Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Sunday, June 19, 2005

O Felix Culpa!

Today's Liturgy proclaims Christ as "a mighty hero" (Jer 20:11) who is at our side, our salvation. The Second Reading in particular instigates the beautiful and ultimately optimistic doctrine of original sin and it is this beleagued and oft misunderstood fundamental doctrine that I hope to share my understanding of.

The 'Praeconium Paschale', the solemn Easter Proclamation is a wonderful poetic blessing pronounced over the Paschal candle by the deacon at the Easter Vigil. It is a wonderfully evocative and solemn text, having its roots in the theology of St Ambrose. It is replete with the theology of atonement and ransom but these verses are particularly striking:

"O certe necessarium Adae peccatum, quod Christi morte deletum est! O felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!"
'O truly needful sin of Adam, which was blotted out by the death of Christ! O happy fault, that merited so great a Redeemer!'

This echoes and develops the idea of St Paul expressed in his letter to the Romans: "Adam prefigured the One to come, but the gift itself considerably outweighed the fall... divine grace came to so many as an abundant free gift" (5:14b-15). In similar vein, St Thomas Aquinas writes about the work of redemption and justification in Christ as "God's greatest work" because "the gift of grace is greater, exceeding the worth of the unrighteous man..." (cf ST IIaIIae, 113, 9; McDermott trans.).

All these texts are optimistic about something normally viewed with pessimism: sin. As St Paul goes on to say in Rom 5:20, "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." Truly, the Christian Gospel is Good News because it proclaims the victory of God's grace over sin and human weakness. Moreover, the effect of grace is to enable us to receive and achieve eternal beatitude; to share the divine life, what the Fathers call theosis. It is an amazing work far surpassing creation for it makes us no longer slaves but "heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ" (Rom 8:17).

In recent decades the Catholic doctrine of original sin has been challenged, most notably and sadly by Matthew Fox, then a Dominican friar. Seldom does a son of St Dominic persist in heresy but here was one, whose views led him out of the Order and eventually out of communion with the Holy See. A tragedy indeed and an irony for his persistant arrogance and his subsequent actions seem to me to reveal the result of original sin which in Aquinas' words, "inflict these four wounds blunting reason's practical sense, hardening the will against good, increasing the difficulty of acting well and inflaming desire" (ST IIaIIae, 85, 4). People object to original sin because there is a resistance to a sense of inherited sin transmitted from Adam; indeed a general rejection of sinfulness, wanting instead to emphasise the original innocence and goodness of creation. Moreover, there is a reduction of evil to socio-economic factors and our social environment or a specious theory of human moral evolution along the lines of Teilhardism.

However, Christianity stresses the unity of humanity and the human experience and thus "all men born from Adam can be thought of as one man sharing one nature derived from him" (ST IIaIIae, 81, 1). This is contrasted to the individualism of modernity which refuses to see humanity as sharing a common nature and destiny in Christ. Rather, individualism strives to perpetuate the rupture in human relationships brought about by sin. Again, like Fox's fallacy, such individualism (under the guise of 'common sense' - "How can an innocent baby be guilty of sin?") is a blatant result of original sin; the objection actually proves the doctrine! It is no wonder then that having severed oneself from the common human condition of sin and having rejected sin itself, one does not need Christ as Redeemer. Such persons subsequently embark on new age and Buddhist-inspired quests to liberate oneself; one becomes one's own redeemer, god and saviour! And so, Christ's awe-ful warning in today's Gospel comes to fruition: "The one who disowns me in the presence of men, I will disown in the presence of my Father in heaven" (Mt 10:33).

As our Pope Benedict XVI, said in 1985: "If it is no longer understood that man is in a state of alienation (that is not only economic and social and, consequently, one that is not resolvable by his efforts alone), one no longer understands the necessity of Christ the Redeemer. The whole structure of the faith is threatened by this..." (From 'The Ratzinger Report', p79).

It strikes me as odd too, that some people reject the doctrine of original sin, because it seems to me that this would place a crushing burden on the individual. Just as the communion of saints and the fellowship of the Church makes the pilgrim journey to God lighter and easier, because it is a shared journey, so too the doctrine of original sin alleviates the burden of sinfulness somewhat, because it is shared and common to all humanity. Moreover, we have course for joy because we are not left to our own efforts and devices to heal the wounds caused by human sinfulness - selfishness, hate, anger, greed, pride and the like. Instead, we have a Redeemer, one who is sinless and has the power as the new Adam to save us; the re-created Son of Man in whose image all humanity is redeemed and made new. We don't do anything to deserve this grace; Christ effects the redeeming work because of his love for us! Why, in the light of such wonderful gifts, would one reject them? It must be a kind of blindness effected by sin, what Aquinas calls ignorance because sin has wounded "reason's response to truth." (cf ST IIaIIae, 85, 4).

Again, as the Holy Father says: "Self-salvation does not lead to redemption but to destruction... in order to be saved, it is necessary to abandon oneself to Love" (ibid., p81). This abandonment to Love is in fact the very means to our salvation. As St Thomas Aquinas explains: “Setting the unrighteous to rights, then, requires a free turning of humanity’s spirit to God, the first step of which is an act of faith: for whoever draws near to God must believe that he exists. If the movement of faith is to be perfect it must be inspired by the love of charity, so in setting the unrighteous to rights two movements, of faith and love, occur together. One and the same act of free choice exercises two different virtues… We cannot turn to God as object of our eternal happiness and cause of our reconciliation sheerly by natural knowledge: for reconciliation we need to make an act of faith that God is reconciling us to himself through the mystery of Christ. And the movement of free will has another side: in desiring God’s rightness it also renounces sin; for since charity is love of God, it is also renunciation of the sin which separates us from God” (ST IIaIIae, 113, 4 & 5).

God himself provides the grace of faith, hope and charity which enables us to turn to him in love. All we need to do is to freely will it and choose to accept this grace. This act of free will, of 'yes' to God's free gift of "divine grace, coming through the one man, Jesus Christ" (Rom 5:15) overturns the sinful disobedience of Adam. As such, when we allow God’s grace to work in our hearts, we allow ourselves to grow in every virtue and eventually in the ‘form’ of all virtues which is charity; to become infused with charity such that we “are not just passive recipients of divine charity or mere channels of it but active mediators of it” (cf 'Discovering Aquinas' by Aidan Nichols, OP; p107). This process is seemingly infinite because God is love and is by nature infinite, and our wills (which charity acts upon) is also infinite because we can always will more, so essentially, we begin to love infinitely and so participate in the Trinitarian life of infinite love. Quoting St Augustine, Aquinas states: “Charity is a virtue which, when our affections are perfectly ordered, unites us to God; for it is by charity that we love Him” (ST IIaIIae, 23, 3). Thus the Angelic Doctor concurs with the Doctor Gratiae that ultimately it is love that will lead our humanity to eternal beatitude, the bliss of truly loving as God loves.

This beautiful and grace-filled vision of eternal happiness (what we might call 'heaven') is our human destiny because of our Redeemer. It is the promise of our inheritance given us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Seen in this light, we can understand why the Exsultet proclaims the sin of Adam as not only necessary but felicitous! Therefore, the Church's understanding of original sin is not cause for misery and self-pity but exultation, for "the true nature of [original sin] is only gradually revealed in the light of the future which is Christ” (From 'Theological Investigations' vol. 11, p254 by Karl Rahner, SJ). As Jeremiah proclaims in today's First Reading: "Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord, for he has delivered the soul of the needy" (Jer 20:13).

Therefore, the doctrine of original sin is one that complements, and even makes possible, the proclamation of the grace and salvation that Christ brings. For as Rahner says: “Original sin is ultimately contained as a simple implication in the truth that all of us as sinners have been redeemed by Christ, and must be redeemed by him” (op.cit., p260) and moreover, “…the mystery of original sin has its ground in the mystery of the bestowal of sanctifying grace” (From 'Encyclopedia of Theology: A Concise Sacramentum Mundi', p1150). Indeed, without acknowledging that we dwell in the dark night of sin, how can we ever recognize the radiant glory of salvation in Christ, our "Morning Star which never sets" (cf the Exsultet)?

The photo above shows Fr Allan Lopez, OP lighting the Paschal candle from the blazing Easter fire, an image of Christ's redeeming light conquering the darkness of sin.


Anonymous Bryan Jerabek said...


An excellent homily/article on Original Sin, and skillful indeed, weaving together Karl Rahner, St. Thomas, and Cardinal Ratzinger! A Jesuit, the original Thomist, and an Augustinian! There is hope. :-þ

You and your readers may be interested in my post on the Exsultet from this past Easter, in which I provide a PDF that has the ICEL version, the Latin version, and a private translation in a three-column format. Given your knowledge of Latin you can offer a critique, if you so desire!

The post is here.

9:53 pm  
Blogger Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

In my theology, I attempt to unite all things in Christ... A certain theology prof. I had suspected I was just a post-modern syncretist but I would like to imagine that the desire for finding common threads in Catholic-Christian schools of thought is what drives me!

12:12 pm  

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