Lesson 4b: Sin and Reconciliation (Social Sin)

The topics of sin and reconciliation are treated in Veritatis Splendor, nn.65-8;69-70; and the Catechism ##1846-1876. However, throughout the treatment of both, constant reference is made to the apostolic exhortation, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (12/2/84). To examine such questions as contrasting Social sin with Personal sin, the nature of Mortal and Venial sin and the so-called "Fundamental Option," it is really necessary to study RP nn.16 and 17 in some detail.

As is his consistent method, John Paul II reflects first on Holy Scripture to examine sin -- its nature, divisions and consequences: the Prodigal Son (Lk.15:11-32) RP, 5-6; Garden of Eden (Gn.3:12ff; 4:1-16) RP, 10; the Tower of Babel (Gn.11:1-9) RP, 13-14: "these consequences of sin are the reason for division and rupture, not only within each person but also within the various circles of a person's life: in relation to the family, to the professional and social environment, as can be often seen from experience; it is confirmed by the passage in the Bible about the City of Babel and its Tower" (RP, 13).

Sin is fundamentally an offense against God (VS, 70; CCC #1850; as the Council also taught: SC, 109; LG, 11; Ordo Paenitentiae (1973) Intro., n.5). Sin is both a turning away from God (aversio a Deo) and a turning towards some created good (conversio ad creaturam) (St. Thomas Aquinas, ST, III, q.86, a.4, ad 1; I-II, q.71, a.6; CCC #1850 and 1855 ["avertit a Deo . . . praeferens inferius."]) This classic definition is accepted, repeated and explained in some detail by John Paul II in RP, n.17.

But, prior to that correct explanation, the Pope takes some effort to clarify a contemporary distortion that is more popularized than analyzed.

Thus, the Pope teaches clearly: "Sin, in the proper sense, is always a personal act" (RP, 16). And "It is a truth of faith, also confirmed by our experience and reason, that the human person is free. This truth cannot be disregarded, in order to place the blame for individual's sins on external factors such as structures, systems or other people. Above all, this would be to deny the person's dignity and freedom, which are manifested -- even though in a negative and disastrous way -- also in this responsibility for sin committed. Hence, there is nothing so personal and untransferable in each individual as merit for virtue or responsibility for sin." (RP, 16)

What then was meant by those who prior to the Synod (1983) spoke so often about "Social Sin"?

First, the Pope outlines acceptable usages of this term "social sin". A serious acceptance of "Human Solidarity" recognizes in a mysterious but real way that individual's sin in some way affects others (consider the doctrine of the Mystical Body); the same solidarity is explicit on the religious level in the Communion of Saints (a law of ascent along with a law of descent) wherein one can speak of a "communion of sin" (RP, 16). In these senses, every sin can be considered a 'social' sin.

Further, a direct attack against one's neighbor (made in the image and likeness of God) is, for that reason, an offense against God. These can be called 'social' sins. Likewise every sin against justice in interpersonal relationships, i.e. against the rights of the human person -- beginning with the right to life; every sin against the dignity and honor of one's neighbor or against the common good can be called 'social' sins. The same can apply to sins of commission or omission on the part of political, economic or union leaders "who do not work diligently and wisely for the improvement and transformation of society" and "workers who through absenteeism or non-cooperation fail to ensure that their industries can continue to advance" the well-being of workers, their families and the whole of society.(RP, 16)

A third meaning of 'social' sin refers to human communities, especially the 'class struggle'; indeed, deliberate confrontation between blocs of nations, one nation and another, different groups within the same nation. "In both cases one may ask whether moral responsibility for these evils, and therefore sin, can be attributed to any person in particular. Now it has to be admitted that the realities and situations such as those described, when they become generalized and reach vast proportions as social phenomena, almost always become anonymous, just as their causes are complex and not always identifiable. Hence if one speaks of social sin here, the expression obviously has an analogical meaning" (RP, 16). Yet, even here, we must not underestimate the responsibility of the individuals involved.

Having said this, "there is one meaning sometimes given to social sin that is not legitimate or acceptable, even though it is very common in certain quarters today. This usage contrasts social sin and personal sin, . . . "in a way that waters down and almost abolishes personal sin" (RP, 16). In this practically every sin is a 'social' sin and the blame for it is placed not on the conscience of the individual but rather on vague entities or anonymous collectivities such as "the situation, the system, society, structures" (RP, 16).

When the Church speaks of "situations of sin" or condemns certain social sins -- such cases of 'social' sin are the "result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins."

"It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; or of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world, and also of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of a higher order" (RP, 16; Take note, for those who claim to be: "Personally opposed, but . . . ").

"The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals. A situation -- or likewise an institution, a structure, society itself -- is not in itself the subject of moral acts. Hence a situation cannot in itself be good or bad" (RP, 16).

As above (II:3), one can only predicate moral good or evil of a human act -- which proceeds from the will with a knowledge of the end. In common speech, we might talk of a 'bad car', a 'bad book,' or a 'bad 5-iron' but those are not moral statements. Similarly, some speak that way of the 4 'Ss': sinful situation, sinful system, sinful society and sinful structures. But, the Pope correctly reminds us that a 'situation' is not in itself the subject of moral acts.

"At the heart of every situation of sin are always to be found sinful people. So true is this that even when such a situation can be changed in its structural and institutional aspects by the force of law, or -- as unfortunately more often happens -- by the law of force, the change in fact proves to be incomplete, of short duration, and ultimately vain and ineffective -- not to say counterproductive -- if the people directly or indirectly responsible for that situation are not converted" (RP, 16).

If individuals don't change, things don't change. In positive terms, you can't have a good society unless you have good people. As C.S.Lewis noted in Mere Christianity long ago (1943) good thinking and good plans are mere moonshine "unless we realize that the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly" (in "The Three Parts of Morality" in Mere Christianity, 1943, p.58).

Unless there is a real change of mind and heart, there is no real change, some just play (unchanged) an old game under new rules. No conversion = no change; thus, those who overwork 'social' sin at the expense of or even the elimination of 'personal' sin pursue a path that defeats what they advocate.


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