Ask Alice about Catholicism
What is “original sin”?

Original sin is not so-named in the biblical Creation story, which describes the event mythically. Obviously it’s not only about eating a piece of fruit. Rather, Genesis presents the universal experience of free choice exercised without wisdom. For God’s creatures, the wise choice is made in the direction of God’s will, ordered toward life and happiness. Only the foolish choose in deliberate opposition to God, a direction leading invariably to sorrow and death.

Although original sin seems to refer exclusively to “the first sin ever committed,” more profoundly it identifies the origin of sin as well. From what aspect of human nature does sin arise? Pride is often fingered as “the mother of all sins.” It’s the Frank Sinatra Complex: “I did it my way!” Another good description of the source of sin is disobedience, because “obedience” is rooted in the Latin word for "listening." Tune out God, the source of truth, and don’t be surprised when you’re lost in a forest of lies. As the saying goes, I’d turn back if I were you.

Lust gets tapped as the root of sin because our sexuality is such a basic, instinctual part of us that, to many ages of thinkers, that alone made it suspect. A better theological word for this idea is concupiscence, because desire tugs at us in more ways than only the sexual. Shorthand for concupiscence is “the sin of more.” No matter what we have—money, possessions, success, pleasure, leisure—it’s never enough. It’s that feeling we get after having a fantastic slice of pie that makes us reach for another—even though we’re already full. We just want to hit that sweet spot again.

That probably led the Christian writer C. S. Lewis to say, OK, maybe it really is about that piece of fruit, in his wonderful sci-fi novel Perelandra. Humanity gets a second shot at a new and sinless planet. Then an earthling tastes an amazing fruit, is completely delighted and satisfied—and immediately wants another. What part of “perfect experience” didn’t he understand?

Saint Augustine of Hippo is often cited as the inventor of the doctrine of original sin in the 4th century. The idea certainly had predecessors, but Augustine gave us the first thorough examination of conscience in his Confessions. He also gave us the prayer that helps us to appreciate why human nature is so greedy for more: “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

• Genesis 2:16-17; 3:1-24; Wisdom 2:24; Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:21-28

Online resources
• Saint Augustine on the Fall, from the City of God.
“Sex, Sin, and Salvation: What Augustine Really Said,” lecture by David G. Hunter, Ph.D.

Original Sin: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Meanings by Tatha Wiley (Paulist Press, 2002)
Evolution and Eden: Balancing Original Sin and Contemporary Science by Jerry D. Korsmeyer (Paulist Press, 1998)

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Alice L. Camille
Alice Camille is a gem among contemporary writers on scripture and Catholic teaching. She has received numerous awards for her books, columns, and exegetical reflections. She received her Master of Divinity degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, where she also served as adjunct faculty in ministry formation, preaching and proclamation. Alice is an author, religious educator, and parish retreat leader. Learn more at

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