One problem I always had with Protestant Christianity was the doctrine of original sin. While the understanding of this varies, many Protestants believe that original sin is a spiritual state, inherited from Adam after the first sin, which renders all humanity inherently evil, incapable of doing anything good in the sight of God, and unable to seek God as an act of will.
According to this mindset, if a person is not saved, then they could spend all of their time doing good works, helping people, and sacrificing themselves for what they believe to be good, but in the end God will say that it is all worthless because they were not among the saved. Part of this is an extreme reaction of the idea that we can earn our salvation through good works; Protestants wanted to make sure that people knew that there was nothing that they could do, in and of themselves, to earn their way back into communion with God.
It also follows that whenever a person starts to seek God, then it is because God actively worked in his life to make him be able to do so. Ipso facto, no matter how much a someone personally wanted to know God, his searching would only be fruitful if God himself worked in the person’s life. On a theoretical level, this is true; whenever someone is saved, it is because God worked in his life.
The problems start turning up in the practical application of these principles. As a Protestant, I believed that I was naturally completely depraved and evil, that everything I did was inherently bad if I wasn’t saved. And if I tried to follow God, how could I know if it was of my own, useless volition, or if God was actually working in my life? If it wasn’t the correct time that God ordained I should be saved, then no matter how much I did, it would be worthless. So all I could do, on a practical level, was to wait and hope that someday God would actually call me, and then everything I did would be worth something. And then I ran into the problem of how could I know if I was saved or not, at any given point? (That’s another topic, under assurance and perseverance of salvation.)
The other problem is the fact that people who are not Christians do good things all the time. Denying that is to veer dangerously far from reality. The idea that every single person who isn’t a Christian is nothing but a selfish, depraved sin machine just doesn’t correspond to the evidence. Some people do good things out of religious traditions other than Christianity, some people do good things because they just believe it is the right thing to do. I had a hard time believing that God scorned everything they did because they weren’t absolutely right with him at the time they did it.
But the Catholic Church understands original sin a little differently:
“Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin — an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.'” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405
In other words, Adam’s descendants don’t inherit the guilt of Adam’s sin, just the consequences: lack of God’s sanctifying grace, darkening of the intellect, weakening of the will, and the disordering of the senses (Catholicism for Dummies, 2d edition, p. 43). We are not damned for guilt based on Adam’s choice, but we each merit damnation based on our own ACTUAL sins (as opposed to original sin), when we make choices, with full knowledge, to disobey God. We suffer for Adam’s sin, but we are not born doomed because of it.
This was a revelation to me. I don’t deny that I am a sinner, or that I’ve sinned, or that I don’t need salvation in order to be right with God. But I think I am a sinner because of what I, myself, have done of my own free will, not because a man sinned many years ago. If I was born damned, and all of my actions are worthless to God, then I don’t have free will, and don’t deserve the punishment because I couldn’t help it. But according to the Catholic Church, I am in a (somewhat) similar state to Adam and Eve: we were all given a choice, and we freely chose to do evil. And that is why we are sinners, each deserving punishment, but each offered redemption through Jesus’s work.