I think it would be helpful to try to put flesh upon the Catholic theological ideas so often associated with the ideas behind sin and justification. At least helpful to me.
It is my understanding that man was endowed by God with certain supernatural gifts. This is a term that isn’t exactly used often in the homilies a Catholic might hear on any given day of the week. I think a better, and often used, understanding of these supernatural gifts is one of relationship with God. This relationship must not be understood in terms of simply knowing God. For there is no such thing. Knowing God, and being known by Him entails a change in the knower. One cannot enter a river and remain dry. Nor can one “see Him as He is” and be unchanged. We were made for God, to “walk with him in the garden.”
The sin of our ancestors was a breaking of relationship, and therefore, in the language of theologians, a loss of supernatural gifts. Well, they’re too many to list, or at least the various classifications of them would drag this simple blog post into a bog. The one that stuck out to me was the sonship of God. This, of course, fits right in with what I’ve been saying about relationship. Our natural selves could never hope to claim the sonship of God. However, God’s grace (gift) to us raises us up to this supernatural existence.
So, is sin simply the stepping away from this river of God’s supernatural gifts? A toweling off, back to our natural state? That assumes, of course, that our natural state is sinful. It isn’t, of course. God created all thing good, and nothing is good that is sinful. If I understand things rightly, man, even in his natural state – apart from the supernatural gifts which raise him to a grace-filled state – is ordered toward God. We are gifted with conscience, reason, and freedom.
The sin of our ancestors was not merely a willful stepping away from the supernatural relationship with God, it was a stepping into spiritual quicksand. Sin is defined as a moral evil. Evil is defined as a privation of form. In other words, my human nature is damaged due to the ancestry of sin. Adam and Eve didn’t merely shed themselves of the supernatural graces . . . they emptied trapped themselves (and us) in a pigpen of disordered nature.
Fr. Thomas Hopko, an Orthodox priest, uses the story of the Prodigal Son to teach about the ancestral sin – and its effects on all of us today. Adam and Eve, through an act of the freedom God gave them, lost true freedom. They moved to the pig pen of Jesus’ parable. Not only did they stay, but their whole progeny stayed. For thousands of years, they knew mostly nothing of the world outside the pig pen. Perhaps a glimpse or two of a different world, but it wasn’t until God himself entered the pig pen to show us a better way that we could truly leave that former life.
I like that analogy. However, like all analogies, it fails in some sense. Obviously there were righteous dead before Christ was incarnate. These were men and women who left the pig pen, so to speak. Through God’s gradual revelation of Himself, some were able to escape, in a certain sense, that life of slavery. Remember the rock from which you were hewn. God, through Grace, prepared people to experience forgiveness and covenantal relationship with Him. This can’t be denied – simply look at the writings of the Old Testatment.
So, why Jesus? Why the cross? Though these righteous in the Old Covenant escaped the miry clay of the pig pen, they still had not reentered the Father’s house. This was the act of the atonement, an act that only Jesus could accomplish. Man would once again be able to enter the sonship which accompanies the supernatural gifts of God. The prodigal didn’t show up unannounced to the Father’s house, the Father ran to greet him and usher him in as if he had never left. This ‘running to greet’ is the act of the Incarnation. Without the cross, without the atonement, we could never ‘see Him as He is.