Council of Trent felt obliged to restate the Church’s traditional teaching on Original Sin:

"If anyone does not confess that the first man, Adam, when he had transgressed the commandment of God in Paradise, immediately lost the holiness and justice wherein he had been constituted; and that he incurred, through the offense of that prevarication, the wrath and indignation of God, and consequently death, with which God had previously threatened him, and together with death captivity under his power who thenceforth had the empire of death, that is to say the Devil, and that the entire Adam, through that offense of prevarication, was changed in body and soul for the worst: let him be anathema.

"If anyone asserts that the sin of Adam - which in its origin is one, and be transfused into all by propagation, not by imitation, is in each one as his own - is taken away either by the powers of human nature, or by any other remedy than the merit of one mediator, Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who hath reconciled us to God in His own blood, made unto us justice, sanctification, and redemption; or if he denies that the said merit of Jesus Christ is applied, both to adults and to infants, by the Sacrament of Baptism rightly administered in the form of the Church; let him be anathema" (Council of Trent, Decree on Original Sin, 1546).

Many passages of Sacred Scripture testify to the truth of Original Sin:

"For behold I was conceived in iniquity; and in sins did my mother conceive me" (Ps. 51 [50], 5);

"Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned...But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. 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" (Rom. 5, 12; 15-19);

"For as by a man came death, and by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive"(1 Cor. 15, 21-22);

"All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else" (Eph. 2, 3).

The Fathers:

St. Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus (C. 181 A.D.):

"For the first man, disobedience resulted in his expulsion from Paradise. It was not as if there were any evil in the tree of knowledge; but from disobedience man drew labor, pain, grief, and, in the end, he fell prostrate in death."

Tertullian, The Testimony of the Soul ( Inter 197-200 A.D.):

"Finally, in every instance of vexation, contempt, and abhorrence, you pronounce the name of Satan. He it is whom we call the angel of wickedness, the author of every error, the corrupter of the whole world, through whom man was deceived in the very beginning so that he transgressed the command of God. On account of his transgression man was given over to death; and the whole human race, which was infected by his seed, was made the transmitter of condemnation."

St. Cyprian of Carthage, The Advantage of Patience (256 A.D.):

"The Devil bore impatiently the fact that man was made in the image of God; and that is why he was the first to perish and the first to bring others to perdition. Adam, contrary to the heavenly command, was impatient in regard to the deadly food, and fell into death; nor did he preserve, under the guardianship of patience, the grace received from God."

St. Ambrose of Milan, Explanation of David the Prophet (Inter 383-389 A.D.):

"No conception is without iniquity, since there are no parents who have not fallen. And if there is no infant who is even one day without sin, much less can the conceptions of a mother’s womb be without sin. We are conceived, therefore, in the sin of our parents, and it is in their sins that we are born."

St. Augustine of Hippo, Against the Pelagians (420 A.D.):

"Who of us would say that by the sin of the first man free will perished from the human race? Certainly freedom perished through sin, but it was that freedom which was had in paradise, of having full righteousness with immortality; and it is on that account that human nature has need of divine grace."

Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566):

Our condition, therefore, is entirely different from what his and that of his posterity would have been, had Adam listened to the voice of God. All things have been thrown into disorder, and have been changed sadly for the worse...The dreadful sentence pronounced against us in the beginning remains.

Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992):

No. 402: All men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as St. Paul affirms: "By one man’s disobedience many (that is all men) were made sinners": "sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned..." The Apostle contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of salvation in Christ. "Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men."

No. 403: Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination toward evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born and afflicted, a sin which is the "death of a soul."

No. 404: How did the sin of Adam become the sin of his descendants? It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed" - a state and not an act.

No. 406: The Church’s teaching on the transmission of original sin was articulated more precisely in the fifth century, especially under the impulse of St. Augustine’s reflections against Pelagianism, and in the sixteenth century, in opposition to the Protestant Reformation. Pelagius held that man could, by the natural power of free will and without the necessary help of God’s grace, lead a morally good life; he thus reduced the influence of Adam’s fault to bad example...