Misguided Church?

September 08 2019 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: I remember that 50 years ago priests used to talk openly about original sin. They would emphasize that, even though we may not have committed any serious sins or crimes, we are all inherently inclined to evil, and that anyone of us can always, at any moment, fall from grace.

Nowadays I hardly ever hear priests mentioning the truth of original sin. They are almost always seeing evil somewhere outside of us: in society, in the state, in this or that policy or politician… Is the Church losing the idea of original sin?


While I understand your point that, in general, it is probably safe to say that fewer pastors speak as directly about sin from the pulpit as, perhaps, they used to. That said, your question gives me a good opportunity to clarify some important misconceptions.

First, the Church very much still teaches that every person born after the Fall of Adam and Eve are sinners. Indeed, the Catechism (#389) states, “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.”

So, clearly, the Church has not lost its sense of sin. Just like people who are not sick have no need of a hospital, without the understanding that neither the world, nor human beings are what we were created to be, we wouldn’t need Christ – or Church – at all.

That said, Baptism does cleanse us from Original Sin. The inclination to sin to which you are referring is known as ‘concupiscence’. Concupiscence represents the longing for the mud that remains even after the waters of Baptism have washed us clean.

Have you ever left a garden hose lying out for a while? Did you notice that, even if you cleaned the mud off of the hose, when you tried to roll it up again, it ‘fought’ you? Concupiscence is like that. Even after the ‘mud’ of Original Sin is washed away, we retain the ‘memory’ of the distorted shape Original Sin twisted us into. Even when we try to straighten up and live right, concupiscence causes us to want to return to our misshapen state. I know we’ve all struggled with this. St Paul describes this best when, in Romans 7:15, he says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

I suppose the question remains, “What is the best way for us to avoid sin?” The older pastoral approach was to keep the possibility of sin ever in front of us so that, by being aware that we could fall at any time, we could, hopefully, be mindful about not falling.

While there is something to be said about this approach, it is a bit lacking when we look at the point of the Gospel. Christianity isn’t so much about running away from sin as it is about running into the arms of the God who wants to heal us from sin. Do you see the difference? Perhaps an analogy would be helpful: Imagine that I don’t want you to think about a purple elephant wearing green tennis shoes and carrying a tennis racket. I could tell you, “Don’t think about the elephant.” And you could tell yourself, over and over, “Don’t think of the elephant.” Of course, the entire time you are telling yourself that, you are also – accidentally – thinking about the elephant. But let’s say I don’t want you to think about that elephant. So, instead of discussing it at all, I tell you, “I want you to imagine a beautiful tree standing in the middle of a meadow.” That instruction takes your mind entirely off the elephant. In fact, it makes the elephant… irrelephant. If you’ll pardon the pun.

The newer approach to preaching is more like the ‘think-about-the-tree’ approach. The point isn’t to deny sin. It’s to put our focus where it belongs, on the face of God and the fact that we cannot save ourselves from sin no matter how much we obsess about it. Rather, it is only a single-minded focus on the need for God’s love and grace that saves us.

Although we could reasonably ask if this approach is always applied effectively, I do think it is, generally, both healthier and more consistent with Christ’s call. After all, he never said, “Be sure to obsess about sin so that you can set yourself free from it.” But he did say, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest.”

Updated on September 08 2019