Understanding Social Sin

Personal and Social Sin: Definitions  

From the encyclical, Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate), 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)  

From the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church  

#118 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.  

#193 . . . 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.  

Pope Francis has written frequently about structures of sin that have led to environmental degradation, economic inequality, and racism. In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he summarized his reflections in Laudato Si’ on social sin and its impact on our common home: 

In the Encyclical Laudato Si’ I stated that “we are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness” (no. 53). In our modern world, we have grown up thinking ourselves owners and masters of nature, authorized to plunder it without any consideration of its hidden potential and laws of development, as if subjecting inanimate matter to our whims, with the consequence of grave loss to biodiversity, among other ills. We are not custodians of a museum or of its major artefacts to be dusted each day, but rather co-operators in protecting and developing the life and biodiversity of the planet and of human life present there. An ecological conversion capable of supporting and promoting sustainable development includes, by its very nature, both the full assuming of our human responsibilities regarding creation and its resources, as well as the search for social justice and the overcoming of an immoral system that produces misery, inequality and exclusion. 

Very briefly, I would say that it falls to scientists, who work free of political, economic or ideological interests, to develop a cultural model which can face the crisis of climatic change and its social consequences, so that the vast potential of productivity will not be reserved only for the few. Just as the scientific community, through interdisciplinary dialogue, has been able to research and demonstrate our planet’s crisis, so too today that same community is called to offer a leadership that provides general and specific solutions for issues which your plenary meeting will confront: water, renewable forms of energy and food security. It has now become essential to create, with your cooperation, a normative system that includes inviolable limits and ensures the protection of ecosystems, before the new forms of power deriving from the techno-economic model causes irreversible harm not only to the environment, but also to our societies, to democracy, to justice and freedom. 

In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis noted how our current global system promotes profit over people and allows the common good to be sacrificed for the interests of the powerful (no. 12). At the root of this unjust power structure is an indifference towards the dignity and worth of the human person—what Pope Francis terms “a throwaway world”—that prioritizes our individual needs over those of the whole community, especially those who are poor and vulnerable. The persistence of unjust economic systems that favor the wealth of a few has increased inequality and now “new forms of poverty are emerging” that entrap millions within our communities (no. 21). The persistence of racism, war, and armed conflict have all fostered cultures of exclusion and division among us that have made it clear that “in today’s world, the sense of belonging to a single human family is fading, and the dream of working together for justice and peace seems an outdated utopia” (no. 30). In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis also drew special attention to the plight of migrants throughout the world, whose experiences serve as a stark reminder of the extreme devaluing of the human person at work in our society (no. 39). This culture of exclusion, Pope Francis wrote, has strengthened the polarization and extreme ideologies we know to be part of both our Church and global community, which allows our fears and doubts to overshadow our call to love. 

Unpacking Social Sin  

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 selfesteem 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.  

Moving Forward 

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 that is based in the virtue of solidarity. 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. 

This resource was excerpted and adapted from the Journey to Justice Day Guidebook, a resource of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.