What Happened to Original Sin?

By McCollister, Betty | The Humanist, March-April 1994 | Go to article overview
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What Happened to Original Sin?


McCollister, Betty, The Humanist


John Cardinal O'Connor, asserting that the church's teaching on abortion has been the same for 2,000 years, warned that "attacks on the church's stance on abortion--unless they are rebutted--effectively erode church authority on all matters, indeed on the authority of God himself!"

Presumably he means that, if the church changes its mind on an issue, its authority would become less credible. He implies that the church never has changed its mind.

History tells us otherwise. The church has changed its mind repeatedly. It has finally, four centuries late, owned up to its most egregious blunder and acknowledged that Galileo was right, the church wrong, and that Earth does circle the sun despite the Inquisition's objections to its doing so.

The church has desanctified hundreds of saints. It has decided to allow Catholics to eat meat on Fridays. It no longer blames all Jews for all time, past and present and future, for decide--although the fabricated and entirely false gospel passages which implicate them, still read throughout holy week, perpetuate that lethal hatred in hundreds of millions of Christian souls.

And even though it has never officially repudiated the infamous Inquisition, it is most unlikely that any twentieth-century pope--no matter how solidly rooted in the past--would urge its revival.

So it is on abortion. O'Connor's statements notwithstanding, the church has seesawed on this issue. Early Christians, anticipating the imminent end of the world, cared little about marriage or children. For 15 centuries, though, abortion was licit until "ensoulnent," which occurred at 40 days in the male fetus, 80 in the female. Endorsed by St. Thomas Aquinas, no less, this position held until 1588, when Sixtus V outlawed it. Gregory XIV, three years later, rescinded the ban but decreed that en, soulment took place at 40 days in both sexes. Not until 1869 did the ultra-conservative Pius IX (responsible also for papal infallibility and the immaculate conception) change the church's connective mind yet again and ban abortion entirely. The present intransigent stance, then, is merely the latest in a long series.

In a bizarre and little-noted twist, today's abortion wars have generated another about-face--one which radically contradicts a fundamental Christian tenet which has been consistently held from the beginning. This is the dogma of original sin, propounded by St. Paul and cemented into church theology by St. Augustine.

Original sin is the doctrine that every zygote inherits sin from Adam and Eve at the instant it is fertilized. (Only the zygote which became the blessed virgin was exempt. This is the immaculate conception--not the same as the virgin birth.) Augustine concluded that original sin is transmitted by the sexual act, which "by virtue of the lust which accompanies it is inherently sinful." The Catholic encyclopedia defines it as "the hereditary sin incurred at conception by every human being as a result of the first man, Adam." Protestantism retained the concept. In Calvins words:

Even infants bring their condemnation

with them from their

mother's womb ... their whole

nature is, as it were, a seed of sin,

and, therefore, cannot but be

odious and abominable to God.

That original sin contaminates all conceptuses remains a rock-solid tenet of the Christian right--that new and improbable miscegenation between conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants who have papered over past discord to unite against abortion.

When they claim to protect the "innocent unborn," then, they stand on its head one doctrine upon which the church has never wavered.

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What Happened to Original Sin?
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