Does original sin need an update? Is a crucifix necessary at Mass?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

Q: My Catholic grandmother used to say that original sin was a sort of stamp that all people since Adam and Eve have been born with, where God is still holding people guilty of Adam and Eve's sin of disobedience even up through today – and that unless this stamp is removed through baptism, people will automatically go to hell at death. This seems a bit extreme to me and perhaps a bit old-school. Wouldn't a more modern take on the subject be that all people, even up through today, are simply continuing in an exiled state from Eden – perfection – and that God, through Jesus, offers a return? (Location withheld)

A: Thank you for this interesting question! First of all, I'm not sure exactly what you mean by "a more modern take." While, over the centuries, Catholic doctrine might be developed – that is, be explained in more detail and articulated with greater clarity – Catholic teaching itself doesn't change. So what was true in your grandmother's day is still true in ours, and will remain true even for your great-great-grandchildren. That being said, it is possible to explain unchanging Catholic teaching in new ways that could resonate better with different cultures, and in different time periods. Older catechisms often referred to the “stain of original sin,” and it's not unreasonable to question whether this language may be potentially confusing or off-putting to younger generations. At face value, neither you nor your grandmother are incorrect in your descriptions of original sin; although your grandmother's terminology might require some additional context. Baptism does remove the stamp or stain of original sin, and this makes it possible for us to live forever with God in heaven. But, this is not because God would otherwise desire to punish us in some legalistic or vengeful way. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1257) teaches us, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” Thus, baptism of desire and baptism by blood are other means, and for children who have died without baptism, the Church entrusts them to the mercy of God (CCC 1258-1261).  Additionally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church readily acknowledges that original sin is not the same as a personal choice to commit some evil act (sin) on our part (see CCC 405). Ironically, your description of original sin as exile is actually very old-school as well. The book of Genesis describes Adam and Eve as being specifically banished from the Garden of Eden (Gn 3:23). And many of us are familiar with the traditional prayer, "Hail Holy Queen" (an English translation of the Latin chant "Salve Regina"), in which we ask for Our Lady's intercession for us, the "poor banished children of Eve," and then implore her to show us her son Jesus "after this, our exile."

Q: Our priest has recently stopped using the processional cross, and now we have no crucifix on the altar during Mass or at any other time. I've always thought that there is supposed to be a crucifix on the altar to remind us all of the suffering and passion of Christ. (Location withheld)

A: Yes, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the instruction book for how Mass is to be celebrated, specifically indicates that, "on the altar or close to it, there is to be a cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified" (GIRM 117). Presumably, this is not only to remind us of Christ's passion, but also to help call to mind how the holy sacrifice of the Mass is the same sacrifice as Christ's original sacrifice of his life on Calvary. GIRM 117 goes on to tell us that a processional crucifix may also be used for this purpose. But either way, it is clear that a crucifix is required. If it looks as though your own parish is not following this norm, the best thing to do would be to share your concerns directly with your pastor in a respectful way. It is commendable that the person who posed the question is seeking guidance without rushing to judgment and is a reminder for all of us not to judge quickly since there may be a reasonable explanation.  Perhaps the processional cross is being refurbished, or there may be a crucifix on the altar which is not easily seen by the congregation.  Sometimes, your local diocesan canon lawyer or the liturgy office can also be a good resource for these kinds of liturgical questions.

- - -

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].