Trent gave its formal decree on the doctrine of 'Original Sin' in its fifth session. The doctrine of original sin is important for any Catholic to understand. If we get it wrong it severely cripples one's understanding of man, his relationship to God and the need for a divine savior. Man's fallen nature separates him from God's friendship. This reality is founded upon a historical reality revealed to us by God in Sacred Scripture, through Christ's one and only Church. Among other things, the book of Genesis gives us an historical account of God's creation narratives and the fall of Adam, which accounts for the sinful state of mankind.
The Council of Trent held between 1545 and 1563 was called to primarily address the heretical teachings of the pretended "Reformers." Few central doctrines were left untouched by the heretics. As we know one error often leads to many others. This is the reason that the council fathers at Trent had to deal with so many of the Church's core teachings. They did this with great study and deliberation. There has been no council in which so much time in study and deliberation on these core teachings took place in the history of the Church. There are some fundamental truths that we must adhere to have a firm grasp on this doctrine. The council fathers determined five definitions that would make up the decree concerning this doctrine. They are listed below in block quotations. Notice that each definition is sealed with an anathema, meaning that one would sever or cut oneself off from the unity of faith by denying the definition. If you would like to pull up the text for yourself, you can do so by clicking on this link.
1. The first definition is that the Genesis accounts of Adam and Eve are historical accounts. Although they are not written as a modern historian would write them, they are nonetheless historical accounts of actual events and actual figures. Adam and Eve were historical figures, not myths or names for a group of people representing humanity. Trent defines that sin came through the historical figure of Adam and that specific consequences followed.
If any one does not confess that the first man, Adam, when he had transgressed the commandment of God in Paradise, immediately lost the holiness and justice wherein he had been constituted; and that he incurred, through the offence of that prevarication, the wrath and indignation of God, and consequently death, with which God had previously threatened him, and, together with death, captivity under his power who thenceforth had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil, and that the entire Adam, through that offence of prevarication, was changed, in body and soul, for the worse; let him be anathema.
This historical event is important because God created Adam in a state of grace. When Adam sinned he lost this grace and incurred a separation from God and inherited death in both body and soul. Secondly it is also true that Adam not only effected himself but the entire human race from which we are all descended. This includes all of the consequences including the death of the soul.
If any one asserts, that the prevarication of Adam injured himself alone, and not his posterity; and that the holiness and justice, received of God, which he lost, he lost for himself alone, and not for us also; or that he, being defiled by the sin of disobedience, has only transfused death, and pains of the body, into the whole human race, but not sin also, which is the death of the soul; let him be anathema:--whereas he contradicts the apostle who says; By one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.
Next Trent gives us the remedy for these deadly consequences, which is the reestablishment of grace, God's friendship, to all mankind through Jesus Christ, alone.
If any one asserts, that this sin of Adam,--which in its origin is one, and being transfused into all by propogation, not by imitation, is in each one as his own, --is taken away either by the powers of human nature, or by any other remedy than the merit of the one mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath reconciled us to God in his own blood, made unto us justice, santification, and redemption; or if he denies that the said merit of Jesus Christ is applied, both to adults and to infants, by the sacrament of baptism rightly administered in the form of the church; let him be anathema: For there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved. Whence that voice; Behold the lamb of God behold him who taketh away the sins of the world; and that other; As many as have been baptized, have put on Christ.
Notice that Trent defines the only means given to us by Jesus to establish this reestablishment of grace, which is through Baptism. The council fathers of Trent do not look for any exceptions to the divine command to go and baptize the entire world. The fathers at Trent did not look to accommodate other religions or look for politically correct ways to avoid offending others. They did not begin as many Catholics do today with an exception of invincible ignorance and the mere following of one's conscience in order to obtain salvation. They did not build a theology around an exception as many bankrupt theologians do today. The fathers understood the mandate give by Christ and the severe repercussions of being separated from God's grace and friendship.
If any one denies, that infants, newly born from their mothers' wombs, even though they be sprung from baptized parents, are to be baptized; or says that they are baptized indeed for the remission of sins, but that they derive nothing of original sin from Adam, which has need of being expiated by the laver of regeneration for the obtaining life everlasting,--whence it follows as a consequence, that in them the form of baptism, for the remission of sins, is understood to be not true, but false, --let him be anathema. For that which the apostle has said, By one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men in whom all have sinned, is not to be understood otherwise than as the Catholic Church spread everywhere hath always understood it. For, by reason of this rule of faith, from a tradition of the apostles, even infants, who could not as yet commit any sin of themselves, are for this cause truly baptized for the remission of sins, that in them that may be cleansed away by regeneration, which they have contracted by generation. For, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
Finally Trent finishes its decree concerning this dogma by expounding upon the effects of the Sacrament of Baptism.
Trent is sure to define the effects of Baptism clearly to combat the errors of the heretical notions of Baptism being only a symbol of one's commitment to Christ, or being merely one's profession of faith. Baptism in effect remits the deadly consequences of original sin, being the loss of original justice due to sin. It is also noted that concupiscence, or the inclination to sin remains, but man can with God's grace overcome it. We also notice here the reality of man's cooperation with God's grace being necessary.If any one 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 rased, or not imputed; let him be anathema. For, in those who are born again, there is nothing that God hates; because, There is no condemnation to those who are truly buried together with Christ by baptism into death; who walk not according to the flesh, but, putting off the old man, and putting on the new who is created according to God, are made innocent, immaculate, pure, harmless, and beloved of God, heirs indeed of God, but joint heirs with Christ; so that there is nothing whatever to retard their entrance into heaven. But this holy synod confesses and is sensible, that in the baptized there remains concupiscence, or an incentive (to sin); which, whereas it is left for our exercise, cannot injure those who consent not, but resist manfully by the grace of Jesus Christ; yea, he who shall have striven lawfully shall be crowned. This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin, as being truly and properly sin in those born again, but because it is of sin, and inclines to sin.
These five definitions in this decree are infallible and indeed need to be believed in order to understand one's relationship with God. Only with this reality in mind do we see the necessity to evangelize those outside the Church. Obviously this decree does not cover every aspect of this teaching, but establishes a firm foundation for which to build upon.
What needs to be understood is that there are serious consequences for denying any of these realities that Trent defines. For example, if one were to deny that Adam was a real person through which mankind lost friendship with God, what would be the necessity of reestablishing it through Christ? How would we explain man's propensity to sin? Mankind would instead stand in no need of a savior. The entire narrative of God's relationship with Israel and all of His covenants He made with His people would be mere fabrications built on sand. There would be no need of the Old Law or its fulfillment in the New through Christ. This decree should be the starting point for understanding the Church's teaching on original sin. This decree may seem elementary to some, but unfortunately there are many in the Church who have never read this decree and have no idea as to its importance. I will cover more of Trent's decrees and canons in upcoming posts.
The eighteenth general Council terminated at Trent, on the 4th of December, 1563, and was confirmed on the 26th of January following, by a Bull of Pius IV. It had been eagerly and urgently called for by the whole Church, but it was held under the most difficult circumstances, and amid innumerable obstacles. (Rev. A. Nampon, SJ)