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Q&A: Why hang original sin on me? And what to do about marital indifference

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Doyle
Father Kenneth Doyle writes the Catholic News Service column "Question Corner." He is based in Albany, N.Y. (CNS)

By FATHER KENNETH DOYLE

Q. How do I explain original sin to a fallen-away Catholic? (He won’t accept anything from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.) He asked me, “Why are people born thousands of years after the fall held accountable for something they didn’t do?” (Arlington, Virginia)

A. Your friend is not the first one to misunderstand the concept of original sin. In 2018, Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, created a furor when he called God “stupid” because of original sin — for allowing others, he said, to be stained by something in which they were not involved.

The key, of course, is that we are not really “stained” by the sin of our first parents; instead we are simply deprived of what would otherwise have been ours — namely, the absence of suffering and death.

Actually, the Catechism of the Catholic Church — which unfortunately your friend chooses to reject — explains it well. It says that “original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ — a state and not an act” (No. 404).

Further, the catechism explains, “original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted. …

“Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle” (No. 405).

I don’t pretend that original sin is an easy doctrine to comprehend, and in fact the catechism itself acknowledges that “the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand” (No. 404).

The way that makes sense to me (which I have used in instructing converts) is that, because of the failure of our first parents, we have been born into a world surrounded by sin and selfishness, which makes it more difficult for us to be good.

If my grandfather squandered away a fortune that would otherwise have been passed down to me, I would have lost out even though I had not been personally responsible. That, in my simple way of looking at things, is like original sin.

Q. My husband and I have struggled since being married with the concept of “leave and cleave.” He seeks his family’s advice for every decision we have to make. Their opinions are valued over my own, even when I am in staunch disagreement.

We attended Christian counseling, which proved to be fruitless, and he refuses to talk to a priest about marriage. (He doesn’t believe that priests can advise on marital problems, never being allowed to marry themselves.)

I am struggling with staying in this marriage, because he is clearly not willing to make any changes. I admit my own flaws and work to correct them. If he will not accept God as No. 1 and his wife as No. 2, is this a valid reason to annul our marriage and be divorced? (Columbus, Ohio)

A. The concept of “leave and cleave” takes its origin from God’s statement in the creation narrative (Gn 2:24) that, in marriage, “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife.”

That doesn’t mean, of course, that a man or woman must abandon contact with one’s own birth family; but it does mean that the new spouse needs to be the most significant human relationship in one’s life.

As for your husband’s reluctance to speak with a priest, I share some of his same discomfort; as a priest, I have often felt unqualified and referred a couple to a professional marriage counselor, usually a layperson. (I do have a preference for Catholic counselors, because I want the assurance that marriage is viewed as a permanent commitment.)

As to whether your current situation might justify an annulment in the church’s view, I cannot say without more information.

Remember that annulments are not easy: For an annulment, one must be able to go back to the time of the marriage and show that, from the outset, there was some fundamental problem (emotional immaturity on one or both sides, for example, or a radical disharmony of values) substantial enough to indicate that this particular marriage could never have lasted.

You and your husband are better off speaking first with a trained counselor and trying to work your issues out.

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Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.

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