Why are we all conceived with original sin?

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Adam and Eve
This is a detail of a painting of Adam and Eve by Peter Wenzel that is displayed in the Pinacoteca at the Vatican Museums. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Nancy Wiechec)

Question: Why is everybody, except the Blessed Virgin, conceived with original sin on their souls? If all of us inherit our first parents’ mortal sin, why do we not inherit the personal sins of our own parents or other ancestors? 

Richard Moore, Covington, Louisiana

Answer: Original sin has something of the form of a genetic defect. While it is not something for which we are personally responsible, it nevertheless has bad effects that we inherit. Adam and Eve had received from God perfect human natures wherein reason governed the passions and emotions and other “preternatural gifts” existed. These preternatural gifts included infused knowledge, absence of concupiscence and immortality. They also had a garden paradise to hand on to us as an inheritance. However, Adam and Eve lost these gifts. The wounds of sin they received were not just personal wounds, but also wounds that changed the very nature of being human. And since we who descend from them receive our human nature from them, we necessarily receive that wounded nature, which is now mortal, very attracted to sin, swayed easily by our passions, and wherein learning is a difficult and lengthy process. 

They were also excluded from paradise and consigned to live in the “paradise lost” of this current world, a beautiful but often hostile, dangerous and tempting world. Here, too, the very nature of this world was affected by original sin, since man was the highest being of that material creation. God declares this effect by announcing to Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you” (Gn 3:17). Thus, shock waves went all through the created world. 

So, original sin had the effect of altering the basic nature of things. We thus inherit a wounded human nature and a wounded creation. It is similar to the way genetic traits or defects come to us. This is the deep and tragic effect of that sin. 

Personal sins of our parents

In terms of personal sins committed by our parents and other ancestors, they can affect us in a range of ways. Suppose an alcoholic develops cirrhosis of the liver. That likely affects only him due to his sinfully excessive drinking. However, suppose that alcoholic meets another alcoholic in a bar, and they conceive a child through sinful sexual encounters. The child may have a genetic inclination to alcoholism, fetal alcohol syndrome, be born into a dysfunctional home and suffer other such consequences. Thus, some sins of parents have purely personal effects, but others have effects that do harm to their children. While some consider it “unfair” that Adam and Eve’s decision should harm us, it is nonetheless true that what our parents do often affects us, good or ill. We are happy to receive blessings from parents such as monetary inheritances. It follows that we must also accept less desirable effects as well, and it is usually a mixed bag. 

Mary was preserved from original sin in an antecedent way, by the merits of her son, because it was fitting that she, the tabernacle of the most-high and the source of his human nature, be free of that taint and be in the image of Eve as she was prior to original sin. 

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.