Conversation with Somebody Thinking of Becoming Catholic

He writes:

I am considering becoming a Catholic and currently have a few questions I would like to ask.

1) I am having trouble distinguishing what teachings are essential to believe in to become a Catholic and what teachings are not essential? What beliefs are dogma and what belief fall in the area of non-essential belief? theological opinion?

2) Does one have to believe in every single sentence in the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Does one have to believe in every single sentence of

the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Does one have to believe in every single statement and sentence in the Council of Trent?

3) Is there such a thing a Mere Catholicism? What would that be? Is there a minimum that one should accept before becoming a Catholic? What would that be?

That should be questions enough for now.

I think you are approaching the Church in the wrong way if your approach is “What’s the absolute bare minimum I have to believe?”  You are not, of course, to check your brain at the door.  But neither are we to approach the Church as though everything but dogma is suspect.  The assumption of the healthy Catholic is that the Church is trustworthy, even in her prudential judgments and general counsels.  See: There is remarkably little dogma from the Church since she is disinclined to define her doctrine unless she really has to.  But our approach to the Church is to be like our approach to our mother.  It’s not that she gets lucky and makes a good call now and then, telling this truth and that truth.  It’s that she is a divinely constituted truth-telling thing.  That doesn’t make her every word infallible of course.  Infallibility is an entirely negative protection anyway: it just means the Holy Spirit won’t let the Magisterium define as doctrine something contrary to the Faith.  But our attitude should be, even with non-dogmatic stuff, that the Church is offering us wisdom from the Spirit.  And we should particularly assume that  when the Church is telling us something that goes against our grain.

If you are looking for an outline of Catholic dogmatic teaching, Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma does a good job of outlining things.  But do keep in mind that the Church is the Body of Christ, not merely the Skeleton of Christ.  Don’t limit your exploration of the Church’s tradition—the common life, common worship, and common teaching of the Church–merely to dogma.  It’s an unnatural way of encountering the faith.  The real way you enter in is by plunging into the whole life of the Church in all its messiness, especially in the liturgy and in the Church’s works of mercy.

He writes back:

I would very much appreciate your input and help regarding something I read a while back but have been having trouble finding a satisfying answer and it has been bothering me for a while now.

The article I am referring to is on Novus Ordo Watch (which seems to be titled ‘ “Cardinal” Ratzinger Denies Catholic Dogma on Original Sin: For Ratzinger, Original Sin is not a Deprivation of Sanctifying Grace in Human Souls Transmitted by Natural Generation but a Damage in Human Relationships Encountered by Every Human Being ’)

I know I may be asking for too much here as you may not want to deal with this site, but I really hope you can help me with the following questions.

1)     The article seems to imply that Pope Benedict XVI (when he was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) denied the Catholic teaching/dogma on original sin. Is this correct? Did Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger teach something that is against the Catholic teaching/dogma of Original Sin in his book ‘In the Beginning…’, pp. 71-73 (see article for quote)?

No.  see my remarks at the bottom of this post.

2)     Does denying the Catholic teaching/dogma of original sin mean that one has committed a heresy?

Yes.  But Ratzinger has not done this.

3)     Does denying the Catholic teaching/dogma of original sin mean one is a heretic?

Only if one is a Catholic.  You can’t be a heretic from a creed you do not profess.  Buddhists are not Christian heretics.

4)     How is it possible that Pope Benedict XVI was elected Pope if he had this incorrect view of original sin? Does that mean we had a Pope who held an a heretical view of original sin while he was Pope? Does that mean he was a heretic while he was a Pope? How is compatible with the view of the Pope being infallible?

Here is where you need to be very cautious.  Your question assumes guilt for heresy when none exists and presumes exactly the answer it professes to seek.  Restated, it is asking “Since Benedict is heretic (because this website attacking him is infallible) isn’t it true that papal infallibility is false?”  The flaw lies in the fact that website attacking Benedict as a heretic is flat wrong.

5)     Can a Pope be a heretic? How is compatible with the view of the Pope being infallible?

A pope can hold private opinions which might wind up being condemned later once the Church has deliberated the question.  The most famous example of this is Pope Honorius, who, in a private letter, indicated his support for what the Church would later decide is a heresy called Monothelitism (you can look it up: it’s pretty obscure).  What Honorius did not do (and this is precisely what infallibility is all about) is promulgate as doctrine his private opinion.  Why?  Because the pope is infallible and the Holy Spirit guarantees that the pope and the Church will never be allowed to promulgate as the teaching of the Church the erroneous opinions of its members.

6)     Did he teach this view of original sin as Pope? How is compatible with the view of the Pope being infallible?

Note again that you are assuming Ratzinger is a heretic on the strength of this one extremist website written by embittered malcontents in schism with the Church.  Check your premises.

7)     Can a Pope teach a heretical teaching? How is compatible with the view of the Pope being infallible?

Depends on what you mean by “teach”.  If you mean “Can the pope, in a private opinion, express a view that does not comport with the Church’s teaching?” then sure, as Honorius shows.  But the pope cannot define as doctrine (on those extremely rare occasions when he defines doctrine), something contrary to the Church’s teaching.  And, frankly, its extraordinarily uncommon for the pope, even in his ordinary fallible remarks, interviews, books, etc. to say anything un-Catholic.  When he shocks us, it is typically because the Faith goes against our worldly wisdom, not because he is going against the Faith.

8)     Did he change his view of original sin after this book ‘In the Beginning…’, was written? If not does this not imply that he taught this view for all Catholics and wanted all Catholics to believe this even while he was Pope?

Note again that you are taking for granted that NO Watch’s condemnation of the pope is  a just one.  You should ask why you take it for granted that this extremist group of schismatics is obviously right in claiming that Benedict denies original sin.

9)     On a related note, can you please explain to me if Pope Benedict XVI’s view of Original Sin in his book In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (that he wrote when he was a Cardinal [Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger]) and tell me if it is consistent with what the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches? If so, can you explain how?

One thing you should immediately learn to do, which will save you a lot of anxiety, is learn to use the Catechism.  There’s a searchable version here:

When you look up the section on Adam’s fall and it’s impact on us, you get the following (note, particularly, paragraphs 404-406, where the teaching of Trent on the transmission of original sin is there, just like it’s always been, as well as the insistence (paragraph 400) that original sin damage human relationships, just as Genesis and Benedict point out):

Man’s first sin

397 Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of.278 All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness.

398 In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good. Constituted in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully “divinized” by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God”, but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God”.279

399 Scripture portrays the tragic consequences of this first disobedience. Adam and Eve immediately lose the grace of original holiness.280 They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image – that of a God jealous of his prerogatives.281

400 The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination.282 Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man.283 Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”.284 Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”,285 for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history.286

401 After that first sin, the world is virtually inundated by sin There is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel and the universal corruption which follows in the wake of sin. Likewise, sin frequently manifests itself in the history of Israel, especially as infidelity to the God of the Covenant and as transgression of the Law of Moses. And even after Christ’s atonement, sin raises its head in countless ways among Christians.287 Scripture and the Church’s Tradition continually recall the presence and universality of sin in man’s history:

What Revelation makes known to us is confirmed by our own experience. For when man looks into his own heart he finds that he is drawn towards what is wrong and sunk in many evils which cannot come from his good creator. Often refusing to acknowledge God as his source, man has also upset the relationship which should link him to his last end, and at the same time he has broken the right order that should reign within himself as well as between himself and other men and all creatures.288

The consequences of Adam’s sin for humanity

402 All men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as St. Paul affirms: “By one man’s disobedience many (that is, all men) were made sinners”: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.”289 The Apostle contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of salvation in Christ. “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.”290

403 Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the “death of the soul”.291 Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin.292

404 How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam “as one body of one man”.293 By this “unity of the human race” all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state.294 It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed” – a state and not an act.

405 Although it is proper to each individual,295 original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence”. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.

406 The Church’s teaching on the transmission of original sin was articulated more precisely in the fifth century, especially under the impulse of St. Augustine’s reflections against Pelagianism, and in the sixteenth century, in opposition to the Protestant Reformation. Pelagius held that man could, by the natural power of free will and without the necessary help of God’s grace, lead a morally good life; he thus reduced the influence of Adam’s fault to bad example. The first Protestant reformers, on the contrary, taught that original sin has radically perverted man and destroyed his freedom; they identified the sin inherited by each man with the tendency to evil (concupiscentia), which would be insurmountable. The Church pronounced on the meaning of the data of Revelation on original sin especially at the second Council of Orange (529)296 and at the Council of Trent (1546).297

A hard battle. . .

407 The doctrine of original sin, closely connected with that of redemption by Christ, provides lucid discernment of man’s situation and activity in the world. By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free. Original sin entails “captivity under the power of him who thenceforth had the power of death, that is, the devil”.298 Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action299 and morals.

408 The consequences of original sin and of all men’s personal sins put the world as a whole in the sinful condition aptly described in St. John’s expression, “the sin of the world”.300 This expression can also refer to the negative influence exerted on people by communal situations and social structures that are the fruit of men’s sins.301

409 This dramatic situation of “the whole world [which] is in the power of the evil one”302 makes man’s life a battle:

The whole of man’s history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity.303

10)  Can a Catholic hold on to the views of Pope Benedict XVI’s view of Original Sin in his book In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall?

Of course.

11)  Is a Catholic at liberty to hold views of Original Sin that are not consistent with what the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches?


I feel like I have many misunderstandings here and may be reading too much into this but have been having trouble finding good answers to these questions. I would very much appreciate your answers to the above questions.

Hope this helps.

Any additional related comments would also be appreciated.

The simple answer here is that NO Watch is a site run by embittered Reactionary schismatics who have elected themselves pope.  It is, in fact, a peculiarly new form of Protestantism that has grown up since the Council which rejects the teaching of Holy Church just as surely as Luther or Calvin did and which obsesses over creating a completely untenable claim of a post-Vatican II “false Church” that is in opposition to their imagined pre-Vatican II Church.  It is, in its own weird way, much like the Protestant (and Mormon) theory that the apostolic Church went off the rails immediately after the death of John and the “true Church” went underground while apostate Catholics ruled the earth for 1500 years, till the “true Church” emerged at the Reformation. I implore* you not to get your information about the Church from this poisonous source.

So, no.  Ratzinger has never denied the doctrine of original sin.  To say that original sin damages human relationships is not to deny the teaching of Trent.  OS obviously does damage human relationships as Genesis 3 makes clear.  The relationship between man and woman is harmed.  Reading a bit further we will see the relationship between Cain and Abel harmed too.  The mark of Reactionary Catholicism of the NO Watch variety is the malice with which it willfully twists perfectly orthodox statements in order to obtain a guilty verdict against the innocents it wishes to damn.  Avoid it like the plague.

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  • freddy

    Brilliant! Thorough, patient and compassionate. Someone needs to lay the groundwork for evangelizing among those who have been mired in “reactionary” thinking, whether from reading fringe websites to being raised in SSPX families. Sometimes I think it’s easier to discuss the Faith with Jehovah’s Witnesses (and find more common ground) than those who create their own magisterium from bits of various councils, catechisms, canon law and private writings of the saints and popes. God bless you!

    • Stu

      It can be tough but it is doable with the aid of the Holy Spirit and patience. As with all real attempts at evangelization, you need to actually build up a rapport with folks who have fallen deep into this error and understand what motivates them. Often it is a fear of a lost of control in the World (nothing new there) but also you tend to see some of these guys engaging in a bullying that they themselves were subjected to at the hands of other Catholisc. Kind of like abused children grow up to be abusive parents.

      Now the latter is no excuse for their bad behavior (which should always be called out accordingly) but if you are truly interested in evangelizing them and helping them overcome their errors so that they can get back with the entire flock, then you certainly need to be aware of it in deciding your tact. And was with all attempts to evangelize, you need a thick skin.

      • freddy

        Very good points. Maintaining both a good sense of humor and good humor itself is also important. In my (FSSP) parish, I rarely run into folks who have put themselves outside of the Church, though from time to time I do run into the “worrier” type: folks who have heard something or read something and worry about what it might mean for their relationship with the Church, rather like Mark’s questioner above.
        Sometimes people just need someone to listen patiently and react calmly and let the Holy Spirit do the work!

        • Stu

          I see the same in my parish as well (also FSSP). The only time I have really encountered extreme traditionalists are in diocesan settings especially when the establishment has “ghettoized” anyone wanting the Mass in the Extraordinary Form. They lock them behind doors and then wonder why they develop a siege mentality. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

          The Bishops who invite in the FSSP are much more likely to get a young, thriving parish that is filled with happy people practicing their faith.

          • freddy

            I think you’re on to something, here. Our parish is an exciting place. Our parish came to be because dedicated Catholics were patient and helpful to the diocese; I can see a bishop being turned off by the ranting and doom-laden reactionary types who, like the ranting liberal types, have no real understanding of authority. It’s somewhat off topic, but something I’ve been pondering for a while: that Americans, especially of the latter generations, have real problems with authority. It can be difficult for us to let go and let the Church hierarchy do its job; we tend to want to watch over their shoulders and complain when they “do it wrong.”

  • ivan_the_mad

    Luke 17:2 comes to mind …

    • Heather

      Ivan, I think your comment from another recent thread is also appropriate in this case: “the ability to quote Church teaching is not at all the same as understanding Church teaching.”

      For those who have asked why Mark keeps harping on about the reactionary lunatic fringe, it seems to me that this is why. When the Pure Remnant of the One True Faith endeavouring to Save Catholics from the Monstrous Errors of the Heathen Practices of the Institutional Church is a KJV-only Fundamentalist, it’s easy to recognize that what they tell you about the Church is likely to be incomplete at best and blatantly twisted or even made up at worst. When the lunatic fringe on the progressive end says that the Bad Old Days ended when Vatican II kicked out all the un-groovy boring old stuff and everything would all be puppies and rainbows if only the Church would change its teachings on X,Y,Z,A,B,C and D, it’s equally obvious.

      But when you have a Pure Remnant of the One True Faith endeavouring to Save Catholics from the Monstrous Errors of the Heathen Practices of the Institutional Church, and that Pure Remnant claims to be Catholic and to speak for authentic Catholic teaching, it’s a lot harder for someone not already well versed in their faith to recognize it as the fringe lunacy that it is.

  • Ed Pie

    I stumbled upon NO Watch by accident several years ago. A few articles they had bothered me a little; they seemed to make coherent arguments about some issues I didn’t know anything about.
    Then I looked at what they had to say about topics on which I was well-informed, and their willful confusion and/or deceit was immediately obvious.
    I figured if they could get that stuff so egregiously wrong, there would be no reason for me to think any differently of the other things I didnt know much about.

  • Mary B

    It is in this kind of thorough, clear, and logical writing that your genius really shines. I so very much appreciate posts like this that walk the reader through (sometimes difficult/confusing) Church teachings. Thanks!

  • johnmc

    Re Pope Honorius. It is my understanding that he was not a Monothelite but at the same time he refused to officially make a pronouncement on Monothelitism. Infallibility preserves ex cathedra statements from error but a pope retains free will and can choose not to use his infallibility, and sometimes such a choice is not made prudently.


  • Bob_the_other

    The Novus Ordo Watch people are not only the nutty end of traditionalism, but they are the nutty end of nutty, and completely ignorant of history or theology. They are also Sedevacantists. Pope Honorious was condemned by the 3rd Council of Constantinople but I think he was nothing more than a ditherer and certainly did not make any definitive pronouncement that comes near satisfying any of the conditions required for Infallibility to be invoked, and the fact that pretty much all his successors were strong anti-monothelites suggests that Honorious wasn’t cut from a completely different cloth. Pope Benedict was an Augustinian and a man well acquainted with human failures, neither of which have strong correlations with denial of original Sin. All Cardinal Ratzinger was trying to do is to point out that the word sin in original sin is used as a figure of speech. The NOW people go nuts over this, because they are, quite frankly, stoopid, and reactionary in the worst sense of the word.

    The Cardinal’s point was that we don’t commit original sin, but inherits the effects of a historical and primal “original” sin. By a figure of speech, we transfer the name “original sin” from the cause (the original historical act of sin) to the effects (our weakness, ignorance, and so on). Pope Benedict did actually give a series of audiences on Original Sin, which can be read (excerpted) here:

  • Fr. B.L.

    Let proposition A be defined as follows: “Original sin is the deprivation of sanctifying grace in human souls transmitted by natural generation.”

    Let proposition B be defined as follows: “Original sin is damage in human relationships encountered by every human being.”

    Do propositions A and B contradict?

    Point the 1st: The “deprivation of sanctifying grace in human souls” is the most important “damage in human relationships” that exists, as it is the damage to each man’s relationship with God.

    Point the 2nd: That which is “transmitted by natural generation” to all human beings from our natural principles (Adam) would be, by necessity, “encountered by every human being.”

    Propositions A and B do not contradict. Perhaps the authors at Novus Ordo Watch should take a deep breath, take a nice nap, eat a good meal, and, after they have calmed down by doing all of that, pick up a basic text on logic and reacquaint themselves with this most sublime and beautiful of disciplines.

    Or they could keep crowing on about how the sky is falling. What do I know? After all, I’m just a “False Church” seminarian.