Q&A An Eastern Error
The Fatima Center received the following question from Pat C. We thought the reply might help others with similar questions.
Question: “I have frequently heard Eastern Orthodox state that St. Augustine was wrong in his translation / interpretation of Romans 5:12. It was his interpretation of that verse which led to the Catholic understanding and eventual teaching on original sin, which was historically understood as inherited guilt. If the Orthodox are correct and we do not inherit the actual guilt of Adam, wouldn’t that render the Immaculate Conception unnecessary? This is a very important matter because so much rests upon the correct answer.”
Answer: You are correct that this is a very important matter. The truth is that man does lack sanctifying grace at his conception and is subject to original sin. The Immaculate Conception [of the Blessed Virgin Mary] was part of God’s Divine plan even before He created the world or the angels. Four simple words in Latin which best explain this were provided by Bl. John Scotus: “Potuit, Decuit, Ergo Fecit.” It means God could [potuit] bring about the Immaculate Conception; it was fitting [decuit] that He do so; therefore, God did do so [fecit].
This Error Leads to the Denial of Necessary Truths
The key to this question rests upon the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This has been defined infallibly by the Church (Ineffablis Deus, 1854). Also, at Lourdes, a Church-approved apparition, the Mother of God revealed Herself as “The Immaculate Conception.” And at Fatima, also a Church-approved apparition, Our Lady said that God wished to establish in the world devotion to Her Immaculate Heart.
Therefore, it logically follows that by denying the Immaculate Conception a person necessarily denies papal infallibility (see Pastor Aeternus, 1870) and the truth of Lourdes and Fatima, the two greatest Marian apparitions in modern times.
Far worse, it means mankind has no foreseeable solution to the grave crisis which the Church and the world have plummeted into, a crisis which will only grow worse until we obey Our Lady of Fatima. As She stated, only She can help us.
This is by God’s Divine Providence. He does wish to save souls and give peace to the world, but He will only do so through Her Immaculate Heart. And the whole world will have to acknowledge that these graces have been granted through Her Immaculate Heart. Accepting this Eastern Orthodox error could thus easily lead to despair – which is one of the devil’s most powerful and choice weapons.
Six Further Considerations
First, one should not forget that the Eastern Orthodox are schismatic. Therefore, they do not hold the Catholic Faith whole and entire. It is to be expected that they have succumbed to some errors. If they reject papal infallibility, or the filioque, it should come as no surprise if they err regarding the teaching on original sin or Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception.
Second, the Church values, honors and respects the teachings of the Church Doctors and Fathers far more than the opinions of others. As faithful Catholics, so should we. It is grossly insufficient (and impious) to assert that St. Augustine (†430) was wrong. He is one of the greatest Doctors of the Church. Moreover, if he was wrong then would not some of the great [Eastern] Church Fathers have challenged him and pointed out his error. None did. Saint John Damascene (†675), for example, accepts St. Augustine’s teachings. At the very least, someone who claims that St. Augustine is wrong has the obligation to cite incontrovertible evidence that other Church Fathers held a contrary opinion. I do not believe such evidence exists.
Third, in their tradition, the East implicitly accepts the truth of the Immaculate Conception. Going back to great antiquity, one of their most cherished titles for Our Lady, used in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as well, is the All-Holy Theotokos – sometimes translated into English as Most-Holy Theotokos. (Theotokos is a Greek word meaning “God-bearer” or in our common parlance, ‘The Mother of God.’) One could not properly say She is all holy if at some point She was under the control of sin and not immaculately conceived. As far as I know, this title (All-Holy) is unique to Her and is not used to designate any other saint. In fact, that term is used to describe the Blessed Trinity!
Conversely, if man does not inherit original sin, then all of us are at one point “All-Holy” (Immaculate) and it could not be a unique title for Our Lady. What of an infant that dies prior to birth? Would not that infant then also be Immaculate? Or what of someone born with a severe disability that prevents them from being able to sin? (For example, an inability to use their reason or will in the normal manner.) Such individuals would then also live immaculate lives. This is gravely contrary to the sense of the Catholic Faith.
Fourth, the truth is that these objections against original sin and the Immaculate Conception are not found in writings from the East until the schismatic decision – rejecting papal authority – had been made. You do find some arguments against these truths in the East in ancient times, but always by heretics or those whose orthodoxy was suspect. These polemics then became more prevalent and heated following the 1854 infallible declaration by Pius IX.
Fifth, although the Church’s teaching on original sin was clarified by St. Augustine, it does not ‘hinge’ on his alleged ‘misreading’ of Romans 5:12. Anyone who attempts to make this claim is either ignorant of much Church history and theology, or is being disingenuous. There is so much more behind this teaching. It comes from many sources, many saints, the holy liturgy, and many teachings in Divine Revelation. Above all, for the clearest exposition on this dogma, one should read the infallible teachings of the Council of Trent and the accompanying Catechism of the Council of Trent (which Pope St. Pius V and St. Charles Borromeo helped author). As you read these formal magisterial documents, you will note that there are far better ways of describing original sin than by “inherited guilt.”
Sixth, it is interesting to note that Protestants also deny the doctrine of original sin. I have a great deal of experience discussing the matter with them, but not with the Eastern Orthodox. However, one point I always make is that original sin is one of the most obvious and self-evident doctrines of the Church. There is clearly a disorder within man – which can be seen by all, even at the natural level. The higher and lower faculties of the soul and the faculties of the body are not in harmony, but at war with one another. Any parent sees the truth of this doctrine in their young children. Each one of us knows we have a tendency towards selfishness and sin. Every person experiences the darkening of the intellect, the weakening of the will, the excess of the passions, and the rebellion of the flesh. These are all consequences of original sin. One who denies original sin usually misunderstands the teaching, simply because it is so self-obvious and such an omnipresent reality of everyday life.
If you are interested in further research, I recommend the book Mother of God by Father Cyril Bernard, ODC (Lepanto Press, first published in 1957 and carrying a nihil obstat and imprimatur from 1956).
I would also encourage you to follow the “Know Mary, Know Jesus” series of videoconferences by traditional priests that is currently being sponsored by The Fatima Center. The current episodes (Sept. 26 – Oct. 24) deal specifically with the Immaculate Conception. These air every Sunday at 10 a.m. (EST).
You can be reminded of these episodes by subscribing to our e-newsletter (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) or subscribing at The Fatima Center’s Rumble channel (or YouTube channel). The e-newsletter includes information regarding all Fatima Center resources and events.
Finally, I also gave a conference on the Immaculate Conception and on Baptism and Original Sin, which are available through the St. Vincent Ferrer Foundation, on both CD and MP3. If you would like those, please contact the Foundation: email@example.com
O Mary, Thou didst enter the world without stain;
do Thou obtain for me from God, that I may leave it without sin.