Original Sin, the Great Unknown

Interview With Father Pedro Barrajón

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ROME, MARCH 1, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Is original sin an invention of the Church?

This question will be in focus this Thursday and Friday at a symposium in Rome. The initiative, organized by the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, will bring together theologians as well as psychologists and sociologists, explains Legionary Father Pedro Barrajón, professor of theological anthropology, in this interview with ZENIT.

Q: In his book «Memory and Identity,» John Paul II frequently mentions the topic of original sin. Has this congress been organized because of the publication of the Pope’s latest book?

Father Barrajón: In reality, we didn’t know that John Paul II’s book was a reflection on the topic of evil and sin in the light of Christ’s redemption.

The coincidences were rather fortuitous or, better, providential because the meeting will be enriched by the Holy Father’s profound reflections on sin and evil with the mystery of the Redemption as background.

Let’s not forget that he dedicated his first encyclical, «Redemptor Hominis,» to Christ as redeemer, as the one who redeems man from sin and from all the evils that assail him in a special way in this critical moment of history.

Q: Why did you choose such a challenging topic?

Father Barrajón: The congress on original sin will be interdisciplinary, that is, it will consider this complex and delicate topic, in the first place, in the light of revelation, the history of theology and the magisterium, but it will also try to show the implications of an ecumenical, philosophical, cultural, pedagogical, psychological and even scientific nature of a topic such as original sin.

I am thinking in this connection of Number 25 of the encyclical «Centesimus Annus,» in which the Pope, after recalling the events that convulsed the world in the year 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, contemplates the providential action of God, Lord of history, which leaves room for man’s freedom, and inserts a profound reflection on original sin, recalling how this dogma helps us to understand human reality in all its complexity.

We have divided the congress into four important sections.

The first will study the topic from the biblical point of view.

The second part, which concerns dogmatic theology, will seek to present the «status quaestionis» of original sin, considering it under different perspectives: the Christological, in the light of the biblical topic of man as image of God, as well as that of theological anthropology, Mariology and soteriology. This part ends with a reflection on original sin in John Paul II’s magisterium.

The third part of the congress will develop theological considerations of an ecumenical nature with two addresses on original sin in the Lutheran and the Orthodox tradition. Other addresses in this section refer to moral and spiritual theology.

The last section is dedicated to dialogue with the different sciences.

Q: It is difficult for the modern world to accept the idea of sin. Original sin is even more difficult to understand because it is hereditary. What do you have in mind in this regard?

Father Barrajón: In 1986, in the catecheses dedicated to explain the Creed, John Paul II wished to address in a special way the topic of original sin.

In one of them, that of September 24, the Pope affirmed that modern culture has strong reservations when addressing original sin because it cannot admit the idea of a hereditary sin connected with the decision of a founder of a family and holds that this concept is in opposition to a personalistic view of man.

But immediately after, he adds that it is precisely this ecclesial teaching on original sin that reveals itself of extreme importance for the man of today, who, after having rejected the faith on this matter, is unable to find reasons for the mysterious and anguishing implications of the evil he experiences daily and «ends by oscillating between hasty and irresponsible optimism and a radical and desperate pessimism.»

The Church, instead, accepting the dogma of original sin, knows that within the human heart there is a tremendous struggle between good and evil and that only by uniting oneself to the victory of Christ the redeemer will humanity and the individual also be able to be victorious.

Christian realism does not hide this wound of human nature, but seeks to alleviate and heal it with the grace of Christ. That is why it maintains a serene and balanced view, which is then applied to education, and to moral judgments on family, social, economic, cultural and political situations.

Q: Some interpret Adam and Eve’s sin as the discovery of science which rebels against God. In what way will you address the problem of the use of science?

Father Barrajón: We have planned two addresses on the topic of the natural sciences — a first address by Monsignor Fiorenzo Facchini of the University of Bologna, who will speak on the topic of the origins of man as science sees it to date and the theological implications for the dogma of original sin.

The second will be delivered by Monsignor Jozef Zycinski, archbishop of Lublin, Poland, who will speak about the recent discoveries in the field of genetics and their relation to the meaning of original sin.

Even though we discover original sin through revelation, reason alone also, though without an explicit concept of original sin, perceives an original evil and a human condition that is profoundly marked by the experience of evil. Here the dialogue between faith and reason is that much more fruitful.

We will also address the question of original sin from the vantage point of the psychological sciences and the implications of the dogma on original sin for the cosmos.

We must not forget the text of the Letter to the Romans, where St. Paul says that creation groans while awaiting its redemption. There is a very interesting vein of reflection here for ecology and for theology itself.

Q: Do you think that original sin was «a necessary evil,» to use an expression that recurs in John Paul II’s book «Memory and Identity»?

Father Barrajón: One must know how to read this expression of John Paul II in the context in which he uses it and in the right sense.

The Pope of course does not wish to say that God had the intention to will evil, something which in God is simply impossible.

It means that God may permit evil to then draw greater good from it for humanity. The extreme case is without a doubt the passion, crucifixion and death of the incarnate Son of God. This is absolutely the greatest evil of humanity’s history.

But from this evil God was able to bring the greatest goods of redemption and grace. In this sense, the Church speaks in the paschal liturgy of original sin as a «happy fault» — «O felix culpa» — which gave us such a Redeemer.

Q: At the meeting you will speak on the topic of original sin in John Paul II’s magisterium. Has this Pope offered theological novelties in this field?

Father Barrajón: In the catechesis on original sin, John Paul II develops essentially the doctrine of the Church, contained in a special way in the decree of the Council of Trent on this matter, making use also of the solid doctrine of great theologians, above all St. Thomas Aquinas.

But he, concerned as he is to give a personalistic view of this dogma, and in the greatest respect of Tradition, has tried to show how the dogma of original sin, despite the mystery that shrouds it, is not contrary to human reason.

I am thinking at this moment of the catechesis of October 1, 1986, when he said that «in no descendant of Adam does original sin have the character of personal fault. It is the privation of sanctifying grace in a nature that, because of the fault of our forefathers, was thwarted from its supernatural end. It is a sin of nature, related only analogically to the
person’s sin.»

This doctrine was then included in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and shows John Paul II’s concern to give a personalistic view of this dogma, in total fidelity to the great magisterial and theological tradition.

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