Original sin and human nature

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in Crisis Magazine
April 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Editor: Alice Von Hildebrand delights us with her defense of feelings in our psychic and spiritual lives, yet she inserts one lone paragraph into her article which she doesn't explain, and which appears to be out of context. I quote: "Original sin, however, has not only affected man's feelings. Both his reason (intelligence) and his free will have also fallen victim to man's revolt against God." It is a hair in the ointment.

She is not alone, of course, in assuming that Adam broke something in us which Christ did not fix. Father Kenneth Baker, S.J., for example, wrote that "as a result of original sin man is burdened with concupiscence, which is an innate tendency towards evil and rebellion against God" (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, November 2003). We agree, of course, that after Adam and Eve sinned, sin now abounds on he earth. But do we, as individuals, walk as crippled human beings even after Christ restored us to the state of grace in Baptism? Pope Saint Leo the Great, on the contrary, tells us to be jubilant because Christ restores what Adam had lost for us:

... Old becomes new. strangers are adopted and outsiders are made heirs. Rouse yourself, man, and recognize the dignity of your nature. Remember that you were made in God's image; though corrupted in Adam, that image has been restored in Christ (Office of Readings, Friday, Fifth Week in Ordinary Time).

There was a time - before we were baptized - when our nature was still fallen. There can be a time when we fall again - by mortal sin. But happy are the adopted children of God who flourish in the state of sanctifying grace, whose souls God enriches lavishly with the infused theological virtues; with faith to be loyal to Him, with hope to expect heaven, with love to adhere to Him and to reject rebellion. As Leo continues:

For we are born in the present only to be reborn in the future. Our attachment, therefore, should not be to the transitory; instead, we must be intent upon the eternal. Let us think of how divine grace has transformed our earthly natures so that we may contemplate more closely our heavenly hope.

From the Baptismal font, we jump up totally restored, as did the crippled man to whom Peter said: "Silver and gold I have not, but what I have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk" Acts 3:6).

Admittedly, a few theologians actually hold that original sin has affected our natural faculties adversely, rendering us less inclined toward good and more disposed toward evil than we would be in the purely natural state. Canon J.M. Herve mentions four of them in a footnote: De Lemes, Contenson, Sylvius and Schmid (Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae, II, p. 417). Herve disagrees. He finds that there is no proof in the sources of revelation that the natural powers of will and intellect were diminished by original sin. They reveal that Adam lost supernatural gifts by his sin, but not that he suffered damage to his natural faculties. That is, his spiritual intellect was not dulled, his spiritual will power was not intrinsically weakened, his brain (with its 100 billion neurons integrated as a functioning supercomputer) was not damaged physically, and his feelings did not stop supporting him.

When theologians speak of the "wounds" caused by original sin - the wounds of ignorance, of malice, of weakness, and of concupiscence - they refer to the condition of man deprived of grace after the fall, in contrast to his gifted nature before he lost grace. He is the poorer because he lost the gifts - adoption by infused sanctifying grace, infused faith, hope and charity - but his innate nature remains as before. He is a free man, who has yet to choose between the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The natural man who might never have been elevated to the supernatural state of grace can be termed as "nudus" (naked) whereas after the fall he is termed "spoliatus" (despoiled) (see Herve, ibid.). In terms of the loss of gifts there is a tremendous difference, of course, but the "naked" man and the "despoiled" man are like siblings. By abusing himself, man can make an utter fool of himself, as Paul describes: "They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents" (Romans 1:29:30). By pursuing wisdom, man can become a saint, assisted by the "noble feelings in man's soul - feelings that not only totally transcend the animal realm, but are the finest blossoms of spiritual life" (Von Hildebrand, p. 41).

I hope that Alice agrees with the full import of the jubilant words of Leo: "though corrupted in Adam, that image (of God) has been restored in Christ."