The Sins of Our Ancestors

Over the past few months I have had several questions come in from different parts of the world regarding the sins of previous generations in our own families, and how those might affect us today. One woman named Gloria wrote:


Some people say that the effects of sin can be passed on from the mother to the baby in the womb, even to the third and fourth generation (Ex 20:5). How can an unborn baby take upon itself the responsibility of someone else's sins when it has no reasoning power?

From Ireland, a woman named Winifred sent me this detailed explanation of what is going on in her part of the world:

Here in Ireland there is a huge movement of Family Tree Masses, or Generational Masses, being said all over the country. I myself understand from reading the Bible that it is a good and wholesome thing to pray for the dead (2 Macc 12:43-46). But a great many people whom I speak to tend to believe that a lot of their difficulties are similar to the "sins of the father" and people believe their problems are due to similar problems which their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents had, and as a result that is why they are suffering and having various difficulties. Surely, people have to take responsibility for their own problems, ask the help of the Holy Spirit to help them look into their souls and confess their sins.

Praying for the dead is, of course, something we should do, but can people atone for other people's sins? Must people both deceased and alive atone to the Lord for their own sins? ...

Some priests say to pray not only for departed souls but to our faithful departed, while other priests say not to pray to our faithful departed since we have no indication whether they are in heaven or not. Can you throw any light on this?

Well, Winifred, I will try my best.

First, with regard to asking the faithful departed to pray for us, the Church has not defined whether or not the souls in purgatory can hear our prayers. Saint Thomas Aquinas believed that it was part of their process of purgation that they could not (Summa Theologiae II-II, 83, 11). However, regional synods of Catholic bishops in Vienna (1858) and Utrecht (1865) taught that these holy souls can indeed help us by their intercessions, and Pope Leo XIII ratified an indulgenced prayer in 1889 that appealed to the prayers of the poor souls in purgatory when we are in bodily or spiritual danger. There is a longstanding custom among the faithful in many parts of the world to invoke the holy souls in purgatory, which is not likely to be the case unless the Holy Spirit that lives within the hearts of the faithful was somehow behind this custom. On balance, then, it is certainly possible - perhaps even probable -that they can hear our prayers, and therefore one is not being imprudent if one does ask the prayers of faithful departed loved ones. We may not know for sure where they are in the next life (e.g., still undergoing spiritual healing and purgation in purgatory, or in heaven), but as long as one has good reasons to believe that the person died in repentance and faith it can do no harm to ask for their prayers. Indeed, it may open a door to them to enable them to love and help us.

Regarding the central issue that both Winifred and Gloria bring up, their inclinations are correct, I think. God does not hold children, or present generations, morally responsible for the sins of their parents and ancestors. This is clearly laid out in Holy Scripture when the Israelites were blaming their troubles on the sins of their forefathers (see Jer 23:5-6). In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 18, verses 1-4, we read:

The Word of the Lord came to me again: "What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, 'The Fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge?' As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: that soul that sins shall die."

So, despite the ancient temptation to blame our ancestors for our sins and misfortunes, we are each morally responsible for our own sins in the eyes of God. Indeed, we need to look into our own hearts and ask the Holy Spirit to help us repent so that we can find forgiveness and spiritual healing. God is surely not so unjust as to force children (including infants, who have not attained the age of reason and therefore have not committed any voluntary sins of their own) to "pay" in justice for the sins of others.

On the other hand, it is also true to say that the sins of our ancestors - right back to our first parents, Adam and Eve - do affect our lives today and leave us inheriting some pretty heavy baggage to carry around. First of all, there is the inherited "wound" of original sin that is passed down to all of us from the Fall of Adam and Eve. They were the fountainhead of the whole human race, and when they turned their backs on God, they cut off themselves, and their whole progeny, from the life-giving, original gift of the Holy Spirit. They initiated a deprivation of spiritual life that left us all inheriting a human condition in which we are subject to suffering and death, disordered desires, weakened will power, and the clouding of the mind from the truth about God (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 404-405). God does not hold us all "morally responsible" for the Fall of Adam, of course, but He did create us as an interdependent race so that we can suffer both spiritually and bodily from the sins of others. We may think this unfair, but remember that the interdependence of the human race is also the source of most of our highest blessings, for example, the solidarity and intimacy of family life and the communion of love and grace in which we participate as members of the Body of Christ. To make such supreme blessings possible to creatures with free will like us, the Lord also had to permit us to misuse that freedom and interdependence, with all its tragic results.

This "interdependence" of the human race also means that the sins of ancestors and parents can affect us in other, more subtle ways (and this is surely the truth behind the Lord's saying in Exodus 20:5 that He "visits the sins" of the parents on their children to the third and fourth generation). For example, some destructive conditions (such as alcoholism, depression, and irascibility) can be passed down to us in our genetic inheritance. Moreover, the problems of our immediate parents and grandparents can be passed down to us in other ways, too, such as if they set a bad moral example for us of giving in to those destructive, inherited dispositions (as, sadly, people tend to do from generation to generation), or if they abused our bodies or failed to give us the love we needed when we are growing up. In such instances, we can become "saddled" with emotional and developmental scars. For instance, if we weren't given the love we needed as children, we may spend our lives struggling to learn how to love others and ourselves. This does not make them fully "responsible" for our sins and all our problems today, of course, and we have the responsibility to take action to find healing for these generational wounds ourselves. But, in this sense, healing for the past is certainly an aspect of the Church's ministry of healing prayer today.

As for the question of what we can do to heal past generations of their sins and can we make atonement for them, the answer is yes. If they are in purgatory, we can offer prayers, Masses, and other works of piety and love on their behalf to speed their process of purification. In fact, one of the charisms of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception is to offer their lives for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. This is why they have an Association of Marian Helpers, a spiritual benefit society that embraces this same charism to pray for the deceased.

Jesus Christ merited on the cross the forgiveness and sanctification of the whole world, but when people fail to fully receive that gift from Him, through repentance and faith - i.e., if their contrition for sin and love for God was "half-hearted" in this life - then they remain in partial moral debt to God (still owing, in theological jargon, "the temporal punishment for sin"). So by the grace and merits of Christ we can obtain further graces of contrition for them, and help relieve that moral debt. If this is what the offering of "Family Tree" Masses and "Generational" Masses means in Ireland today, then I see nothing but good in it. It is just another way of praying for the dead. But if people think that they are thereby magically warding off the evil effects on their lives of the sins of their ancestors (effects such as I have described above), or "paying" for their ancestors' sins in ritual ways so that God will not make them "pay" for their ancestors' sins in real life, then I am afraid they are afflicted by superstition and a false view of God's justice. He does not force anyone to pay for the sins of anyone else, and in most cases, the ill effects of the evils of past generations on us today are best dealt with by Christian counseling and healing prayer.

Thus, the mercy of God can both pardon and heal the sinful hearts of our faithful departed ancestors, and heal us of the ill effects of any of their sins that we suffer from today. That is definitely part of what our Lord meant when He said to St. Faustina: "My Mercy is greater than your sins, and those of the entire world" (Diary of St. Faustina, 1485).

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at

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