Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
December 14, 2009
Social sin takes root when we abdicate our responsibilities
Twenty-five years ago this month, Pope John Paul II released an "apostolic exhortation" on Reconciliation and Penance. In the 93-page document, the pope went so far as to define the Church's mission in terms of reconciliation - reconciliation of people with God, with themselves, with other people and with creation.
Prior to the release of the document, many wondered how the pope would deal with the issue of "social sin." Many believed Pope John Paul would simply say that only individuals can sin; it makes no sense to talk of sin by society or its institutions. Others wanted a denunciation of the "sinful structures" that bring about injustice.
The pope essentially upheld the view of the first group. He stated "cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins. . . . At the heart of every situation of sin are to be found sinful people" (n. 16). This should be no surprise. Christian moral thinking has at its core the belief in personal freedom and responsibility.
What is unique about Reconciliation and Penance is that Pope John Paul spoke of social sin at all and that he described its three faces.
Face 1: Every sin affects others. "A soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the Church and, in some way, the whole world."
Face 2: Social sin is a sin against love of neighbour. It includes every act of injustice, every violation of human rights, every attempt to prevent people from worshipping God.
Face 3: Social sin is a violation of community, such as conflicts among nations and conflicts among groups within nations.
By asserting that social sin is an accumulation of personal sins, Pope John Paul tried to strip the anonymity off of social sin. Do not "underestimate the responsibility of the individuals involved," he wrote. When there is overconsumption by some and stark poverty among others, when the rivers are full of noxious substances or when disputes escalate into war, real people, not anonymous social structures, are responsible.
Social structures do need to be changed and we are responsible for changing them.
Many societal ills go unattended because people shirk responsibility. They say, for example, that the pollution of the rivers is the fault of someone else or some other industry or that it isn't a serious problem. They say, "I'm too busy; I've done my part; someone else should take the bull by the horns."
Sins of omission are still sins. And most social sins are sins of omission. Society gets in trouble more through abdicated responsibility than through outright malevolence. Hope for the world will grow when each of us honestly discerns our own social responsibilities. We need to overcome our inaction and take positive steps to set the world aright.
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