“Ask a Priest: We were born imperfect… How can I help others understand this?”

Q: I am engaged in graduate-level biblical study, but for personal reasons, I still pursue courses that might fall into the personal growth, self-help or New Age categories. I like to keep in touch with that world since this is what many people my age turn to instead of religion, and I am working with those people at a coaching level and need to understand their psychology. Well, one topic that regularly comes up is that of “wholeness and perfection,” that we were born innocent, perfect children and anything that teaches sin or brokenness is a lie. The last thing anyone wants to hear is that we are born imperfect. So how might I confront this debate in a positive way? How might I make a compelling and enticing case that we are born sinners and fallen, and this is a good thing? -P.D.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: We were born innocent but not perfect. We all contracted original sin because the fall of Adam. The Catechism in No. 402 states: “All men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as St. Paul affirms: ‘By one man’s disobedience many (that is, all men) were made sinners’: ‘sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.’”

Original sin isn’t sin in the sense that we personally committed it. Rather, original sin is a defect that we inherit, “a deprivation of original holiness and justice” (Catechism, No. 405). That this defect seems odd is understandable. Even the Catechism acknowledges that “the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand” (No. 404).

So how do we convince others about original sin? One way might be to point to the phenomenon of evil. A lingering effect of original sin, even after baptism, is concupiscence, “an inclination to evil” (Catechism, No. 405). We are still damaged goods, prone to violence, greed, cheating, jealousy, anger, impurity, lying and all the rest. If we are honest, we can say with St. Paul, “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).

This whole dark scenario was not part of God’s original plan. Yet God didn’t give up on us. The Catechism in No. 389 says, “The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the ‘reverse side’ of the Good News that Jesus is the Savior of all men, that all need salvation and that salvation is offered to all through Christ. The Church, which has the mind of Christ, knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.”

In that sense, it is a “good thing,” as you say, if we can help others understand our fallen nature and our tendency to do evil. That is describing the world as it is. Helping others to face that reality and to trust in Jesus the redeemer is a key part of evangelization.

Even if you meet with skepticism when you explain this, don’t be deterred. Keep talking about original sin and Christ’s redemption. Keep sowing seeds — they take time to sprout in the hearts of your listeners. In due time people will find that trusting in self-help guides and New Age spirituality leads to a dead end.

In the meantime, remember to pray for the people you are evangelizing. And count on my prayers. God bless.

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