|An image of Mary is seen at the base of a Marian statue overlooking the Spanish Steps as firefighters lead a ceremony honoring Mary in Rome Dec. 8, 2019, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)|
It sounds cranky, gloomy, even angry. Christianity teaches that we human beings can’t help making a huge mess of things. The human equivalent of the Cincinnati Bengals. And she says we’re born that way.
The Church describes this problem as the state of original sin. Original sin resulted from the fall. In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve had their best life now. They only had to obey one simple instruction but they decided to say no to God. Things went bad fast. One of their first two sons killed the other. Human history didn’t get better after that.
It can feel like an ugly doctrine. Many of us will think of the parent, teacher, or pastor who kept putting us down. The Church can sound like that when she tells us we’re sinners. In fact, original sin is a crucial part of the Gospel.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls it “an essential truth of the faith,” because nothing in our faith makes sense without it. All the Jews’ long, painful history, the birth in Bethlehem, Jesus’s teaching years, his death on the Cross, His resurrection and ascension, the Church and sacraments He left us, down to you and me going to Mass last Sunday. The fall got the ball rolling.
As it happens, it comes up in the next holy day of obligation. We have the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception because man fell into original sin. God saved one person from it, the woman who would become the Mother of God.
Pius IX declared that at her conception, Mary “was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.” God gave her this gift “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race.” The pope declared this in a statement called Ineffabilis Deus on December 8, 1854.
Is the teaching so gloomy, though? The great Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton wrote of standing with a minister on a hill in Jerusalem, looking at the Garden of Gethsemane and the Potter’s Field where Jesus’s betrayer Judas hanged himself. Two places where the fruits of the fall were most obvious in human history. The minister said, “It must be obvious to anybody that the doctrine of the fall is the only cheerful view of human life.” Chesterton called the doctrine “the only encouraging view of life.”
Wait, what? The Church says “You were screwed up before you were born.” How is that cheerful? It sounds like something only the sourest, meanest person you know would ever say. It’s the kind of thing the “Get off my lawn” guy would say. That’s discouraging.
Let’s start with the facts, Chesterton said. We know there’s something wrong with us. “Men thought mankind wicked because they felt wicked themselves,” he said. “Whether or not man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing.” Almost every religion sees this.
We know this from examining our consciences. We really know it from having to tell the priest about our sins in the confessional. Even St. Paul had to admit that he didn’t do the good things he wanted to do. Worse, he did do the bad things he didn’t want to do. And he was one of the spiritual greats.
So how in the world is the fall and the original sin we inherited good news? How is it cheerful? Encouraging?
Like this. There are two possibilities. One, that we’re such a mess just because we’re such a mess. It’s who we are. Two, that we’re such a mess because something went wrong somewhere. It’s not really who we are. We could be the wrong kind of thing or we could be the right kind of thing that got broken.
And if we’re just broken, we might get fixed. The doctrine of original sin tells us we’re broken. We’re not doomed to live and die a mess. Our world isn’t doomed to be a mess. We and our world can be fixed.
It’s like Steph Curry and me as NBA players. Neither of us play right now. I will never play. The problem is just who I am, and who I am is a short, slow, old guy. Steph Curry is not playing now, but only because he broke his hand. When he’s better, he’ll be playing as well as ever.
The doctrine of original sin gives us great news. It tells us we can be fixed. And Mary’s Immaculate Conception gives us some idea of what we will be when God fixes us.
It sounds cranky, gloomy, even angry. Christianity teaches that we human beings can’t help making a huge mess of things.