Explaining original sin

As Cardinal Newman wrote, it is why mankind is 'out of joint with the purposes of its Creator'

Question: Some years ago I came across a great quote from Cardinal John Henry Newman about how it is obvious that the world lives in original sin. I lost it after I read it. I need it to give to my son, who doesn’t believe in original sin. Do you know the quote I mean?

— R.W., Salt Lake City, Utah

Answer: The passage you have in mind is among the most popular pieces from Cardinal Newman. It is from his autobiography “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” published in 1873.

He begins by describing the general condition of the world as he sees it: “To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion.”

Cardinal Newman goes on to ask what we are to make of all this. He concludes: “If there is a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.”

Sin cannot be accounted for by looking at it as the sum totality of personal sins. There is an atmosphere of evil in the world that is above and beyond personal sins that we call original sin.

Persisting in prayer

Question: In a recent column you answered a woman who said she had difficulty concentrating while praying the whole Rosary. You recommended that she should pray only part of the Rosary and might want to keep her prayers shorter. I think you should have told her to persist despite her distractions.

— Composite question

Answer: A number of readers responded to my column on difficulties in concentration in prayer along the lines of the question just outlined.

I am all for persistence in prayer and for continuing to pray even when distracted. In no way did I intend to play down the necessity of praying even when one’s mind is elsewhere. Following this path might lead many of us to give up on prayer altogether.

However, keeping our prayers thoughtful and focused is important as well. Thus it can be appropriate to shorten our prayers if this will help us stay on track. Saying one decade of the Rosary with full concentration might be better than forcing ourselves to pray the whole Rosary with distracted minds.

The fundamental issue here is balance: Pray as well and as often as you can, but do not force yourself in prayer to the point that your heart and soul are missing from the exercise.

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.