In this article, in the § "How Voluntary," the Catholic Encyclopedia goes into detail to show that Original Sin is somehow voluntary.

But I don't understand the reasoning. Can someone more theologically minded either go through it step by step for me or explain it in a way that is easier for me to understand?

Here is the particular passage (under the section "how voluntary" in the article linked above):

Being a distinct person I am not strictly responsible for the crime of another; the act is not mine. Yet, as a member of the human family, I am supposed to have acted with its head who represented it with regard to the conservation or the loss of grace. I am, therefore, responsible for my privation of grace, taking responsibility in the largest sense of the word. This, however, is enough to make the state of privation of grace in a certain degree voluntary, and, therefore, "without absurdity it may be said to be voluntary"

I am thinking that living in America, a hyper-individualistic country, has sort of blinded me to this "law of solidarity, admitted by common sentiment, which attributes to children a part of the shame resulting from the father's crime."

Although the modern Catechism downplays this, the idea seems to still be present when it says that original sin "is proper to each individual," (CCC 405).

The council of Trent says that it "is in each one as his own (Session V, first decree, point 3)," which I take "proper to each individual" to mean.

I saw this explanation on another forum, which seems to be recapitulating what St. Thomas says to account for it:

"When our father acts as an individual, we are not guilty of his sin; but when our father acts as representative of the family, of which we are a member, then the whole family sins with the father. It's this sense in which we have sinned with Adam, in the sense that he acted not just as an individual man, but as representative of the whole human race."

To summarize (as this is all rather confused):

How is original sin voluntary at all? How is original sin in each one of us as if it were our own? Was it the case that we were all obscurely present in Adam? The father analogy doesn't make any sense to me at all. If my father sins, his sin is his own, even if he acts as representative of the family. Is "acting as representative of the family" somehow fundamentally different?

What really perplexes me about this is that it seems to make acceptable something which I had thought was a modern misinterpretation of original sin, racial shame. It seems like, if we are truly guilty of the sins which we have no consciousness of, as long as they were committed in the past by someone who acted as our representative, then modern white people, or at least the descendants of slave-holders, truly inherit a sin which is somehow voluntary for them (and possibly even present in us as if it were our own?).

  • 1
    We all (and I know it from my own experience) take the same steps as Adam did, in our natural, human existence. All have sinned, in exactly the same way as he did. Thus we prove we are his children. The really big question is, What exactly did Adam do that was so wrong - that we, in our own lives also do - that he (and we) thought was so 'right' ? The partaking of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is contrary to the purpose of humanity. +1 Good question, but it is not a superficial one. I shall ponder and attempt an answer.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 10, 2020 at 22:30
  • 1
    Could you please link a source of your quotes?
    – Ken Graham
    Jul 11, 2020 at 1:20
  • Sin must be voluntary. If original sin isn't voluntary, it's not sin. So, are you asking how original sin is sin?
    – Geremia
    Jul 15, 2020 at 0:22
  • I'm asking how it is voluntary in us. I found the answer, St. Aquinas talks about it in his De Malo
    – bobic
    Jul 16, 2020 at 2:13

2 Answers 2


Yes, St. Thomas discusses this question in De Malo q. 4 a. 1 "Whether Any Sin Is Contracted by Way of Origin (ex origine)?" (Latin) arg./ad 1:

  1. It is said in Ecclesiasticus (15, 18) “Before man is life and death, good and evil, that which he shall choose shall be given him,” from which it can be understood that sin, which is the spiritual death of the soul, depends upon the will. But nothing that man contracts by way of his origin depends upon his will. Therefore man contracts no sin by way of origin.

Reply to 1. The sin that is contracted by way of origin is called voluntary by reason of its principle, namely, the will of the first parent, as we have said (in the Response).

Commenting on Romans 5:12 ("Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned."), St. Thomas addresses the "difficulty" that

defects traced to a vitiated source do not involve guilt. For they are not deserving of punishment but rather of pity, as the Philosopher says of one born blind or in any other way defective. The reason is that it is the character of guilt that it be voluntary and in the power of the one to whom the guilt is imputed. Consequently, if any defect in us arose through origin from the first parent, it does not seem to carry with it the nature of guilt but of punishment.

Therefore, it must be admitted that as actual sin is a person’s sin, because it is committed through the will of the person sinning, so original sin is the sin of the nature committed through the will of the source of human nature.

Ibid. n. 410.2 gives the analogy of how the body parts of a sinner share in the guilt of the sinner (e.g., a killer can't say: "I didn't kill; my hand did!" or "I did kill; but my hand that pulled the trigger didn't."):

Furthermore, the act of sin performed by a member, say the hand or the foot, does not carry the notion of guilt from the hand’s or foot’s will but from the whole person’s will, from which as from a source the movement of sin is passed to the several members. Similarly, from the will of Adam, who was the source of human nature, the total disorder of that nature carries the notion of guilt in all who obtain that nature precisely as susceptible to guilt. And just as an actual sin, which is a sin of the person, is drawn to the several members by an act of the person, so original sin is drawn to each man by an act of the nature, namely, generation. Accordingly, just as human nature is obtained through generation, so, too, by generation is passed on the defect it acquired from the sin of the first parent.


Per Nigel we all (I), individually, can realize that (I) we've sinned voluntarily personally. Whether 'exactly like' Adam or 'not after the likeness of Adam’s transgression,' Rm 5:14. Which makes the question of 'original sin' moot in a way.

Paul--For just as through the disobedience of one man the many were constituted sinners, 5:19; and Augustine--human beings are born evil as a result of the bond of original sin--spoke of sin as involuntary biological inheritance. That's Augustine's 'original sin' coined phrase.

But Thomas and New Wiki appear to either change, or not have, that awareness. They talk about representativeness, a representative head. Which equates to a juridicial or merely legal discussion of Adam's sin and our sin. Which could be called 'original guilt' or 'original shame.' Which is a nonreality. We're not guilty of Adam's act. Adam didn't pass on guilt to us, directly. But indirectly, because he directly, biologically, passed on sin as a life, an element, a disease, lust. Though not medically curable.

So calling 'original sin' voluntary might make sense in their own definitions, but it's a fallacy in Augustine's and Paul's 'term.' I take the CCC phrase to properly fit Augustine.

In regard to the racial shaming matter, since slavery was 'the law,' in may be hard to blame master descendants or get their reparations involuntarily. Maybe they'll do so voluntarily. But as to (southern) governments, that deliberately violated the 14th and 15th Amendments by denying blacks their civil rights--just like US government violations of its own treaties with Native Americans--it seems reparations are called for if they can be quantified.

  • You say "We're not guilty of Adam's act," but Trent says that Original Sin is in each one of us as his own, and that baptism effects remission of guilt for original sin: "“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 raised, or not imputed, let him be anathema!”
    – bobic
    Jul 11, 2020 at 1:17
  • Through the disobedience of one man the many were constituted sinners. Romans 5:19. That part of Trent's accurate. Faith into the blood of Jesus, not infant, or any baptism, effects remission of our sins For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth as a propitiation place through faith in His blood. 3:23-25. The contrarian part of Trent is anathema. If we [saints] say that we do not have sin, we are deceiving ourselves. 1 John 1:8. The contrarian claim of Trent is cursed.
    – Walter S
    Jul 11, 2020 at 4:48
  • There are both corporate and individual consequences of sin. See Joshua chapter 7 for example. There are corporate atonements and personal atonements prefigured in the law and fulfilled in Christ. He is the scapegoat for the whole human race and an offering I accept personally for my sins. Just like Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek while still in Abraham's loins, so we all, in Adam, sinned: Not that we bear the guilt of Adam's transgression but that we, as his offspring, bear the transgression itself as an inherited disposition which enslaves us until Christ sets us free. Jul 11, 2020 at 19:25
  • I think we do bear the guilt, because Trent says that in baptism the guilt of original sin is remitted. It can't be remitted if it isn't there. As I said elsewhere in this thread, I found the solution in St. Aquinas' De Malo
    – bobic
    Jul 16, 2020 at 2:14
  • Do you? Or did you feel that guilt? Never or not really, because you were 'baptized' as a baby. You could find an answer in someone you know who was baptized after believing, perhaps as an adult, and ask them their experience
    – Walter S
    Jul 16, 2020 at 7:02

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