What Is Total Depravity?

Total Depravity (also known as Total Inability) is the first point of the Calvinist doctrine of TULIP. In his book “The Five Points of Calvinism” Edwin H. Palmer says “Total depravity means that natural man is never able to do any good that is fundamentally pleasing to God, and, in fact, does evil all the time.” He goes on to say “Even after a person has become a Christian, and therefore knows better, it is dismaying how hypocritical, deceitful, and desperately wicked his heart is.”

In other words, as a result of the fall, man is unable to do that which is truly good. He is only capable of sin and cannot save himself. Man does not even have the capability to accept God’s grace in his life. Even after he has become a Christian by God’s saving grace, he carries with him his totally depraved status.

Can Catholics hold this doctrine?

The Catholic Church would agree that mans relationship with God was damaged as a result of the fall but would not go as far as the Calvinist would in the extent of the damage. Instead, the Church would say “depraved” yes, “totally depraved” no.

The Catechism says “Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called ‘original sin'” and as a result “human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin” (CCC 417 & 418). From the Catholic view, man is in a “weakened” state and “inclined” to sin as a result of the fall but man still maintains his free will and is not weakened to the point he cannot choose God’s grace when offered the gift by God. This teaching is in stark contrast to the Calvinistic view that “Total depravity is the extensive ruin of man’s nature” and “It means the whole man is corrupted with sin.” as Dr. C. Matthew McMahon describes it on his website “A Puritans Mind“.

The Church would say that man is to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”(Philippians 2:12) and that man, through his own free will, can choose to accept God’s grace or turn away from it. (Galatians 5:4-7)

What evidence is there for Total Depravity and what is the counter arguments?

Adherents to total depravity will cite a number of biblical passages as evidence for the doctrine but here are the two main citations you are most likely to encounter.

Genesis 6:5
“And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

And

Romans 3:10-11
As it is written “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.

The argument from Genesis seems pretty straight forward. “the wickedness of man was great in the earth” and “the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”. When you take this passage only and place it by itself, it seems to support that man is totally depraved and can only do evil. However, if we read just a few short verses ahead we see something that throws a monkey wrench into that thought process.

Genesis 6:9
“This is the account of Noah and his family.

Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.”

We see in verse 9 of the same chapter of Genesis that Noah was a “righteous man”, “blameless among the people” and “walked faithfully with God”. So if all men are “evil continually” as the verse 5 says, how could Noah also be a “righteous man” and “blameless”? Obviously the Calvinist interpretation of verse 5 does not jive with verse 9, so it is reasonable to assume that verse 5 has a different meaning that keeps it compatible with verse 9.

I think the better of the two arguments is Romans 3:10-11 since it is not immediately obvious that Paul is not affirming the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity. I believe it takes a wider view of scripture to help disprove this interpretation of Romans 3:10-11.

We see throughout the bible that righteous men and women do/did exist. Noah (Genesis 6:9), Job (25:6), Zacharias, Elizabeth (Luke 1:6) and others are all declared as righteous in the bible. Knowing that, we have to question if “There is no one righteous, not even one;” is literally no one at all or not. Remember, if we can find one truly righteous person in the bible the Calvinist interpretation falls apart. In order for the Calvinist interpretation to be true, NO ONE can be righteous even after they have received God’s grace.

To Summarize…

At 30,000 ft looking down on the surface of the doctrine of “total depravity” a Catholic maybe inclined to agree with the doctrine. After all, the Church teaches that man is in a wounded state because of the fall. However, as we dive more deeply into the specifics, the doctrine of “total depravity” becomes untenable for a Catholic in good standing with the Church.