Objection: “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?”
The state of 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).
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 to elevate him above his nature. These gifts
included immortality, impassibility (freedom from suffering), integrity
(freedom from disordered passions) 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 for all future generations.
The loss of sanctifying grace is the greatest consequence of Adam‟s
sin. It carried with it the privation of the supernatural destiny God
willed for humanity, namely, heaven. Man was also expelled from the
Garden of Eden and became subject to sickness, suffering and death.
In addition, our natural powers were “wounded”––ignorance in the
intellect, malice in the will, concupiscence in the concupiscible
Defend the Faith!
appetite, and debility in the irascible appetite. 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, the
necessity for sweat and hard labor (Gen. 3:16-24).
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 :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-
“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).
Throughout history there have been a number of significant heresies
that have either denied the existence or distorted the effects of original
sin. The first of these was Pelagianism. Founded by an Irish monk
named Pelagius (+418 AD), Pelagianism denied the supernatural
Defend the Faith!
elevation of humanity by asserting that Adam and Eve were created
only in a natural state without sanctifying grace. Consequently, the
Fall had no effect on them and their children by way of loss of grace,
the only effect of original sin on others was by way of setting bad
example. Hence, sin was not contracted through natural generation but
was learnt from the scandal of others. It followed, further, that the
children of Adam were born naturally good and were in no need of a
Redeemer. Christ‟s act of redemption was thus reduced to providing
lofty teaching and virtuous example, while forgiveness of sin through
faith meant forgiveness from punishment, not renewal in grace. If the
children of Adam kept good company and directed their wills and
ordinary powers to live a sinless and holy life, they could achieve
eternal beatitude through their own natural efforts. This many had
done, not only since Christ, but also before. Pelagianism thus
descended to pure naturalism, and was an unmistakable reproduction
of the Stoic ideal of virtue.
Pelagius‟ errors found a partial vacuum in which to disseminate, as the
Church, absorbed by the controversies concerning the Incarnation, had
not developed in detail the doctrines concerning man‟s fall, renewal,
grace and freewill. Though meeting sporadic opposition in Rome,
Carthage and in the East, it was St. Augustine of Hippo as the “Doctor
of Grace” who rose to combat Pelagianism with his powerful pen:
“They (the Pelagians) contend that in this life there are or have been
righteous men having no sin at all. By this presumption they most
clearly contradict the Lord‟s Prayer, in which all the members of
Christ cry aloud with true heart these words to be said each day:
„Forgive us our debts.‟”1 For the self-confident Pelagian, the Lord‟s
Prayer served only as a profession of humility, not a statement of fact.
St. Augustine drew on the parable of the vine and the branches (St.
John 15:1) to strike at Pelagianism and expose it as a novelty contrary
to the teachings of Christ. Only when the vital union between Christ
(the vine) and His members (the branches) is established is it possible
to bring forth supernatural fruit: for “without me you can do nothing”
(St. John 15:5). St. Augustine also presented this particular thought:
“Could we bring together here in living form all the saints of both
Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 4, 10, 27 (420 AD).
sexes and question them whether they were without sin, would they
not exclaim unanimously: „If we say that we have no sin, we deceive
ourselves, and the truth is not in us‟?”2 Before all the world St.
Augustine attested that “Such is the Pelagian heresy, not ancient, but
having sprung up a short time ago.”3
Appealing to Pope Zosimus, Pelagius received an opportunity to
defend his teachings before a Council. On May 1st, 418, the Council of
Carthage formally condemned Pelagius and defined these doctrines
against his errors:
(i) that death, in Adam, is the result of sin.
(ii) that infants require baptism, by reason of their
contracting original sin as children of Adam.
(iii) that grace is needed both to know and obey God‟s
(iv) that without grace it is impossible to perform good
The Council of Trent, more than a thousand years later, would answer
the proud assertions of Pelagianism in more precise language:
“If any one shall say that a man once justified … can
throughout his life, avoid all sins, even venial, except by a
special privilege of God, as the Church believes of the Blessed
Virgin Mary, let him be anathema.”5
While Pelagius denied the supernatural elevation of man, Martin
Luther in the sixteenth century went to the opposite extreme by
asserting that grace was an essential part of human nature, not super-
added to it by way of gratuitous elevation. Hence, the loss of grace
On Nature and Grace 36 (415 AD); cf. 1 John 1:8.
Grace and Free Choice 6 (426 AD).
M.L. Cozens, A Handbook of Heresies, Sheed and Ward, 1928, p. 58.
Canon 23 on Justification.
Defend the Faith!
caused by the Fall had the effect of depriving man of an essential, not
a gratuitous part, of his nature, leaving it totally depraved. Total
depravity, according to Luther, consists of more than simply the
“wounding” of man, and entails the following more far-reaching
(i) The destruction of the human intellect to the point of
rendering man by himself incapable of achieving knowledge
of religious truth.
(ii) The enslavement of the will, reducing it to being purely a
passive agent, incapable of actively cooperating with grace,
rejecting the inspirations of God or the temptations of the
(iii) The total vitiation of the life of grace, leaving humanity
incapable of performing any morally good actions (in fact, all
human actions are as a consequence at least venially sinful).
(iv) The inability of grace to intrinsically regenerate the human
soul, grace being not a reality infused by God in the soul but
simply God‟s good will towards it. Justification is reduced to
a juridical act of God whereby He mystically “cloaks” the
Christian in the merits of Christ (Justitia Christi extra nos –
the Justice of Christ outside us).
In response to Luther‟s teachings, the Council of Trent asserted that in
active justification an actual and real regeneration of the soul takes
place, removing both original and actual sin through the infusion of
sanctifying grace by the sacraments of Baptism and Penance:
“If anyone denies that, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
which is conferred in baptism, the guilt 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 canceled, or not imputed; let him be anathema.” 6
Decree on Original Sin, Canon 5.
The Council of Trent also restated the Church‟s traditional teaching on
“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 worse: let him be
“If anyone asserts that the sin of Adam––which in its origin is
one, and is transmitted 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 the one mediator, Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who has
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.”8
Today, the main opponents of the doctrine of original sin are those
who propagate atheistic evolution theory. For these people, humanity
has its beginnings not in Adam and Eve as our original parents but in a
multitude descended from lower life forms. Pope Pius XII formally
condemned this belief, known otherwise as Polygenism, in 1950:
“Christ‟s faithful cannot embrace a theory which involves the
existence, after Adam‟s time, of some earthly race of men,
truly so called, who were not descended ultimately from him,
or else supposes that Adam was the name given to some group
of our primordial ancestors. It by no means appears how such
views can be reconciled with what the sources of revealed truth
Decree on Original Sin Session V, 1, (June 17, 1546).
Defend the Faith!
and the statements of the Magisterium of the Church propound
concerning the doctrine of Original Sin…”9
St. Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus 2, 25 (c. 181 AD)
“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 3, 2 (inter 197-200 AD)
“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 19 (256 AD)
“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
St. Ambrose of Milan, Explanation of David the Prophet 1, 11,
56 (inter 383-389 AD)
“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.”
Humani Generis, 1950.
St. Augustine of Hippo, Against the Pelagians 1, 2, 5 (420 AD)
“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)
Pt. IV, Ch. XIII: 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
Defend the Faith!
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