Roberto Masi

In his profession of faith of 30th June 1968, the Holy Father, Paul VI, recalled the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin, referring in particular to the teaching of the Council of Trent.

"We believe that in Adam all have sinned, which means that the original offence committed by him caused human nature, common to all men to fall to a state in which it bears the consequence of that offence, and which is not the state in which it was at first in our first parents, established as they were in holiness and justice, and in which man knew neither evil nor death. It is human nature so fallen, stripped of the grace that clothed it, injured in its own natural powers and subjected to the dominion of death, that is transmitted to all men, and it is in this sense that every man is born in sin. We therefore maintain, with the Council of Trent, that original sin is transmitted with human nature, 'not by imitation, but by propagation' and that it is thus 'proper to everyone’…. We believe in one baptism instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.

Baptism should be administered even to children who cannot yet be guilty of any personal sin, in order that, though deprived when born of supernatural grace, they may be born again 'of water and the Holy Spirit' to the divine life…"

The problem of the origin of man and of his primitive condition is studied by the evolutionary theory in a strictly scientific field. The development and spread of such theories have induced Catholic scholars, guided by the Magisterium of the Church, to rethink the theology of original sin, to see how, while retaining the dogma intact, it can be better proposed today so that it may be more adapted to modern man.


The third chapter recounts the origin of evil on the earth: the devil tempted Eve, who in turn induced Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, thus disobeying God who punished them (Gen. 3, 1-24).

The fundamental point to be clarified is the literary genre of the narrative.

Generally one speaks of a theological aetiology, that is, that the sacred author, recognising the goodness of Yahweh and at the same time the presence of so much evil in the world, illuminated by the Holy Spirit declared in the third chapter of Genesis that the origin of evil is due to the first sin committed by men at the beginning of time. In this sense some people observe that the narrative is neither a saga nor an aetiological myth in which the actual state of man is explained by means of an initial imaginary episode, but rather a particular vision of the history of an event which really happened (the first sin). Others say the same thing, maintaining that the literary genre ofGenesis 3 is a concrete perception in a picturesque story, with a certain historical value, of the monotheistic religious reality.

And therefore, according to these ideas so prevalent today, the sacred writer wished to affirm the fact of an offence of our first parents as an historical and social event, an essential point in the history of salvation. This first experience of sin has a mysterious connection with all humanity and fits in perfectly with the salvific plan of God which has Christ as its centre.

These are the fundamental assertions which the sacred writer wishes to make. It is very difficult to go beyond these and indeed it is sometimes impossible to distinguish in the biblical account the real elements from the symbolic. Consequently, according to such opinions, the bible truly wishes to affirm a fact which took place (the first sin), but through elements which are for the most part symbolic and whose doctrinal significance and real value must be studied case by case.

PAUL IN ROMANS: 5, 12-21

In Romans 5, 12-21, St. Paul also speaks of original sin in Adam when he contrasts the parallel roles of Christ and Adam: through the sin of one man death entered the world, so through the obedience of the other, life has entered.

According to many modern authors, St. Paul in this text wishes only to affirm the salvific function of Christ and in order to do so he refers to Adam, taking from Genesis and contemporary Jewish theology the doctrine of original sin, but without wishing by this to confirm it. The offence of Adam, the universality of the sin and the solidarity of all are regarded as means in his reasoning and not the end. The discourse of Paul is Christological and it does not intend perse to confirm what Genesis states. Therefore, the literal understanding of the account of Adam's fall is not contained in the doctrine of Paul any more than the literal understanding of the account of Jonah is contained in the doctrine of Christ. That Adam is a historical, individual person cannot be deduced from Paul's text.

St. Paul, nevertheless, affirms an immediate relation between the sin of Adam and the sinfulness of all men, because all men, without the grace of Christ, are under the influence of Adam. This general state of sinfulness is shared by each man prior to his every free decision.


Another point which must be studied in connection with the problem which interests us here, is the Decree of the Council of Trent on Original Sin (Session V.).

The Council Fathers repeat the doctrine of original sin as it is narrated in Genesis. But we must ask, to what extent, they wished to confirm it with their authority.

Many in fact maintain that they refer to the doctrine, granting it the value which it has, without wishing to confirm it; and therefore, they, add nothing to what has been said in Genesis. The aim of their dogmatic decision, they also say, is simply to condemn the errors of the Reformers. The Council teaches that every child is born with original sin, which is proper to each man (DS, 1513), and that the justified person no longer possesses the sin (DS, 1515). This is the point which the Fathers wish to teach; the other elements are taken from the then contemporary theology, without wishing by this to attribute to them a greater value than that which they already had.


Presupposing all this, according to the opinions of the above mentioned exegetes and theologians, it results that Revelation and Dogma say nothing directly concerning Monogenism or Polygenism, neither in favour nor against them. Besides, these scientific hypotheses are per se outside the field of Revelation. Within this context, different combinations of the scientific theory of evolution are therefore hypothetically possible or compatible with the doctrine of original sin.

One can nevertheless consider biological monogenism together. Humanity has its origin in a single couple; this couple committed the sin against God and as a result of this all their children are born in original sin. This is the classical doctrine.

Or it is possible to admit a biological polygenism and a theological monogenism. Evolution brought about not a single couple but many men, who constituted the primitive human population. One of these, who may be considered the leader, rebelled against God. This sin passed on to all men, his contemporaries, not by imitation, but by real propagation (Council of Trent Session V, DS. 1513), that is by a real solidarity already existing in this primordial human population. In them actual sinful humanity has its origin.

It is also possible to combine biological and theological polygenism: all the primitive human population rebelled concordantly against God and from them are born the other sinful men.

These hypotheses are only suppositions which many think are not contrary to Revelation and the bible. Even if we accept as valid the scientific theory of evolution and polygenism, it can still be in accordance with the dogma of original sin in the various manners indicated.

Which is preferable? To answer such a question various proposals have been and are still being put forward.

Some hypotheses

In the different attempts to reconcile with Revelation the scientific theory of evolution and of polygenism, proposals valid in themselves, it must be firmly held that the dogma remains unchanged in its fullness of truth, while the theological explanation is perfected, so that it can accord better with the modern scientific and philosophical mentality.

1. One opinion, the simplest, says that at a certain moment of evolution when full consciousness was first reached, man was placed by God in a state of original justice. This, however, lasted for a very short time and Adam fell back quickly on account of his sin into the previous state. Since the state of justice was of short duration, it left no traces in palaeontology, which knows nothing of it.

This is the simplest solution, too simple in fact to convince; therefore, the problem must be studied in greater depth.

2. More acceptable is the explanation proposed by M. Labourdette which observes that man coming from evolution was constituted in the state of original justice, receiving grace and a complex of gifts, which for him was an incomparable wealth. Nothing, however, leads us to expect that through these gifts the first man would have quickly reached complete perfection in every direction. Rather, he would have been at the beginning of a tremendous progress which he would have been able to attain by means of grace and the divine gifts.

This concept of Labourdette seems natural and logical, but too general. So other hypotheses come down to more precise particulars.

3. According to another recently proposed hypothesis, humanity continued to develop not only somatically but also psychologically and intellectually. At a certain moment God offered to man, enjoying his first responsibility, a particular assistance. Because he had from birth this life of grace, he would have dominated nature, even to the point of eliminating suffering and death, by the perfect development of his person. In fact man refused this gift; but the divine plan was not to be rendered ineffective by sin, rather it would be actualized in the Redemption and in the Paschal Mystery of Christ and would be perfected in the eschatological kingdom of God.

This hypothesis does not appear contrary to the dogma; nevertheless it seems less probable in so far as it admits an original justice, which was virtual rather than actual, that is, contained in the initial help of God. The Sources of Revelation are more in favour of an original justice possessed initially and actually by man.

4. Yet another opinion says that the original justice must not be placed at the beginning but rather at the end of huma history, that is, of creation understood as a continuous evolutionary progress. It is therefore a destination which man must reach at the end of his existence byhis collaboration with divine help.

The sinful state of man results, according to the opinion, not from a sin committed by a first parent at the beginning of history, but rather from the fact that man wishes to remain exactly as he is. Hence, he is opposed to the grace which urges him towards the supernatural. This opposition to grace is aggravated by the influence of the sinful world, that is, by the influence of the sin of all men.

Understood in this way, original sin consists in the impossibility of man making his way, unaided by grace, towards the end ordained by God. Besides, concupiscence tends to sever relations with God while the sin of the world, in which man lives, inclines him towards evil.

This opinion is defective in that original justice is placed not at the beginning but at the end of human existence. This does not appear very compatible with the data of Revelation. Also, the concept of original sin as sin of the world causes notable difficulties both with regard to the interpretation of Genesis 3, which is considered as a completely symbolic story, and more especially with regard to the doctrine of original sin as defined by thy Council of Trent.

The same opinion is also developed by other theologians. In it original sin consists not simply in an offence committed by our first parents at the beginning of humanity, but in the fact that all men, we ourselves included, commit the sin. Every child that is born is admitted into this sinful world and impelled by it towards evil.

This idea of original sin as the sin of the world does not seem to harmonize very well with Revelation and in particular with the Council of Trent, according to which the child is born with a guilt which is cleansed by Baptism (Session V; DS, 1513, 1515). If this sin of the world theory were true, there would be no guilt in the child to be washed away. Baptism would only serve to introduce the child into the Church. This, however, does not agree with the Council of Trent.

It was for these very reasons that the Apostolic See recently sought that the section dealing with original sin in the New Dutch Catechism be corrected. (AAS, 1968 P. 687).

Recently, P. Grelot maintained that the first men really possessed justice and holiness, prior to the sin. This, however, does not imply the idea of biological, psychological or intellectual perfection. Man instead would have attained this perfection in a slow evolutionary process by means of his own efforts and endeavours—just as science basically maintains. Revelation is not concerned as to whether monogenism or polygenism occurred. The bible does not allude to either but in every instance it upholds the profound unity of the human race. Whether there were one or more progenitive couples does not substantially alter the problem and the theological significance of the unity of the human race. Man's first sin has a mysterious link with all humanity and enters into the salvific plan of Christ.


In the attempt to rethink the Theology of original sin in the light of the scientific theory of evolution and polygenism, scholars have sought to determine the literary genre of the first chapters of Genesis, and in particular Gen. 1-3. And usually, following closely the documents of the Magisterium, they affirm that it is a theological aetiology, that is, a particular vision of history, a picturesque story which is largely symbolic, of an event which really happened (original sin). Consequently, they think that the bible is not concerned with the scientific question of evolution or polygenism and these are, therefore, not denied by Revelation.

Working on these premises, various hypotheses have been proposed to reconcile Revelation with science within the framework of a more modern theology of original sin. They are still only hypotheses, plausible to a greater or lesser extent, while the scientific theories are by no means certain and are in need of further completion and proof. The Magisterium of the Church in her latest documents has given clarifications of a specifically theological nature, while allowing those who are properly qualified to continue their studies.

A sincere fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church, which has received from Christ the charge of guarding and interpreting the deposit of Revelation, is essential in this investigation. Furthermore, this enters into the very scientific method of a sound theology and exegesis. Within this context, research workers can proceed assured of a true deepening of Revelation and a healthy aggiornamento, even in this very difficult problem.

However, it must be remembered that Revelation and dogma, concerning the origin of man and original sin, remains unchanged as regards its completeness. The task of the above mentioned scholars is simply to rethink the theology of this revealed doctrine in order that they may present it in a manner more adapted to the scientific and philosophical mentality of modern man. Thus they will make it more acceptable and really useful both for life and salvation.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 April 1969, page 5

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