Some critics argue that punishment for personal sins is understandable, but those who die with original sin alone on their souls have not personally done anything wrong. So how could they be justly punished—even in theory? Wouldn’t that contradict Ezekiel 18:20-21?
The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
But if a wicked man turns away from all his sins which he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die.
This question is inexorably linked to a misunderstanding of the doctrine of original sin.
Original sin—contrary to what has become a popular myth—does not represent all of mankind being made guilty, somehow, of what was Adam’s actual sin. That is not what the Catholic Church teaches. Ezekiel would condemn that kind of thinking. The prophet makes clear under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that the son cannot be said to be guilty of a sin committed by his father alone. In fact, no person can be justly charged as guilty concerning any sin he did not personally commit. In Adam’s case then, the only person guilty of Adam’s sin is Adam.
But the Catholic dogma of original sin does not teach or imply that somebody can be guilty of someone else’s actual sin. The Church has always understood this:
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. 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 (CCC 404).
The language of “punishment” in Church documents like Pope John XXII’s Nequaquam sine dolore and Pope Urban IV’s Laetentur Caeli can be confusing to some folks. But by “punishment,” the Church is referring to the fact that there are all sorts of sufferings and deprivations—which can be called “punishments”—wrought in the lives of innocent children due to the sins and mistakes of their parents. Original sin is the ultimate example of that.
But that does not mean that the child is somehow guilty of the sins of the parents. What it does mean is children can be—and often are—affected adversely by the effects of the sins and mistakes of their parents. In fact, science has verified that the use of cocaine or even smoking cigarettes—to use these two examples among others we could employ—by a pregnant mother can have consequences for her child postpartum. The children in these cases, obviously, have not chosen to do anything harmful to themselves, yet the potential for harm remains. Many of these children will have defects and damage for which they cannot be blamed.
“Punishment” is often used in these cases in the sense of these sufferings and deprivations that result from the sins of the parents. And this is analogous to original sin. Because Adam and Eve possessed the human nature that was to be passed down to their progeny, their sin—original sin—which brought about the fall of that same nature would cause all of their progeny, until the end of time, ordinarily speaking, to receive a fallen human nature. Analogous to the “crack baby,” born with defects (“punishments”) he did not cause, in the case of Adam and Eve, all of their progeny would be “punished,” or born with original sin on their souls.
Are all men guilty of Adam’s sin? No. But do all men suffer from the effects of Adam’s sin? Absolutely!