En finir avec le « péché originel »? – A review (PE nr. 1089 – 2018/03)

Michel Salamolard, En finir avec le « péché originel »? Exploration théologique et pastorale, collection Petits traités, ISBN 978-2-87356-665-4, Fidélité, Namur, août 2015, 282 pages, 19.95 euros

A good number of us feel uneasy when talking about original sin. To those and to others as well, I would advise them to read this book even if it is something of a brick. It brings us back to the core of our Christian faith, our salvation in Jesus Christ.

In a first chapter, the author explains that the doctrine of “original sin” is not a dogma but a theological opinion first expressed by St. Augustine in the 5th century. It entered the traditional teaching of the Roman Church because it was taken up by different local councils notably that of Carthage in 418 and the 2nd Council of Orange in 529 before being inserted into the catechism of the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Neither the Oriental Churches nor other Christian Churches have adopted this theological opinion. The Western Church has rejected other elements of Augustinian reflection such as his doctrine of predestination (a double predestination to salvation or to damnation) which would mean a small number of “saved” and a large number of “damned”, hell for all non-baptised people including new born babies, the propagation of Adam’s sin through sexual intercourse between man and woman and human liberty completely captive to sin etc. (p.49).

Original Sin is not part of revelation: there is not a single allusion to it in the Gospels. Jesus never speaks about it, neither do I (except when I am asked about it during a session in Jerusalem).

A large part of the book, which is what interested me the most, is devoted to creating a biblical dossier of sorts (pps. 81-175). It is a close examination of the text of Genesis and of the Epistle to the Romans. It was in reference to these two texts that Augustine elaborated his analysis. He also added that one was free to follow his opinion or not, and the author likewise takes the same position for his book.

Jestingly, one could say that Chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis do not refer to “original sin” because, first of all, there is no “sin” as the first time that sin is mentioned is in Chapter 4 when describing the action of Cain and then it is not “original”.

Another essential element underlined by the author is that the theory of Augustine is based on an error in translation from Greek to Latin in the text of Roman 5, 12: “Because of that, just as though one human being, sin entered the world and through sin, death and in this way death has passed on to all human beings given (eph’hoi) that all have sinned.” Augustine takes the Latin text where the Greek conjunction eph’hoi is understood as a relative referring to Adam, which would give: In whom (Adam) all men have sinned (in quo omnes peccaverunt). So for Augustine all men have sinned in Adam. How? Augustine could not explain it: “The ways of God are impenetrable,” he said, when he could not come up with anything credible.” (p. 151).

In this biblical dossier, the author goes into the text of St. Paul in depth, and something that I appreciated, is that he reads Romans 5 in the light of Paul’s experiences of life. In the same chapter, the author underlines how the theory of the angels’ sin is also something to quash in our catechesis because it is not part of revelation but comes from apocryphal writings.

The Catholic Church has officially abandoned its former official theological stance on “Limbo” (pps. 14, 191-192) as a result of a study carried out by the International Theological Commission in 2007 entitled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptised.” The book finishes with a theological essay: What can we say about the problem of evil and present salvation and Baptism without talking about original sin (which is in fact a bad explanation for the problem of evil) A very good conclusion to the book!

I omitted to talk about the other parts of the book: what preceded Augustine’s analysis, the link between his personal experience and his writings (which has retained the traditional customary link between sexuality and Original Sin). It also deals with the later and more recent evolution of this theory such as Vatican I, Vatican II (which refused to debate it although a text has been prepared), Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI. Even the declaration Dominus Jesus, published in 2000, treats of the central mystery of Christian Faith, the unity and universality of salvation in Christ without mentioning original sin. The author comments: “This proves that the proclamation of salvation does not need any sort of impediment corresponding to ‘original sin’ in order to express itself fully on the subject” (p. 184).

Guy Theunis, M.Afr.

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