Original Sin Does Not Vitiate Human Nature

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review
February 1999
Reproduced with Permission

Editor, HPR: The article "Original sin and the Catechism in moral decision making" (Basil Cole, July 1998) has a hair in the ointment. It would make the Catechism teach that original sin damages our natural human endowments. Adam's sin deprives us of sanctifying grace and its accompanying package of infused theological, intellectual, and moral virtues, which is bad enough. We need not believe that original sin also causes us to have lower intellectual IQ's than is due to nature, nor that the sin weakened our inherited will power.

Theologian J.M. Herve sheds light on what the Magisterium teaches about "wounded nature" in what used to be a standard manual of Dogmatic Theology in seminaries Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae, Vol.II, No 446.) Is the wounding solely a deprivation of the special and gratuitous gifts which Adam had? Or is there an additional wounding of natural endowments? In other words, are our natural endowments weaker after original sin than they would have been in a state of pure nature? Herve cites Trent and Orange, Thomas, Cajetan, Bellarmine and others. His conclusion:

The difference between fallen nature and pure nature is not substantive. The difference is one of terminology: spoliatus vel nudus, stripped or naked.

Neither revelation, nor the Fathers, nor the Councils of the Church teach that original sin diminishes our natural endowments intrinsically, continues Herve. The correct understanding of the term "wounded nature" is sequential, not philosophical. That is, our natures are "wounded" if we compare our condition to what it was before the sin to what it is after. Before the sin Adam's natural endowments were enriched and elevated by grace and special gifts; after the sin he (and we before Baptism) are deprived of these gifts. Before the sin nature was healed and supported by the special gifts, but not after. When the sources mention a wounded nature, or a lessening of the power of the free will, or an inclination toward evil, they are comparing the elevated condition before the sin to the deprived condition which.followed after the sin.

What I find especially convincing in the argumentation of Herve is that it is repugnant to the goodness and holiness of God to infuse into our souls a positive inclination toward evil, or to deliberately decrease natural human endowments to do good. In.proof whereof he cites both Thomas and Augustine, the latter in Retractiones.

Our challenge, then, is to maximize the use of grace to grow in virtue. We gain nothing by imagining that God deliberately diminishes our natural gifts, or that He pollutes our natures by.infusing into us a sleazy and positive inclination to sin. We shoot ourselves in the foot, and I believe we dishonor God, if we even entertain such an impossible behavior on the part of God.

Our challenge is not an imagined evil implanted into us by original sin about which we can do nothing. We have enough to do to fight our very healthy and vivacious natures which adhere to this earth with all their natural secularist bent. Our natural drives are reluctant subjects which we must prod, like stubborn mules, up a steep and narrow road toward heaven.