- Not "Born Bad":The Catholic Truth about Original Sin in a Thomistic Perspective*
ACCORDING TO James Boyce, Westerners have typically "believed that they were 'born bad' because they had inherited the sin of the first humans." In his recent book Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World, Boyce argues that Christianity in the West "stood alone [among the religions] in seeing the eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden as the original sin—not only the first sin in human history, but also one that subsequently became innate to the human condition."1
Boyce is probably right that, whether or not they are Christians, many people do seem to believe that they were born bad. What lies behind this situation, however, is not an authentic Catholic doctrine of original sin, but a deeply flawed understanding of this doctrine—in some cases spawned within Christianity itself—according to which human beings are born with an essentially corrupted human nature along with an innate inclination to evil.
This misunderstanding is seriously in need of correction. "[O]f all the religious teachings I know," writes the Evangelical author Alan Jacobs in his book on the cultural impact of the doctrine, "none—not even the belief that some people are [End Page 345] eternally damned—generates as much hostility as the Christian doctrine we call 'original sin'."2 Not only hostility, but loss of faith and separation from the Church are among the consequences of this misunderstanding.
A straightforward presentation of the Catholic truth about original sin is the best antidote for this and other misunderstandings of the doctrine. Many have found the account presented by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa theologiae to be the most balanced and intelligible account of this doctrine. This presentation will rely his account.
I. The Nature of the First Sin
If we look at what happened in the garden as recounted in the book of Genesis, we may ask, what was the nature of the first sin? What fault was it, according to divine revelation, that Adam and Eve committed?
In his analysis of the nature of another fault—that of the fallen angels—Aquinas asks what sort of sin it could have been.3 Eliminating those capital sins which can be committed only by persons with bodies, he is left with the spiritual sin of pride: it is traditionally said that the sin of the fallen angels was that they wanted to be like God. But what is wrong with wanting to be like God, Aquinas asks; this seems to be an altogether admirable thing to desire. Their sin lay, he concludes, in their wanting to possess this likeness to God, not as his gift, but as their due.
The parable of the wicked husbandmen (Matt 21:33-44) dramatizes just this sort of sin—by no means restricted to the angelic realm. The parable recounts the story of a landlord who sends servants to his vineyard to collect from the tenants his share of the harvest. The tenants treat the servants badly—beating, stoning and even killing them. In the end, the landlord sends his son, thinking that the tenants will respect him. But when the tenants see the son, they say to themselves, "This is [End Page 346] the heir; come let us kill him and get the inheritance." The situation here is one in which tenants could realistically expect to inherit the property of an absentee landlord upon the death of the last heir. Seeing the son, the tenants in this parable presume (wrongly) that the landowner is dead, and they kill the son and heir in order to get the vineyard for themselves—thus taking by violence what would eventually have been theirs as an inheritance, or, more to the point, as a kind of gift.
Here we are close to the nature of sin—not only that of the fallen angels, but also that of Adam and Eve as it is recounted in the book of Genesis. Indeed, it is precisely the Devil, in the form of the serpent, who suggests to Adam and...