Viewpoint: Recovering the Notion of Original Sin

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

One of the topics that catechists preparing parents for the baptism of their child must explain is the notion of Original Sin, a topic that has, unfortunately, fallen by the wayside in recent decades.

One of the best explanations I know comes from Cardinal John Henry Newman, writing at the latter part of the nineteenth century. Newman asserts that the notion of Original Sin makes perfect sense, and that we can, in fact, experience Original Sin in the world in which we live.

First, Newman paints a picture of the condition of humanity and the world: “To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and, then, their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion.”

Newman goes on, then, to connect all this to Original Sin: “What shall be said of this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. . . . If  there be  a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible original calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.”

A simpler way to explain Original Sin is to see it as akin to smog in the atmosphere. The newborn baby is born into a world in which to greater or lesser degrees the air is polluted. The baby did not create the smog, but if he or she is effected by it, and if he or she continues to be exposed to it, the result is ill health.

In baptism the smog of Original Sin is removed and the child is anointed with perfumed oil, with Sacred Chrism, which signifies the pleasing aroma of the Holy Spirit. The early Fathers of the Church often wrote of the perfume of the Chrism as the aroma of heaven.

A traditional way of viewing Original Sin is to see it as the Sin of Adam. In baptism, the Sin of Adam is exorcized by the Grace of Christ. The child is born into the World of Adam and by baptism is brought into the World of Christ.

The transition from the Sin of Adam to the Grace of Christ is not a matter of a few minutes of ritual. What the baptismal ritual symbolizes is not completed immediately, but goes on through the length and breadth of life. Original Sin continues to have its effects in us through our life. Only in the kingdom of heaven will the Grace of Christ finally triumph.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.


  1. The problem being with “the son of Adam” is that the study of evolution brings the whole notion of “Adam” into the light of reality. There was no one set of original humans. So in that case what was the “calamity” that resulted in original sin??

    1. @Reyanna Rice:
      Evolution and cosmology together pose more problems with original sin than just Adam, whether you take him as an individual or an archetype. Creation was never perfect. Creatures lived and died before there were humans. Dying has always been a part of creation – whether it be the death of stars which give rise to new stars or the death of simple celled organisms or their more complex progeny. Teilhard de Chardin realized some of the problems with original sin based on the science he knew back in the mid 20th century. That apparently was what first got him in trouble with Rome and his Jesuit superiors. There are a few theologians trying to deal with the new science but they don’t get much press for their work.

  2. Another truly misleading opinion piece by an author who should know better – and why this subject at the beginning of Advent?
    He could have cited Karl Rahner who wrote extensively on this subject; he could have mentioned the dead end roads in terms of the transmission of original sin.
    Mannion could have used the term *original condition* (which he describes in one paragraph); he avoided the obvious contradiction that hits most folks when you say at first – all creation is good; and then you articulate our experience of freedom which entails choice, commitment, and thus sin. (note – he skips over freedom)

    From dotCommonweal –

    Instead of starting with SIN and focusing on only half the story – suggest starting with Rahner’s Supernatural Existential:
    The supernatural existential expresses a fundamental Rahnerian insight: “Really and radically every person must be understood as the event of a supernatural self-communication of God.”[16] Because every person can receive this communication, the supernatural existential illustrates Rahner’s unity of philosophy and theology. The doctrine of the supernatural existential is a philosophical statement about the capacity of every person, distinct from an explicitly theological revelation. At the same time, it is a theological affirmation. It affirms that God invites human beings to share in the divine life. Not all accept the invitation, and people can refuse it. But the capacity to hear God’s Word and obey it belongs to everyone.

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