Roman Catholic and Orthodox differences on Original Sin

Thanks to Fr. Ernesto for this comparison. I get this question about once a week so I am glad he posted it and now I share it with all of you.

Roman Catholic summary

Augustine believed that the only definitive destinations of souls are heaven and hell. He concluded that unbaptized infants go to hell as a consequence of original sin. The Latin Church Fathers who followed Augustine adopted his position, which became a point of reference for Latin theologians in the Middle Ages. In the later medieval period, some theologians continued to hold Augustine’s view, others held that unbaptized infants suffered no pain at all: unaware of being deprived of the beatific vision, they enjoyed a state of natural, not supernatural happiness. Starting around 1300, unbaptized infants were often said to inhabit the “limbo of infants”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1261 declares: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.” But the theory of Limbo, while it “never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium … remains … a possible theological hypothesis”.

Augustine’s formulation of original sin was popular among Protestant reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin . . .

Eastern Orthodox summary

In Eastern Orthodoxy, God created man perfect with free will and gave man a direction to follow. Man (Adam) and Woman (Eve) chose rather to disobey God by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thus changing the “perfect” mode of existence of man to the “flawed” mode of existence of man. This flawed nature and all that has come from it is a result of that “original sin”. All humanity shares in the sin of Adam because like him, they are human. The union of humanity with divinity in Jesus Christ restored, in the Person of Christ, the mode of existence of humanity, so that those who are incorporated in him may participate in this mode of existence, be saved from sin and death, and be united to God in deification. Original sin is cleansed in humans through baptism or, in the case of the Theotokos, the moment Christ took form within her.

This view differs from the Roman Catholic (Augustinian) doctrine of Original Sin in that man is not seen as inherently guilty of the sin of Adam. According to the Orthodox, humanity inherited the consequences of that sin, not the guilt. The difference stems from Augustine’s interpretation of a Latin translation of Romans 5:12 to mean that through Adam all men sinned, whereas the Orthodox reading in Greek interpret it as meaning that all of humanity sins as part of the inheritance of flawed nature from Adam. The Orthodox Church does not teach that all are born deserving to go to hell, and Protestant doctrines such as Predeterminism that derive from the Augustinian understanding of original sin are not a part of Orthodox belief.


  1. Fr Peter, I do not believe that the published Wikipedia citation represents an accurate presentation of the Catholic understanding of original sin, though if you click on the link and scroll down to the section "Catholicism," you will find a more accurate presentation.

    The Catholic understanding has come a long way since St Augustine. Significant corrections were made during the scholastic period, and further clarifications have been made during the past fifty years, as reflected in the Catholic Catechism and the catechetical addresses of Pope John Paul II. The Catholic view of original sin simply cannot be described as one of "original guilt." The term really needs to be dropped completely.

    Your readers may find these very fallible reflections of mine of some help.

    Fr Alvin Kimel

  2. Definition of personal sin, and genetic sin as appears in the Roman Catholic Catechism:

    404. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state.[Cf. Council of Trent: DS 1511-1512].

    It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed" – a state and not an act.

    405 Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants.

    Father Peter, I agree with Father Alvin concerning retractions from Rome concerning original guilt.

    Nevertheless, there is plenty of meat in the Catechism concerning original sin as illustrated by excerpts from paragraphs 404-5 Evident in these examples are Tridentine language about original sin, which remains incompatible with ancient sources except for Augustine. In addition, the doctrine of original sin in the Catechism of the Roman Church diminishes the chances that Christians overcome the [genetic fault of] sin to cooperate in their own salvation.

    The following phrase suggests that what is "human" is entirely corrupt, which requires a scholastic doctrine of atonement for sin to resolve: "…by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice."

    Responding to the definition leaves an Orthodox reader with hesitation to reunite with distant cousins as long as original sin appears to condemn a newborn before the newborn has voluntarily sinned. Consider the funeral service for infants and young children in Orthodoxy as evidence of what the Orthodox believe.

    Moreover, baptism in the Roman Catechism becomes necessary for purposes with lesser and even debatable emphasis in Orthodox teaching as one may note elsewhere in the same section of Catechism.

    Also, the definition of original sin herein creates a logical barrier to Orthodox faith. The Orthodox promote a practical view of human restoration in obedience to the Holy Trinity, in which saints walk among us today, with heart and mind already restored by cooperating with grace before repose in Christ.

    Because theosis remains central to an Orthodox reading of salvation, the language of original sin would require even further development, in my limited view of things, before re-union were possible. In fact, a response of discouragement may well indicate error in the doctrine.

    I welcome responses.

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