As a little girl I can remember references to “Catholic guilt” from films and TV and, despite finding the jokes amusing, was still quite confused about what it all meant. What did they have to feel guilty about? Had they all done something wrong? Being raised in a secular household, the idea of someone carrying around loads of guilt for no apparent reason didn’t make sense. It wasn’t until I got older and began to learn more about Christianity that I understood what the phrase “Catholic guilt” was actually describing: the concept known as Original Sin.
For non-Christians or Christians unaware of its meaning, in a nutshell, it is a philosphy that says all of humanity is inherently broken, bad, twisted, evil, profane, and incapable of taking any action on its own to remedy this sorry state. It was first alluded to by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons in the 2nd Century as a rebuke to Gnosticism. Irenaeus believed that by Adam’s commitment of sin through eating the forbidden fruit, he created the “original” source of human sinfulness and enslaved all of mankind to death (mortality) and bequeathed all future generations with a fundamentally sinful and guilty nature. As a sidenote, I find it rather interesting that Irenaeus is linking this blame more specifically to Adam’s eating of the fruit rather than Eve, but I doubt he held her blameless either.
I think most of us, though, who have heard of this concept associate it with St. Augustine. St. Augustine was a man who in the late 300’s was wrestling with his own shortcomings and was having a difficult time resolving his own self-loathing in a theological way. How could he, a mere man, be able to help his own soul? How could God possibly love and forgive the miserable wretch that he perceived himself (and everyone else) to be?
Augustine took the notion of individuals being born sinners and ran with it. He proposed that since all of humanity was present in Adam when he sinned (in his opinion) that therefore all have sinned, and this sinful nature is passed down person to person via sexual reproduction. Hence, as sinners, “humans are utterly depraved in nature, lack the freedom to do good, and cannot respond to the will of God without divine grace.” (Which is where the twisted idea of unbaptized babies who die end up in purgatory came from – if you’re already born a sinner and die before you’re baptized, then there’s no way you’re able to enter Heaven. Obviously.) Clearly, St. Augustine was a man who had a lot of issues surrounding sex and sexuality to decide that such physical actions would be so loathsome and evil in the eyes of God.
In Augustine’s opinion, not only is all of humanity fundamentally bad, but because of our natural dispensation towards evil, we are incapable of choosing good on our own and therefore unable to do anything to remedy our flaws for or by ourselves. The natural world and the products of that natural world (us) were inherently deficient because of this inborn corruption we inherited through simply being born. He taught that it was only through God’s grace that we had any chance at all of being “saved” or made whole again. This is a belief that has snaked its way through modern Christianity and permeates throughout much of mainstream churches. Even in my own Episcopal church I’ve heard sermons from my priest and deacon, one of whom has publicly announced their disbelief in Original Sin, about the inherent “brokenness” of people. I could not disagree with this doctrine more.
Humanity is flawed, there is no doubt about that. We are capable of unimaginable evil, unabashed selfishness and greed, hatred, and so on. But I don’t for one second believe that we are, at our core, fundamentally broken and ugly. The word “broken” implies that there is somehow a way to be “fixed”. Some might argue that there is a way to be fixed and that’s through Christ. However, how many Christians do you know that are flawless? How many people belonging to any faith do you know that have reached any state resembling perfection or wholeness? Clearly just identifying as a person of faith doesn’t solve any problems or make you a better person. Original Sin tells you that you are powerless in your brokenness, that there is nothing you can do to make yourself a better person, that only God can do anything for you, you worthless worm. It asks you to pray, and beg, and plead, and hope for God to take pity on you and that hopefully with Christ’s mercy you will be “saved”. Maybe.
The other implication with using terminology such as “broken” that I find objectionable is that it communicates on some level that there is something fundamentally evil about the natural state of humanity (imperfect). It creates a thought process whereby we start to disassociate ourselves from the body and nature because those things which are “worldly” and physical are corrupt and sinful. We start to view the land and creatures which dwell on this planet as “things” which we must conquer, tame, and destroy if necessary to further our own misguided goal of trying to achieve a state of perfection.
Furthermore, linking the responsibility of our “fallen” state to the actions taken by a woman has created an entire culture whereby women have been historically and systematically debased, controlled, beaten, objectified, and humiliated as some sort of warped consequence for actions taken in a Biblical creation myth. Women’s bodies have long been associated with earthly desires, women as objects which are not to be trusted, because our foremother ate a piece of fruit she was told not to and so brought all our misery and suffering upon us. I can’t help but see the connection between our global culture’s attempts at controlling women & their bodies and attempting to control and destroy our natural resources as well.
How strange, how silly, how sad that so much of this self-destructive behavior seems to be rooted in a theological idea created by an unhappy little man in the fourth century. Original sin isn’t even Biblical, and yet so many people seem to be unable to separate their faith from this harmful doctrine. As Matthew Fox states from Living the Questions 2.0,
“Jesus never heard of ‘Original Sin’.” The term wasn’t even used until the 4th century, so it’s “strange to run a church, a gathering, an ekklesia — supposedly on behalf of Jesus — when one of its main dogmatic tenets, Original Sin, never occurred to Jesus.” Sadly, Western Christianity is dependent on and chronically “attached to Original Sin — but what they’re really attached to is St. Augustine. The fact is that most Westerners believe more in Augustine (and his preoccupation with sex) than they do in Jesus.”
How unfortunate that so many Christians would rather choose to believe the absolute worst about themselves rather than perceive themselves as beautifully flawed creatures capable of so much good. I find nothing uplifting, moving, or beneficial as person of faith or as an inhabitant of this world in being told that I am broken, fallen, and helpless by my very nature. I find such messages to be positively insidious and degrading. I am capable of doing things and taking steps in my daily life to become a better person and to nurture my relationship with the Divine. We all are capable of doing that. I refuse to believe that on top of my culture consistently bombarding me with messages of never being “enough” that the Divine would hold such a similar viewpoint as marketing agencies.
We are perfectly flawed and perfectly loved. Don’t listen to anyone trying to tell you otherwise.
+ K +