"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Development and Negation VII: Original Sin as Inherited "Guilt"

Whenever I think I'm done with this series, there arises another important issue calling for the same sort of treatment. Now that the Vatican's advisory theological commission has called the idea of limbo into question, the issue has become original sin as inherited "guilt." (My reasons for the scare quotes will become clear below.)

Thus, it has been suggested that even allowing for the possibility of salvation for infants who die unbaptized entails tacitly abandoning the Council of Trent's teaching that we inherit the "guilt" of original sin from our first parents. Said council did after all define: “If anyone denies, that, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted … let him be anathema” (Decree on Original Sin, canon 5); such a definition would be idle without the assumption that there is such a thing as the guilt of original sin; and Trent clearly made such an assumption. It has even been suggested that CCC §405, which denies that original sin is "a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants," openly rejects that assumption. Accordingly, my aim here is to construct, and then rebut, a fair and plausible version of the argument that current doctrinal development negates past definitive teaching.

Prima facie, the argument is the legitimate sort of ad hominem, in which the arguer tries to demonstrate a contradiction in his opponent's position. It goes roughly like this:
1. Every human inherits the guilt of original sin. (Trent)

2. It is baptism that remits the guilt of original sin. (Trent)

3. Ergo , the guilt of original sin remains in the unbaptized. [from 1, 2]

4. Those who die "in original sin alone" go to "hell." [ad infernum; from the Council of Florence ]

5. Ergo, if there is a limbo in the sense often held by Catholics since the Middle Ages, then those who die in original sin alone, such as unbaptized infants, go to a form of hell in which they do not suffer, and thus do not experience their punishment as such. [from 3, 4]

6. If there is no limbo, then those who die in original sin alone suffer the eternal torment of hell. [from 4, 5]

7. But "God...by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault.” [Pope Pius IX, Quanto conficiamur moerore, 1863]

8. Ergo, either there is a limbo and (4) is still held to be true, or there is no limbo and (4) is now held to be false. [from 6,7]

9. If (4) is now held to be false, then for consistency's sake, so must (1) and (2).

10. Ergo, to allow that there might be no limbo is to negate Trent. [from 1, 3, 8, and 9]
Arguments to more or less that effect are not found just in the blogosphere—e.g. here and here, and doubtless elsewhere I haven't taken the time to uncover. No less prominent a figure than theologian Richard P. McBrien has argued, in effect, that "if there’s no limbo and we’re not going to revert to St. Augustine’s teaching that unbaptized infants go to hell, we’re left with only one option, namely, that everyone is born in the state of grace. … Baptism does not exist to wipe away the “stain” of original sin, but to initiate one into the Church." Since the Pontificator has already dealt with McBrien, however, I shall not discuss the latter's take in further detail; and what I shall say here will, I believe, adequately address the bloggers' objections.

Of course, as I've framed it so far the argument is fallaciously ambiguous: without clarifying qualification, (3) does not follow from (1) and (2). The Church has never taught that only formal, sacramental baptism remits the guilt of original sin; magisterial teaching has always allowed for the possibility that incorporation into Christ, and thus saving membership in the Church, can be attained by means other than formal, sacramental baptism, such as baptism of "blood" or explicit desire. The only question is whether doctrinal development can admit further means consistently with past definitive teaching. Regarding the dogma of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, for example, the Church has come to allow there might be such a thing as baptism by "implicit" desire; my first topical article in this series was about precisely that point. And the point must be taken as well as made, since the question how membership in the Church can be attained is logically independent of the dogma that membership in the Church is necessary for salvation. So, one might for fairness' sake want to frame (2) to read:
(2*) The Church does not know of any means by which the guilt of original sin can be remitted in those who have died without formal, sacramental baptism.
But of course (2*) won't do either. For, from the fact that the Church does not know of any such means, it does not follow that she teaches that there are no such means. And in fact she never has definitively taught such a thing; see my previous Pontifications article on limbo; and, of course, the Pontificator's excellent treatment of the topic. That is why CCC §1261 is framed as it is: we may "hope" that there are such means, but we have no way of knowing what they are if there are.

In fact, I'm not sure how to frame an argument that would plausibly do the work its advocates want it to do. That, I suspect, is because the problem is primarily semantic: specifically, the hangup seems to be over the term 'guilt'. Thus, what could it mean to say that people are conceived and born "guilty" (cf. Psalm 51: 7) just in virtue of inheriting original sin, when it is conceded all around that infants can commit no actual sin and thus can do nothing to incur guilt? Correspondingly, what could it mean to say that people who die unbaptized go to "hell" if God "by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault”?

It is essential here to focus on the dogmatic term being translated as 'guilt': the Latin reatus. Its meaning in what is now a long-dead language is primarily legal, and is weaker than that of the English term 'guilt'. As the classicist and philosopher Scott Carson has pointed out:
In Roman law to be reatus means to be liable to or actually under an indictment or a sentence; culpa refers to actual guilt for wrongdoing. (In some contexts, culpa refers to the actual act of wrongdoing, while reatus refers to the state of the wrongdoer that accrues as a consequence of the culpa.) The CIC [Codex Iuris Canonici, the Church's codification of canon law—ML] adopted these same standards straight out of Justinian. The two words are sometimes used together in theological contexts in such a way as to suggest that reatus is used to mean guilt in the sense of having incurred a guilt-debt as a consequence of wrongdoing. Two significant usages are: reatus poena and reatus culpa. The former refers to our guilt-debt of punishment for sin, the latter our guilt-debt of moral culpability or fault for sin. It is our reatus culpa that is removed by absolution; our reatus poenaremains, hence we perform some penance...
Now when the dogmatic texts speak of the reatus of original sin, they are speaking of a kind of reatus poena, which means "liability to punishment" without presupposing personal fault (i.e., culpa) on the part of the one thus liable. So, the descendants of our first parents are made liable to punishment, i.e. reatus, for what was really only the culpa of our first parents, i.e. the Fall.

The objection to that, naturally enough, is that it makes God seem like an ogre, as indeed he seems to be in Augustine's theory of massa damnata. How is it not grossly unfair that people start their lives reatus when they have no culpa? The question is fair; but to imagine it can't be answered adequately in fully orthodox terms is simply to forget what the dogma of original sin means.

For purposes of the present issue, it is undisputed that the effects of the first sin, which we also suffer by inheriting original sin, are forms of corruption: death, concupiscence, and the disruption of relationships entailed by being born into a sinful world. That affects human nature, which we have in common with our first parents; and for that very reason, it makes the human person inclined to sin. What was literally a punishment of our first parents for their culpa thus becomes only analogously a punishment for us—just as what was literally sin in them, i.e. the Fall, becomes sin only analogously, i.e. fallenness, in us. (Cf. CCC §404.) Such fallenness both results from and, in us, helps to constitute a state of alienation from God, a deprivation of the justice and holiness that God originally meant for humanity to have. Thus, it is inevitable that each person (Jesus and Mary aside) who matures to the point of attaining personal moral responsibility is going to commit sin. That is why Paul says "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," and that is why even the saints are sinners.

But human freedom remains; for the inevitability is statistical not deterministic. Thus, from the fact that it's inevitable that each member of the relevant population will commit some-or-other sin, it does not follow that any such member will commit any particular sin. That is why it can be said that we are each born reatus without having committed any actual sin. We are reatus, i.e. "liable to punishment," because given original sin we begin our existence corrupted in various ways, and thus as the sort of beings who just will commit actual sin in the normal course. Just as original sin is a state we contract rather than an act we commit, so too is the state of being reatus inherited in virtue of original sin; indeed original sin can be said, from a certain point of view, to consist in precisely that. So it's rather misleading to translate reatum, as used in the dogmatic texts, as "guilt" with its normal meaning in English.

As is universally admitted, we each start out having done nothing to incur such "guilt." But of course, neither do we start out doing anything to merit salvation. Just as the former is an undeserved liability, so the latter is an undeserved gift. Our first parents implicated us in a bad situation we did not bring about; without our initiative or deserts, Jesus Christ freed us from the inevitable consequence of that situation, i.e., perdition. Maybe that isn't fair, by human standards of fairness. But as the parable of the day-laborers shows, life isn't about fairness; it's about mercy—specifically God's mercy, which is always on offer, and which has never permitted sin to reign in the world without the possibility, and eventually the actuality, of redemption. Perhaps the ITC's new report will help us appreciate that better. It should. It is a refinement made out of love, not a negation made through inadvertance, of what the Church has definitively taught.