The doctrine of original sin, which teaches the universality of sin, has an important foundation: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). This doctrine encourages men and women not to remain in guilt and not to take guilt lightly, continuously seeking scapegoats in other people and justification in the environment, in heredity, in institutions, in structures, and in relationships.
Plowing through a stack of encyclicals that was mostly John Paul II’s writing, I stumbled across the above quote. I was falling asleep. I know Karol Wojtyla was brilliant, but I find his sentences thick and difficult to digest—theological Weetabix. If poetry is what is lost in translation, I think more than an angel’s share of his evaporates on its journey from Polish to English.
But this quote caused me to wake up and discover who wrote this.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church was compiled at the end of John Paul II pontificate by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, helmed by Cardinal Renato Martino. Take a quick google of Renato Martino, and you find some choice words. He’s perhaps a rabble-rouser and perhaps a prophet, and the great Judeo-Christian tradition contains many figures who, like Martino, blur the distinction between the two to great effect. The cardinal’s comments on the Iraq war, the US-Mexico border wall, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem prescient, to say the least. I would pay good money to hear what he could say about Trump’s recent betrayal of the Kurds.
Founding “original sin” in the Johannine tradition seems to me an excellent theological move, because the Hellenic worldview of that Gospel seems to appeal to savvy secular folks who dismiss original sin as a Christian invention. It’s a fundamental marketing tactic—before you can pitch your product, you need to create a lack in the consumer. Make them aware that they are missing something, they need what only you can offer. Thus, Paul creates Adam’s fall, right? But we don’t need that. I didn’t do anything wrong, and neither did you, so what exactly do I need to be saved from anyway?
John’s Gospel plays upon this fundamental blindness, our corporate willing to see ourselves as blameless. This opening of the first letter of John directly states that the declaration of one’s innocence is the primary deception. This echoes the ninth chapter of the fourth Gospel, in which the Pharisees assure Christ that they have no sin. “If you were blind, he responds, “you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (Jn 9:41).
Our inability to see our own sin is a symptom of original sin; our protestation of innocence is a self-defeating argument.
Once we’ve established that the truth is not in us, that we do not possess original innocence, then it follows that we ought to cease scapegoating others—Jonah is not causing the storm; we are. Upon accepting this doctrine, we then do not seek “justification in the environment, in heredity, in institutions, in structures, and in relationships,” but rather, take responsibility upon ourselves.
I would argue, however, that a chief piece of evidence for original sin is the malignant structures that we seem to exist in, despite our best efforts. Humans are creatures of ingenuity who built pyramids, dams, and city walls. But we can’t seem to find a system that allows each human being to earn their daily bread. Our inability to live up to the justice we idealize seems a pretty strong proof that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark that originates from the heart of each Danish citizen.
Perhaps, then, this sentence is a call to recognize the building blocks of environments, institutions, structures, and relationships: people. Broken human beings, who cannot make a structure or a nation more virtuous than the sum of their bent hearts. And here we each stand, guilty of all before all. It is such a difficult place to stand—uncomfortable, sweaty under the collar, and mighty damning. But once we can say to ourselves: we are blind, we can begin to see clearly, face to face.