Q. When I was a Protestant, I never heard mention of “original sin.” We were told that each person is responsible for their own sins — and need not even worry about sin until we approached “the age of accountability” (usually said to be about the age of 10). Until then, we were told, people are in a “state of grace” — meaning that, if they died, they would go to heaven.
Now, as a Catholic, I hear original sin mentioned almost weekly and, it seems, we all (from birth on) are held responsible for Adam and Eve’s initial sin in the Garden of Eden — and if we die (kids, too) prior to some kind of salvific experience to erase it, we will go to hell. Could you please help me by explaining original sin more thoroughly? (Indiana)
A. Actually, I am a bit surprised that you heard no mention of original sin during your years as a Protestant. The doctrine of original sin, first articulated precisely by Augustine in the fifth century, was popular with Protestant reformers, including Martin Luther and John Calvin.
The Catholic understanding is that original sin involves no personal guilt on our own part; it simply means that, as a consequence of the fall of our earliest parents, we have been weakened in our ability to resist temptation — we still possess free will, but we are born into the world with an inherited inclination to evil.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “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). As to your concern about children who die without baptism going to hell, that is not the belief of the church.
In fact, in 2007, the church’s International Theological Commission, with the authorization of Pope Benedict XVI, published a document that concluded explicitly that “there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved.” God, after all, is reasonable; he created people to be happy and wants to bring us to heaven.
Q. During the current coronavirus pandemic, when we are not obligated to attend Mass, I believe that we should be required to watch the Mass on television when possible. Does this obligation vary from diocese to diocese?
Some people take this dispensation to mean that they don’t have to bother about Mass at all, and I believe that this could lead to lower Mass attendance when the crisis is over. Another concern I have is the possibility of spreading the virus when Communion is given on the tongue. I would be more comfortable if everyone received in the hand. (Athens, Georgia)
A. There is no binding obligation, in any diocese I am aware of, to watch the Mass on television for those who are at home because of the pandemic. However, there is strong encouragement to do so, and I know of many instances where families are making this a part of their regular Sunday routine. I, too, share your concern that some may not come back to regular practice when the crisis is over — although my experience has been that people are eager to return.
As for your worry about those who receive Communion on the tongue, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (in an advisory sent in April 2020) said that people should continue to have that option. In the two parishes where I serve, we ask those who prefer to receive on the tongue to wait until the others have received before approaching the altar. That way, I can sanitize my hands anew before and after someone chooses to receive the host on the tongue.
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