Although social sin is Catholic doctrine, it rarely appears in sacrament preparation classes nor is it normally mentioned during the sacrament of reconciliation.
Slavery, for example, is a social sin even if every Christian plantation owner had been kind, even if the pharaoh of olden times had not been cruel and harsh. “Institutions, laws and modes of thinking and feeling are handed down from previous generations,” explains Vatican II (1962-1965). A bad system (like a good institution) has a certain momentum or independent character. Bad institutions make holiness difficult. Good institutions serve as reminders for upright behavior.
Poverty is a social sin. Although a poor person, like anyone else, might steal or lie, it is not their poverty that is a sin. The sin is an economic structure that perpetuates significant and needless poverty. We don’t think about social sin, says Vatican II, because we are plagued with an individualistic mentality. But we cannot “content [ourselves] with merely individualistic morality.” Christians must promote and assist “institutions dedicated to bettering the conditions of human life.”
It is true that social sin is somewhat metaphorical, says the Vatican’s 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine. Social sin does not weaken or cancel “the personal component by admitting only social guilt and responsibility. At the bottom of every situation of sin is always the individual who sins.” At the same time this metaphorical sense cannot overtake the objectively sinful nature of some systems. The Compendium mentions wages, the fairness of which “is the most important means for achieving justice in work relationships.” It “is not sufficient [for] an agreement between employee and employer with regard to the amount of pay… to qualify as a just wage.” In a given circumstance it so happens that an employer or an employee may have a reason for substandard wages. The morality of a wage is, however, determined objectively, apart from the motives of employer and employee.
How then can social sin be brought into the sacrament of reconciliation? It would seem that a creative liturgy planner in the parish could devise a service each Lent about our society’s social sins—things for which we collectively bear responsibility. Suggestions are welcome.
Another way to get at this notion of social sin is to consider its antibodies. To counter individual sin, we summon a specific virtue. If, for example, my individual sin is neglect of family members, I make a habit of generosity around the home during Lent. If the habit persists after Easter, it becomes my individual virtue.
An institution is a social virtue. Specific virtues (social habits) are designed to counter social sin. The Compendium mentions solidarity as a social virtue about relationships that tend toward ethical-social improvement. Virtues are not feelings. Solidarity, the Compendium continues, is not a distant touch of compassion for the afflicted. It is a commitment to act with others for the sake of the common good.
Social Justice is a social virtue. The term is often used generically to cover outreach efforts, government distribution programs and protesting. The term is also used to describe crusading individuals, some lobbyists and those with sincere intentions. However, in Catholicism social justice is a specific type of the general virtue of justice. It is a collective virtue; an individual cannot practice social justice. Its intent is the improvement of institutions or policies. Its unique act is organization; that is, people finding like-minded others and then applying tactics and strategies for the good of the commons. In mainstream Catholicism social justice usually happens during the weekday within normal settings. It is not normally an on-and-off weekend activity by outsiders to an institution, though those efforts can be needed. Social justice is participation. It requires many hands, feet and minds. As it evolves, a sound social justice effort likewise increases participation. Employees have a surge of morale because of their reform efforts. Professionals increase their dedication because through their association they instituted a reform.
Social justice (a collective habit) is a primary vaccine against social sin. It is the means for bettering the conditions of human life. Because each exercise of social justice is less than 100% effective, it requires booster shots. All institutions need a little social justice during Lent and a little more during Eastertide and then another dose in all the weeks after Pentecost.
Droel is the author of What Is Social Justice (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)