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Reflections on Original Sin

Bill Toner SJ  ::  Fr. John Moore SJ, who died in 2018 at the age of 91, studied botany in university and later became Professor of Botany in University College Dublin. In 1983, at the age of 56, he took early retirement and went to Zambia (formerly an Irish Jesuit Mission) where the first taught botany in the University of Zambia, and, later, philosophy and theology in Arrupe College, Harare, Zimbabwe.

Around 2012, Fr. Moore wrote an undated article ‘Reflections on the Doctrine of Original Sin’. It was intended for publication, but for some reason it never got into print, and John entrusted the manuscript to a Jesuit in Milltown Park, who passed it onto me in late 2019 after reading my blog in Irish Jesuit News on the theology of Hell. You can read the article here »

Fr John Moore SJ

Father Moore’s insightful article makes very interesting reading. I have taken the liberty in this blog of developing, and putting in context, a few points bearing on John’s article.

It can be assumed that a botanist, John found particular difficulty in reconciling the ‘traditional ‘or ‘classical’ Church teaching on original sin with the theory of evolution of species, (though as can be seen that was by no means his only difficulty with the teaching). In the traditional theory, most notably developed by St. Augustine, original sin is a state of sin in which humanity has existed since the fall of man, and stems from the rebellion in the Garden of Eden by Adam and Eve, the first two human beings, who were created by God de novo. Modern evolutionary theory, developed over many years of paleontological, biological and genetic research seems to have dealt a number of fatal blows to this traditional view. The earliest members of Homo Sapiens did not live alone, but were part of a population of hominids. In the words of James L. Connor S.J., the traditional Adam, particularly as endowed with the classic preternatural gifts, would constitute “a marvellous parenthesis” in the otherwise progressively more perfectly evolution of the world. Fossil evidence does not point to any reversal in the normal evolutionary process.

The briefly popular ‘polygenetic’ theory of the evolution of human being is now largely discredited. This theory postulated independent evolution of human beings in a number of distantly separated areas (such as Africa and Java). The more accepted view at present is the ‘Out of Africa’ theory, whereby all humans evolved from a population of hominids in Kenya. But there is no scientific support for the theory that all living humans descended from a single pair. Furthermore, recent analysis of DNA taken from Neanderthal specimens indicates that they or their ancestors contributed to the genome of all humans outside Africa, indicating that there was some degree of interbreeding with Neanderthals. Another hominid, Denisova, who lived in Siberia, also contributed to the DNA of Melasians and Australians through interbreeding. All this indicates that human evolution was not linear, but rather a ‘web’.

It cannot be said that the ‘official’ Catholic Church is totally at ease with the theory of evolution in relation to its teaching on original sin. But Peter Kreeft’s commentary on the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church states that original sin could more accurately be described as original selfishness and that we cannot blame infants for being born selfish. Yet he also states that “we are not born innocent of original sin”. In its efforts to be faithful to traditional teaching, the underlying problems for the Catholic Church have always been twofold: firstly, the fact that any denial or watering down of the doctrine seems to call in question the salvific work of Christ. As Kreeft remarks, “Sin is precisely what this ‘Saviour’ saves us from. The second difficulty is explaining the mystery of evil, particularly human evil, in the world. This has traditionally been attributed to the sin of Adam.

Fr. Moore makes several points which might indicate a way out of this impasse. One is his development of Rahner’s view that we can find a satisfactory explanation for the ‘scandal’ of concupiscence and death in the light of human biology and psychology. Fr Moore comments that since our metabolism is basically similar to that of the higher primates, all those strong feelings, emotions and drives towards either good or evil are based on the same neuro-biochemical mechanisms shared by ourselves and the higher primates.

As a compulsive viewer of National Geographic TV channels, I am constantly struck by the extraordinary viciousness [an anthropomorphic word!] with which many animals attack not only animals of other species, but even those of their own kind. This may be related to mating rights, dominance, or the search for food. The most striking example I can think of is that of adult males killing and eating the young of their own species, even their own young, in order to make a female receptive for mating. But we cannot call such behaviour ‘evil’. Animals are not possessed of ‘moral’ sense and are driven by instincts, which have developed over millions of years of evolution and are ‘selected’ in order to ensure the survival of individuals and of the group. The closest animal relative to homo sapiens is thought to be the chimpanzee. While we may associate chimpanzees with tea-parties in the zoo, they are capable of remarkable viciousness, sometimes without any obvious provocation. We can try to imagine what happened when the first human beings developed from earlier forms of hominids. They must have soon become aware of an interior battle between their basic instincts and an emerging sense of right and wrong. Is it this kind of battle that St. Paul is talking about in Romans 7?

In fact this seems to be the rule, that every single time I want to do good it is something evil that comes to hand. In my inmost self I dearly love God’s law, but I can see that my body follows a different law that battles against the law which my reason dictates.

In the book of Genesis, could it be that the more interesting story about a sin is not the one of Adam and Eve, but that of Cain, who killed his brother Abel out of an instinctive desire to be “the greatest”? Can evil be described as ‘evil’ only in a particular context? Human beings inherited instincts and drives which were excusable in a pre-human state, but which then had to be strictly controlled in a totally different kind of existence. In this new self-reflective state, humans became gradually aware of their spiritual nature, their freedom (limited as it was), and, perhaps in the course of time, demands being made on them by a higher being. It is at this point that the question of culpability arises, and the need for redemption enters the equation.

Fr. Moore’s makes another interesting and related point, that the flawless pre-fall human life could never have existed because pain receptors are an essential part of our survival mechanism and always have been.

Also, of interest in this discussion is the work of the Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen (1879), who wrote extensively about the doctrine of atonement. Alister McGrath comments:

The insights of Sigmund Freud, which drew attention to the manner in which adults could be spiritually imprisoned by the hidden forces within their subconscious, raised serious doubts about the Enlightenment view of the total rationality of human nature, and lent new credibility to the idea that humans are held in bondage to unknown and hidden forces. Aulen’s approach seemed to resonate with a growing awareness of the darker side of human nature.

Freud, of course, claimed that sex and aggression (in a particular sense) served to motivate all thoughts, emotions and behaviour. And throughout his life Freud took a keen interest in the work of Darwin, his contemporary, and toyed with the possibility of an evolutionary explanation for human drives.

An objection that can be made regarding any attempt to ‘reduce’ original sin to inherited biological urges and forces is that it does not seem to account sufficiently for the worst examples of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. Examples such as genocide, serial killing of strangers, and gratuitous torture spring to mind. Is there an ‘evil’ in the world that goes well beyond human failure to cope with inherited urges and instincts, and if so, what are its origins?

Fr. Moore’s paper deserves close study, and shows not only his intellectual acuity, but his courage in tackling head-on what is still a delicate area of Christian theology. He was prepared to state publicly what many Catholics say privately, that the Church’s magisterium is simply too slow and too fearful in responding to advances in physical sciences when these appear to threaten cherished religious beliefs.