Are We Bad or Good by Nature?

NOTE: The Catholic Thing is sad to report that one of our frequent contributors, Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a remarkable man and priest, died this past week after a long bout with cancer. You can read about his life and many accomplishments here. He will be greatly missed. – Robert Royal

Catholics have offered conflicting explanations for the decline of American Catholicism over the last half-century or so.

Catholics of the “left” say the Church has remained too attached to a traditional, individualistic morality that places an exaggerated stress on sexual purity and abortion while neglecting social justice concerns. From this point of view, we should be less concerned about the chastity of our sons and daughters and more concerned about their compassion for poor people, for racial and ethnic minorities, for gays and lesbians, and for anyone who is suffering oppression.

Catholics of the “right,” of course, say just the opposite. They say the Church in America has become too tolerant of sexual impurity and abortion and has grown too enthusiastic about a compassion that isn’t so much Christian compassion as it is the compassion agenda of anti-Christian secularists.

Both those of the left and those of the right have been critical of our Catholic bishops. Those on the left find fault with bishops for having too little commitment to social justice, while those on the right fault the bishops for showing too little commitment to old-fashioned Catholic virtue.

Those on the right are divided in their opinion of Pope Francis. Most have the traditional Catholic reverence for the Vicar of Christ, an exaggerated reverence that almost believes that a pope can do no wrong and can make no mistakes. More than a few on the right, however, have their doubts about Pope Francis. They suspect that he may be undermining Catholic doctrine on sexual morality. They suggest, for instance, that in Amoris Laetitia he has given a green light to adultery in certain hard cases. And they fear that he is too “soft” on homosexuality.

Those on the left, while not perfectly happy with Pope Francis (after all, he has not recommended the priestly ordination of women and gays, and has not said that he will nullify the ancient ban on contraception), are generally pleased with him. They particularly like his concern with global warming – an indication that he’s willing to come out of the Middle Ages and deal with present-day problems. And they like his humility, his democratic touch.

I myself am of the right, but I think our rightist explanations for the decline of the Church in America (and in Canada and Europe too) don’t go deep enough. I think our fundamental problem is that we are living in a modern world characterized by a repudiation of Augustinianism. By “Augustinianism,” I have in mind St. Augustine’s teaching (something he derived from St. Paul) that human nature is corrupt, radically sinful; and has been so ever since the Fall of Adam and Eve.

We are afflicted by Original Sin. If we occasionally behave in a non-sinful manner, and if some few people (the saints) behave habitually in a non-sinful manner, this is because of the grace of God, which is a countervailing force to the power of our corrupt nature. For a moment at least, and much longer and more habitually in the case of saints, the power of grace overrides and nullifies the power of sin. And lo! We do a genuinely good deed.


This Augustinianism was the prevailing Christian view throughout the European Middle Ages. The Renaissance, with its feeling for the human potential for greatness, tended to undermine this view. But the Protestant Reformation, which was just as much an anti-Renaissance as an anti-Catholicism movement, strongly re-asserted the Augustinian view of human sinfulness.

Scholars may dispute whether or not Luther and Calvin had a precisely correct understanding of Augustine; but in intention at least, nobody has ever been more Augustinian than those two leading Protestant reformers. As Hamlet said that actors often “out-Herod Herod,” so we may perhaps say that Luther and Calvin “out-Augustined Augustine.”

The beginning of the end of Augustinianism came in the 18th century as people, especially up-to-date people who wrote books, gradually came to believe that human nature, so far from being bad, is basically good. The writer who most famously and effectively expressed this view was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Ironically, Rousseau was a native of Geneva, the very city in which Calvin had been a kind of religious dictator two centuries earlier.

The triumph of anthropological optimism (as Rousseauism may be called) over anthropological pessimism (or Augustinianism) didn’t happen overnight. It was a long and gradual process. But by now, the early 21st century, it is pretty nearly complete.

It has led almost everywhere to the triumph of the idea of democracy (if not always actual democracy); for if we are good by nature we can be trusted to govern ourselves. It has led to the universal spread of capitalism; for if we are good by nature, our passion for wealth must be good. It has led to the sexual revolution; for if we are good by nature, we can give free rein to our sexual impulses.

But if we are good by nature, what’s the point of Christianity? Christianity is a religion of salvation. Salvation from what? From sin. But if we have no sin, at least no sin deeply rooted in our nature, who needs Christianity? Who needs the suffering and death of Jesus? What need is there for the Atonement?

Just as Augustine explained virtue by saying that grace overrides the wickedness of our fallen nature, so Rousseau explained vice by saying that the badness of society overrides the goodness of our nature. What we need, then, on the Rousseauvian view, is social reform or revolution. Straighten out society, and we’ll all be happy and prosperous and good.

On the Augustinian view, what we need is repentance for our sins, and we’ll be happy and prosperous and good when we reach heaven.

Catholics of the right are basically, whether they realize it or not, Augustinians; and Catholics of the left, whether they realize it or not, are basically Rousseauvians.


*Image: The Garden of Eden (English, artist unknown), c. 1575 [The Met, New York] The embroidery (approximately 18 ft. x 6 ft.) is on velvet. On the far right, the expulsion from the Garden is shown:

David Carlin

David Carlin

David Carlin is professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.