Social sin resides within a group or a community of people. It exists within any structure in society that oppresses human beings, violates human dignity, stifles freedom and/or imposes great inequity. The only way we can recognize these sinful structures is if we step outside our own world and consider the world from another person's perspective. Once we have recognized these patterns and structures that are sinful, we need to move toward action on behalf of justice and the common good.
From the Encyclical, Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate), by Pope Benedict XVI
“The Church’s wisdom has always pointed to the presence of original sin in social conditions and in the structure of society: Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social actions and morals” (#34).
“Certain sins, moreover, constitute by their very object a direct assault on one’s neighbor. Such sins in particular are known as social sins. Social sin is every sin committed against the justice due in relations between individuals, between the individual and the community, and also between the community and the individual” (#118).
“The structures of sin . . . must be purified and transformed into structures of solidarity through the creation or appropriate modification of laws, market regulations, and juridical systems” (#193).
As theologian Gregory Baum says, “Personal sin is freely chosen; social sin is collective blindness. There is sin as deed and sin as illness."
Social sin resides within a group or a community of people. It exists within any structure in society that oppresses human beings, violates human dignity, stifles freedom and/or imposes great inequity.
The only way we can recognize these sinful structures is if we step outside our own world and consider the world from another person's perspective. For example:
Men need to understand the frustration of women who cannot achieve economic equity in society, despite equal training and hard work.
Anglos need to understand the debilitating effects of racism on an African American’s self-esteem before black and white persons can move together to address the structural roots of racism.
People who do not live in poverty need to look outside their own experience and find ways to identify with people who do live in poverty with little to no means of escape.
Social sin results in structures, laws and policies that perpetuate widespread poverty, inequality, discrimination, violence, and other injustices. Once we have recognized these patterns and structures that are sinful, we need to move toward action on behalf of justice and the common good. Such action must be collaborative; it must involve the participation of the victims as well as the perpetrators of injustice, all of which is based on a genuine desire to move toward justice by both parties. This basis is a foundation for Catholic social action. As Catholics, we believe in the willingness, indeed, the need, of men and women to respond to grace and build a more just and humane society. What has impeded us in the past and left this supposition untried and untested has been the challenge of bringing those who live in poverty and those who are not living in poverty together, to contribute with one another toward the common good.
Here is one example of how social sin results in unjust structures, laws and policies.
The following excerpt is from “The Reality of Economic Privilege: The Connection between Racism and Poverty,” Catholic Charities USA Issue Brief, Poverty and Racism: Overlapping Threats to the Common Good, 2008, pgs. 11-12. Used with permission.
The privileged status of whiteness did not ‘just happen.” It has been deliberately constructed over a long period of time. White privilege is the result of social policies, institutions, and procedures that deliberately created a system that advanced the welfare of white Americans and impeded the opportunities of persons of color.
Among the most important effects and manifestations of white privilege are the economic advantages that have been conferred upon white Americans by public policy and political power throughout our history. Racism inevitably causes economic disadvantages and burdens for groups of color. Here are several key events and movements that exemplify the link between race and poverty, events that both burdened people of color seeking to escape poverty and eased the way for white Americans to advance their economic fortunes.
The institution of slavery. Slavery means exploited labor, the labor of enslaved Africans was essential for creating wealth for others from which they often derived no benefit. Slavery resulted in the creation of wealth not only for the white slave-holding elite, but for all who benefited from and participated in a “slavery-centered “economy (e.g. Merchants, bankers, fishermen, shipbuilders, traders, auctioneers, bounty hunters, and immigrant farmers).
The Indian Removal Act of 1830. By this act of Congress, Native Americans were forcibly removed from their lands and resettled in territory that was of no interest to whites. Their property was then made available for white settlers. This stolen land became the basis for white economic enrichment which could be passed on as an inheritance to future generations. This economic disenfranchisement also led to the impoverishment of future generations of Native Americans.
Supreme Court Decision of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). This decision enshrined the realities of racial segregation, second-class citizenship, and “separate but equal” facilities in our national life. Among the many pernicious effects of this decision was the creation of inferior educational opportunities for African Americans. They and other communities of color endured severely restricted access to quality education. Segregated schools were poorly funded in comparison to their white counterparts. This created a deficit of educational attainment—the effects of which are still with us—which translated into economic disadvantage in the labor market, including participation in higher paying and socially prestigious professions.
The exclusion of Asian Indians from eligibility for U.S. citizenship. In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court (U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind) ruled that while Asian Indians were indeed “Caucasians” by race, they could not be considered “white”. The result was that many Asian Indians were stripped of the naturalized citizenship. This means that they were unable to legally own property; many had their assets taken from them and given to whites.
The exclusion of domestics and agricultural workers from the Social Security Act of 1935. At the height of the Depression, this law created a new public policy that established a basic level of economic security for many of the country’s workers. However, by excluding domestics and agricultural workers, this act effectively denied Social Security pensions and benefits to 75 percent of black workers.
The provisions of the Wagner Act (1935), which allowed unions to exclude African Americans from union membership. This legislation granted legal protections and recognition to labor unions not previously enjoyed and gave many working class whites access to higher wages and benefits. However, because the act also allowed unions to exclude blacks from union membership and its benefits, it legally protected white laborers from completion in the job market, creating economic opportunities reserved for whites, and further maintaining the existence of a lower paid, exploited labor pool.
The failure of the Federal Housing Administration (1940’s and 1950’s) to grant loans to even minimally integrated neighborhoods. This agency provided low-cost government guaranteed loans to working class families, enabling mass home ownership and the accumulations of wealth that could be passed onto children. Ninety-eight percent of these loans were given to whites; blacks were granted less than two percent. The refusal to grant loans to integrated neighborhoods was a practice known as “redlining.”
Many more historical examples can be cited. These suffice in demonstration how white privilege was deliberately created and often state-sanctioned. It also resulted in “unjust impoverishment” for groups of color and “unjust enrichment” for white Americans. “Unjust enrichment and unjust impoverishment are critical concepts for understanding [our nation’s] past and present” economic realities and the link between racism and poverty.
The pernicious effects of this deliberate and state sanctioned “unjust impoverishment” endure to this day. This creates a serious obligation to repair the economic injuries and material deprivation that has been inflicted upon communities of color. Therefore, we support conscious efforts to correct past injustices with proactive deeds.
The responsibility to repair the harm or injury done to another is long recognized in Catholic moral theology. Traditional moral teaching speaks of the duty of restitution, based on the principle that “when injustice is done it must be repaired.”
Where do I see structures of sin in the examples presented above?
How have I witnessed personal sin as a component of social sin in these cases either in the past or currently?
“When injustice is done it must be repaired.” What do you think about this quote from the last paragraph of the reflection? What does it imply about paths to reconciliation for social sin?
This content is excerpted from the Journey to Justice program, a day-long retreat developed for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.