Original Sin

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently reading St. Paul, a compilation of Pope Benedict’s cycle of catechesis on St. Paul given during a number of his general audiences in 2008-09. One of the subjects Benedict here addresses is original sin, providing a lucid and helpful explanation of a doctrine that many find difficult. Benedict believes the the topic to be important, recognizing both that many people today think there is no room for a doctrine of original sin in light of the history of evolution and that if there is no “first sin” that permeates all of human history, there is no foundation for “the matter of Redemption and of the Redeemer.”

Benedict suggests that in order to respond to the question whether original sin exists, it is necessary to distinguish two aspects of the doctrine: the empirical aspect that is tangible to all and the ontological foundation of the empirical reality. He explains, “The empirical fact is that a contradiction exists in our being. On the one hand, every person knows that he must do good and inwardly wants to do it. Yet at the same time he also feels the other impulse to do the contrary, to follow the path of selfishness and violence, to do only what pleases him, while also knowing that in this way he is acting against the good, against God and against his neighbors.” He reminds us of St. Paul’s lament in Romans that “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” Benedict observes that this inner contradiction is something we experience every day; is it not a theory, it is a fact.

Given the “undeniable fact” of the existence of the power of evil in the human heart, the question is: how can this evil be explained? The Christian explanation, as elucidated by Benedict is that “there exist two mysteries, one of light and one of night, which is, however, enveloped by the mysteries of light. The first mystery of light is this: faith tells us that there are not two principle, one good and one evil, but there is only one single principle, God the Creator, and this principle is good, only good, without a shadow of evil; being as such is good, and therefore it is good to be, it is good to live. That is the good news of the faith: only one good source exists, the Creator. Therefore living is good, it is a good thing to be a man or a woman, life is good. Then follows a mystery of darkness, or night. Evil does not come from the source of being itself, it is not equally primal. Evil comes from a freedom created, from a freedom abused.”

Benedict suggests that there is no clear explanation for how it was possible for this to happen. The obscurity exists because “[e]vil is not logical. Only God and good are logical, are light. Evil remains mysterious. It is presented as such in great images, as it is in chapter 3 of Genesis with that scene of the two trees, of the serpent, of sinful man: a great image that makes us guess but cannot explain what is itself illogical. We may guess, not explain; nor may we recount it as one fact beside another, because it is a deeper reality. It remains a mystery of darkness, or night.”

This mystery of darkness is, happily for us, not the end. In contrast to alternate dualist visions, which view evil to be a force on the same level as good, and which therefore “cannot say that man is curable,” from Christian perspective, “[e]vil comes from a subordinate source. God with his light is stronger. And therefore evil can be overcome.” Thus, we can be healed.