May 21, 2018
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 affected by it, and if he or she continues to be exposed to it, the result is ill health.