Do Eastern Catholics Have to Believe that We are Conceived in the State of Original Sin?

Yes. Let’s hash this out.

All Catholics are Catholics. Some are eastern and some are western. But the Catholic Church is one. The Orthodox do not presently have full communion with the Catholic Church. So, by eastern Catholics we are referring to those Catholics in full communion with Rome, who enjoy the various beautiful eastern rites.

Now, all Catholics are bound to assent irrevocably to all infallible teachings of the Catholic Church. And the Council of Trent issues infallible teachings on original sin. Therefore, all Catholics, eastern and western, are bound to assent irrevocably to these teachings.

Some people are suggesting that eastern Catholics need to assent only to the teachings of the first seven ecumenical councils. This is false. All Catholics, eastern and western, must assent to the infallible teachings of all ecumenical councils, up to and including Vatican II. (Vatican II issued no new infallible teachings but did proclaim anew many infallible teachings.)

What did Trent teach on original sin? We must refer to Session V of that important council.

Denzinger # 789. Canon 2. If anyone asserts that the transgression of Adam has harmed him alone and not his posterity, and that the sanctity and justice, received from God, which he lost, he has lost for himself alone and not for us also; or that he having been defiled by the sin of disobedience has transfused only death “and the punishments of the body into the whole human race, but not sin also, which is the death of the soul,” let him be anathema, since he contradicts the Apostle who says: “By one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned” [Rom. 5:12; see n. 175].

My Comment: Adam’s sin harmed all of us. How? He lost for us sanctity and justice. He passes on to us not only punishments of the body but also sin.

Denzinger # 790. Canon 3. If anyone asserts that this sin of Adam, which is one in origin and transmitted to all is in each one as his own by propagation, not by imitation, is taken away either by the forces of human nature, or by any remedy other than the merit of the one mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ [see n. 711], who has reconciled us to God in his own blood, “made unto us justice, sanctification, and redemption” [1 Cor. 1:30]; or if he denies that that merit of Jesus Christ is applied to adults as well as to infants by the sacrament of baptism, rightly administered in the form of the Church: let him be anathema. “For there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved . . .” [Acts 4:12]. Whence that word: “Behold the lamb of God, behold Him who taketh away the sins of the world” [John 1:29]. And that other: “As many of you as have been baptized, have put on Christ” [Gal. 3:27].

My Comment: The sin of Adam touches us precisely by propagation. Precisely by being begotten of Adam, we acquire this sin of origin. Each of us has it as his own. We do not acquire it by imitation. (Although bad example does also negatively affect us.)

Denzinger # 791. Canon 4. “If anyone denies that infants newly born from their mothers’ wombs are to be baptized,” even though they be born of baptized parents, “or says they are baptized indeed for the remission of sins, but that they derive nothing of original sin from Adam, which must be expiated by the laver of regeneration” for the attainment of life everlasting, whence it follows, that in them the form of baptism for the remission of sins is understood to be not true, but false: let him be anathema. For what the Apostle has said: “By one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned” [Rom. 5:12], is not to be understood otherwise than as the Catholic Church spread everywhere has always understood it. For by reason of this rule of faith from a tradition of the apostles even infants, who could not as yet commit any sins of themselves, are for this reason truly baptized for the remission of sins, so that in them there may be washed away by regeneration, what they have contracted by generation, [see n. 102]. “For unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” [John 3:5].

My Comment: Even infants have this sin of origin from Adam. Hence, they are baptized for forgiveness of this sin.

Denzinger # 792. Canon 5. If anyone denies that by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted, or even asserts that the whole of that which has the true and proper nature of sin is not taken away, but says that it is only touched in person or is not imputed, let him be anathema….

My Comment:  “This sin involves ‘guilt’.”

Without this teaching firmly in our minds, we fail to appreciate the depths of Christ’s act on the cross. We fail to diagnose the depths of our weakness before God and men. We cannot be Christian and deny original sin. This point is of course ultimately positive. It means we start from the faith that Christ has redeemed us from the curse. Thus, it is a note of joy, of gratitude. The joy cannot sound as it is unless the wailing of the valley of tears is understood for what it is by nature. By nature, children of wrath, says the Apostle. That is, as the Holy Church interprets, although created good and blessed with supernatural grace, Adam lost this blessing and thus brought death and sin to every man. (Unless God should save a man from it. As he did. Once. With a woman, Mary our Mother.)

Some eastern Catholics argue that the eastern fathers do not teach original sin and that therefore they are not bound now to assent to its existence. The conclusion is false. We have already shown the Magisterial teaching. This exercises authority over all Christians, and Catholics profess to recognize this authority and its teachings and are already canonically bound to recognize such.

The aforesaid points are the most important and establish directly that the case is closed. There are also implicit items to mention, which are worthy of note. Finally, there are indirect things to mention, though these are the least significant.

Of importance by implication is the Catholic dogma on the Immaculate Conception. This is an infallible teaching of the Extraordinary Magisterium and is therefore necessary to believe by all Catholics, eastern and western. (For there is no distinction.)

Pius IX proclaims, “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful” (Ineffabilis Deus)

My comment: Such preservation means nothing if there is no such thing as original sin. But clearly the pope meant to mean something. Again, such preservation is accomplished by a singular grace. The implication seems to be – what else could it be? – that Mary alone is so preserved. Hence, the rest of us are not so preserved and at least contract original sin.

Of indirect importance is what follows. It is true that Augustine brings out the notion of the inheritance of sin from Adam most clearly, and he is a western teacher. It is also true that the Holy Doctor John Chrysostom wrote some things that might seem at odds with Augustine. However, both Augustine and John are to be measured by Trent. If either spoke inaccurately about something, we nonetheless cling to the fides Ecclesiae (the faith of Holy Church).

It is interesting to note, however, that the foremost opponent of Augustine’s thesis original sin were the Pelagians. Bishop Julian fought Augustine on the matter. And it was the Pelagian Bishop Julian who cited John Chrysostom. However, Augustine countered by arguing, not unreasonably, that Julian misread the Holy Doctor. Julian pointed to a text in which John states that infants have no sins. Augustine pointed out that the plural was being used: sins. Original sin is but one. Only personal sins can be in the plural. Thus, concluded Augustine, John was not at odds with him (Augustine) on the matter. Further, a Catholic historian should always approach the holy doctors in the best possible light. Now, there is an error opposite Pelagian optimism. It is gnostic and Manichean pessimism. Thus, many of the sayings of the eastern fathers on sin which seem to bypass original sin can be understood, that is, the apparent omission can be understood in light of their battle with gnosticism and Manicheanism.

Another interesting thing to note is Gregory Nazianzen’s Oration on Baptism. In that oration, Gregory states that there are various reasons that one might not be baptized. Some have never heard of baptism and so do not sinfully reject it. Some put it off, because of fear that should they sin gravely they would have to endure a lengthy and arduous penitential practice. Thus, they wait, hoping that they shall be baptized before they die. (Augustine was one of those, before his conversion!) Finally, some totally reject it. The latter men sin most gravely of all; the men of the middle group sin gravely but less so than the previous, succumbing to sloth or something akin; the men of the first group do not commit sin. And among that first group are infants, who cannot act. However, notes Gregory, these infants who cannot freely act are stripped of the reward of innocence and grace. That reward is heavenly glory. Thus, infants dying without baptism, states Gregory, are stripped of that reward. However, neither do infants commit personal or actual sins. Hence, neither are they punished in the fires. They are neither rewarded nor punished. They are in a middle state. Such a state would be remarkably akin to the generic features of what is proposed in the theological thesis of limbus puerorum: The Limbo of the Infants. Now that is interesting.

Why should infants be stripped of glory? Because they lack the requisite holiness. What is the lack of the requisite holiness as such, in a son or daughter of Adam? Nothing else than original sin! Thus, Gregory implies original sin. And he is among the greatest of holy doctors in the east.

Finally, there is the Council of Ephesus to consider.  Cyril’s Third Letter to Nestorius, accepted, one can argue, at Ephesus, and certainly at Constantinople II: “[The incarnation] was not as though he needed necessarily or for his own nature a birth in time and in the last times of this age, but in order that he might bless the beginning of our existence, in order that seeing that it was a woman that had given birth to him, united to the flesh, the curse against the whole race should thereafter crease, which was consigning all our earthy bodies to death….” My comment: there is a curse against the whole race by reason of which we all die. Now, a curse befalls only the guilty. But infants commit no personal sin. Yet, they too die under a curse, as Cyril implies. Therefore, they are guilty of some sin other than personal. That can only be original.

Again, by Ephesus, Bishops were forbidden from holding the opinions of Celestius, the Pelagian. In fact, they were deposed. See D# 126; DS #268.