Original Sin in the Union of Man and Woman

The story of humanity's temptation and fall has intrigued spiritual writers for ages.

The insights Pope John Paul II presented during his “theology of the body” lectures are profound: “Sin and death entered man's history, in a way, through the very heart of that unity which, from the beginning, was formed by the man and the woman, created and called to become ‘one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24)” (March 5, 1980).

I believe that insight will do nothing less than revolutionize the Church's understanding of original sin.

‘You Shall Be as Gods'

Scripture presents the temptation of Adam and Eve in very simple terms: “The serpent said … Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (Genesis 3:4ff). I think that a fuller understanding of “good and evil” greatly illuminates this original temptation.

Philosophically, good is that to which we are drawn. Ultimately, it is God: “No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18). Evil is simply the absence of good. Ultimately, it is the absence of God. Satan has promised Adam and Eve that if they eat the forbidden fruit they will know both good and evil, which is to say they will ultimately know both God and the absence of God.

Since Adam and Eve are created directly by God, they know good. If they remain united to God, then they continue to know only good. However, if they separate themselves from God, then they will know both good and evil. They will know good in their creation from God and they will know evil in their rejection of God. Satan tempts Adam and Eve to separate themselves from God.

At this point, John Paul's insights into the original unity of man and woman shed incredible light on humanity's primordial temptation. In a previous article, we noted that the Pope has placed the union of man and woman at the heart of humanity's image and likeness of God: “Man became the ‘image and likeness’ of God not only through his humanity but also through the communion of persons that man and woman form right from the beginning” (Nov. 14, 1979).

He goes on to state that the union of man and woman reflects and reproduces the Blessed Trinity as its divine prototype. In the previous article we noted man and woman proceed as a “unity of the two” from the bosom of the Father in a manner analogous to the Word and Spirit's procession from the bosom of the Father.

Now we must note that the Word and Spirit also return into the bosom of the Father as a “unity of the two.” Adam and Eve are called to do likewise. In fact, what is apparent from Scripture is that Adam and Eve are called to form a “one-flesh” (Genesis 2:24) union, which they offer to the Father. When they do so, Adam and Eve encounter God as Father. He grants life through the husband in the wife: “God blessed them and said: Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Adam and Eve encounter God together in their union.

If Adam and Eve accept Satan's temptation to separate themselves from God, then it must mean that they separate their union from God the father. Adam and Eve close their union to the fatherhood of God. In modern terms we would call it a contraceptive union (recognizing that Adam and Eve did not have available to them the modern means of contraception).

St. Edith Stein states: “So the first sin may not only be considered as a purely formal one of disobedience of God. Rather it implied a definitive act… Indeed, the act committed could well have been a manner of union that was at variance with the natural order.” Pope Paul VI specifically referred to the natural order when he confirmed the Church's constant teaching on contraception in Humanae Vitae.

St. Augustine, who identifies disobedience as the original sin, states: “They felt for the first time a movement of disobedience in their flesh, as though the punishment were meant to fit the crime of their own disobedience to God” (City of God, 13.13). He goes on to discuss, in fairly graphic terms, that it is specifically the sexual organs that have become disobedient to man.

The Church teaches that the original sin was disobedience (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 397). God asked humanity not to separate themselves from him, which humanity did. I also think it reasonable to conclude that this separation entailed the closure of man and woman's union to the fatherhood of God, which we would call a contraceptive union.

The Consequences

Scripture relates two immediate consequences of Adam and Eve's original sin. First, Adam and Eve are separated from each other: “Then the eyes of them both were opened … and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons” (Genesis 3:7). Before the fall Adam and Eve lived in such intimate union that they were “naked and unashamed” (Genesis 2:25), which is to say that they had nothing between them.

After the fall, Adam and Eve separated themselves from each other by placing clothes in the midst of their union. This separation results from a fundamental mistrust that is sown in their union as evidenced by the fact that each blames the other for the fall (cf. Genesis 3:12ff). This mistrust is itself the result of the change that occurs within the individual. In traditional terms, it is the darkening of the intellect and weakening of the will.

Significantly, Pope John Paul II has related this back to man and woman's union. When the intellect is darkened, man and woman begin to look upon each other as an object of pleasure. When the will is weakened, man and woman seek to “appropriate” or grasp the other as an object instead of making the gift of self to enter into union.

The second immediate effect of the fall is that Adam and Eve are separated from God: “And [when] they heard the sound of the Lord God … the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God” (Genesis 3:8).

In the previous article we noted that union of man and woman occurs in God, which is why they receive the blessing of life in their union. Now we find that separation from God and separation from spouse go hand in hand.

Promise of Redemption

Finally, we must note that God does not allow man's unfaithfulness to have the last word. The literal translation from the Hebrew is “It shall crush your head” (Genesis 3:15). We shall find that the “it” refers to a new union between man and woman, in other words to a new Adam and a new Eve.

The union of man and woman was essential to humanity's creation, temptation and fall. It will be, in a certain sense, essential to its restoration.