Do we pay for our father’s sins?

A reader suggested the title question, adding: “Scripture appears to contradict itself on this topic, but obviously that is not possible, so I and others must interpret some part of it incorrectly.” It’s a good question. The answer to this question is based firmly on Catholic teaching. It is not an “open question” in theology.

First, baptism forgives all sin and all punishment for sin. So the baptized infant absolutely does NOT “inherit” or in any way bear guilt for the sins of his ancestors. To say otherwise, contradicts Catholic dogma on baptism and the forgiveness of sin.

Second, a good confession forgives all sins and at least some punishment due for sin. There is no need to be concerned about the sins of one’s parents, grandparents, or other ancestors. A good examination of conscience includes only the knowingly chosen immoral acts of the penitent, not any other persons. No one confesses the sins of their ancestors, because the penitent bears no such guilt.

Third, though original sin is inherited at conception, it has nothing to do with the particular sins of one’s ancestors. Adam and Eve committed original sin; all their descendants (except Jesus and Mary) inherit the consequences of that sin. But baptism entirely wipes away original sin, leaving only its sad footprint on the fallen human person: concupiscence (a tendency toward personal sin).

Fourth, after death, at the particular judgment, each soul is judged based only on his own conscience and choices in life. The individual bears no guilt or responsibility or punishment for sins committed by ancestors.

So the idea of generational curses, or inheritance of the sins of one’s ancestors (other than original sin from Adam and Eve) is directly contrary to Catholic teaching.

[Ezekiel 18]
{18:1} And the word of the Lord came to me, saying:
{18:2} “Why is it that you circulate among yourselves this parable, as a proverb in the land of Israel, saying: ‘The fathers ate a bitter grape, and the teeth of the sons have been affected.’
{18:3} As I live, says the Lord God, this parable shall no longer be a proverb for you in Israel.

The above chapter goes on to reject the idea, expressed in the popular saying, that children are punished or cursed by the sins of their parents or ancestors.

[Exodus 20]
{20:1} And the Lord spoke all these words:
{20:2} “I am the Lord your God, who led you away from the land of Egypt, out of the house of servitude.
{20:3} You shall not have strange gods before me.
{20:4} You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor a likeness of anything that is in heaven above or on earth below, nor of those things which are in the waters under the earth.
{20:5} You shall not adore them, nor shall you worship them. I am the Lord your God: strong, zealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the sons to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,
{20:6} and showing mercy to thousands of those who love me and keep my precepts.

The expression “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the sons” is not literal. It means that the sins of one generation cause harm in society and the family, which adversely affects subsequent generations. We all live in a sinful fallen world. The more we sin, the more suffering there will be both now and in future generations. This does not imply that the next generation bears any type of guilt or curse. It is simply the truth that one’s sins cause harm to others, and this harm continues for generations. Sin does great harm to the world.

The same expression is used in Exodus 34:7, and it has the same explanation as above.

The set of “curses” issued in Deuteronomy chapters 27 through 30 are not curses in the popular sense (some type of evil power or other nonsense). Instead, it is an expression of the harm that sin causes. Actions have consequences. People who commit grave sins, especially without repentance, harm their own souls gravely, and they also cause harm to society.

But each baptized person and each penitent in the confessional has “put on the new man”, meaning that they have become a new person in Christ and like Christ. Each is “renewed in spirit”, but none bears the burden of the sins of past generations. All is forgiven.

{4:21} For certainly, you have listened to him, and you have been instructed in him, according to the truth that is in Jesus:
{4:22} to set aside your earlier behavior, the former man, who was corrupted, by means of desire, unto error,
{4:23} and so be renewed in the spirit of your mind,
{4:24} and so put on the new man, who, in accord with God, is created in justice and in the holiness of truth.
{4:25} Because of this, setting aside lying, speak the truth, each one with his neighbor. For we are all part of one another.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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1 Response to Do we pay for our father’s sins?

  1. Ron Conte says:

    The individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility. Moreover, many Bishops have faults and failings, in the way they administer a diocese, in failing to correct errors, and in spending too much time as administrators and too little time as apostles. So we cannot expect that every priest or theologian who errs will promptly be corrected by their Bishop. It doesn’t work like that.

    When Pope Francis says something unpopular (among conservative), they are quick to point out that his theological opinions are fallible. And yet when a priest or theologian says something people want to hear, they say it can’t be an error because the Bishop or the Church would have corrected them by now. Well, it doesn’t work like that.

    There are many false teachers in the Church today. Some are priests or theologians or apologists. False teachings are spreading like wildfire via the internet. And most Catholics are so poorly catechized that they can’t distinguish sound theology from doctrinal error. So they don’t know whom to believe.

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