The National Catholic Review

Ironically, one can learn a lot about what it means to be human from the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas on angels. Consider, for example, a contrast the angelic doctor draws between angels and humans. Every human being is an individual member of what Aristotle called the human species, but St. Thomas taught that every angel is his own species (Cf. Summa Theologica I, 50-64).

That may seem the most esoteric of speculations, but consider the implication. Every angel completely fulfils what it means to be an angel. That’s why, although — as scripture attests and Thomas concurs — there is a vast multitude of angels, no two share a species. Put another way, one angel is as different from another as an eagle, from a lion.

Flip that, and consider our own humanity. St. Thomas is also asserting that it takes every human being, corporately, to be the human species, to make humanity what it is. In other words, we can’t be human without other human beings.

Exclude a young animal from its pack. Instinct will, more or less, produce an adult of the species. But deprive an infant from all contact with humanity, and the result, if the child survives, will not be something recognizably human. Google “feral children.”

In my primary school, the nuns explained “original sin” as a stain upon our souls, put there by Adam’s transgression. We were told to picture our souls as spotted, white garments. Of course that prompts the question, even in children, “if Adam did the spilling, why is my garment stained?” (I should immediately add that what’s wrong with that second grade explanation isn’t the fault of the teacher who gave it to the second grader but rather of the second grader who carried it, unchallenged and unchanged, into adulthood.)

It helps to realize that the doctrine of original sin asserts a fundamental corruption in our human nature, a nature that is — St. Thomas reminds us — always corporate. The reason each of us is touched by a primordial sin is because everyone draws his or her humanity from a corporate stock. Because each of us can only be human in consort with others, no one can avoid the cancer that entered our corporate, collective history. One could say that there’s a corruption in the software, one effecting every piece of hardware.

The noted literary critic Cleanth Brooks once asserted that there was no Christian doctrine so well asserted in literature as that of original sin. Every literary masterpiece illustrates that we hurt each other despite our best intentions, that something is wrong with us, corporately, something no individual can fix.

Thomas Merton perfectly expresses Brook’s insight in this small, sadly self-explanatory, passage from his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain:

I suppose it is usual for elder brothers, when they are still children, to feel themselves demeaned by the company of a brother four or five years younger, whom they regard as a baby and whom they tend to patronize and look down upon. So when Russ and I and Bill made huts in the woods out of boards and tar-paper which we collected around the foundations of many cheap houses which the speculators were now putting up, as fast as they could, all over Douglaston, we severely prohibited John Paul and Russ’s little brother Tommy and their friends from coming anywhere near us. And if they did try to come and get into our hut, or even to look at it, we would chase them away with stones.

When I think now of that part of my childhood, the picture I get of my brother John Paul is this: standing in a field, about a hundred yards away from the clump of sumachs where we have built our hut, is this perplexed five-year-old kid in short pants and a kind of leather jacket, standing quite still, with his arms hanging down at his sides, and gazing in our direction, afraid to come any nearer on account of the stone, as insulted as he is saddened, and his eyes full of indignation and sorrow. And yet he does not go away. We shout at him to get out of there, to beat it, and go home, and wing a couple of more rocks in that direction, and he does not go away. We tell him to play in some other place. He does not move.

And there he stands, not sobbing, not crying, but angry and unhappy and offended and tremendously sad. And yet he is fascinated by what we are doing, nailing shingles all over our new hut. And his tremendous desire to be with us and to do what we are doing will not permit him to go away. The law written in his nature says that he must be with his elder brother, and do what he is doing: and he cannot understand why this law of love is being so wildly and unjustly violated in his case (25-26).

Merton concludes, “Many times it was like that. And in a sense, this terrible situation is the pattern and the prototype of all sin: the deliberate and formal will to reject disinterested love for us for the purely arbitrary reason that we do not want it.” One can sum-up original sin, the one enfolding all the others, like this: because we can’t be human alone, sin finds us before we ever go looking for it.”

But all of that is backdrop to the good news of the Gospel, which is about a call, a summons to new solidarity. Samuel is awakened by the very mouth of God, and yet he can make no sense of such a summons, without consulting his mentor Eli. Likewise, Andrew and an unnamed disciple are taught by the Baptist, a man such as they, to identity the Christ. Andrew quickly shares this saving news with Peter. And note that they don’t enter a rabbinical society; they do not begin to school themselves in the law of Israel. They simply take up fellowship, life and love, with this itinerant preacher. An apostle doesn’t come among us proclaiming, “I’ve mastered the disciplined; I’ve schooled myself in the wisdom.” He comes saying, “I’ve known the man. I’ve loved the man.”

The deep meanings of what it means to be Church, of what it means to be baptized, are found in our scriptures this weekend. There is never what we call humanity without fellowship, and our fellowship has been fouled. Yet Christ comes to enfold us into his own, new fellowship. From the cross and tomb he births a newly enfleshed humanity, one washed and nourished with his own blood, the blood that staunches humankind’s ancient wound.

Terrance W. Klein