Social Sin

Social Sin March 4, 2021

Lent is the time for particular attention to sinfulness. Yet this year as in years past an increasing number of Catholics and others forego participation in the sacrament of reconciliation (aka confession). Why?

The dominant explanation is that workaday Christians simply do not feel sinful. Our culture is saturated with psychological language about self-fulfillment, replacing the language of evil. Yesterday’s poor behavior is merely a step on the way to a better self. As particularly related to sinfulness, the insights of addition theory, including the notion of denial, contribute to an assumption that foibles or weaknesses are just part of coping with stress. Addiction theory—normally quite helpful—is often enough wrongly appropriated as victim theory. In that guise it says bad actions are not immoral and surely not worth taking into a confessional. Bishop Fulton Sheen (1895-1979) often preached on this tension between psychology and sin. This was also the theme of Karl Menninger’s book, Whatever Became of Sin (Hawthorn, 1973).

An overlooked cause for the decline in individual sacramental confession is the penitential rite that occurs during every Mass. That is, worshipers properly conclude that their routine sins are forgiven in a sacramental way during the liturgy. Their conclusion, by the way, can be reached implicitly because the liturgy itself carries its efficacy.

The decline in the individual-style (aka “in the box”) sacrament of reconciliation might give an opening to consider social sin. In recent months many opinion leaders have pointed to the structural or systemic nature of several problems. Many institutions are confronting and reforming policies or habits that perpetuate serious social wrongs—offices that tolerate harassment of women, legislatures that allow corruption as a normal part of “getting things done,” Church officialdom that covers up for deviant personnel, a police fellowship that tacitly approves of misbehavior, etc. However, simply calling out a social sin seems to present more questions than opportunities.

There are four conditions for sin:

  • There must be behavior. Thinking about adultery, for example, is a grave temptation but not yet a sin. The person must minimally contact the other (one or both of whom is married to another). Suggestive flirting (the behavior) is the first action step into adultery.
  • The behavior must be objectively wrong. Although there’s a connection, guilt feelings are not the same as sin. Even in our libertine culture, some people confess matters that are not objectively sinful. Such scrupulosity includes those who confess the very same sinful incident a second time. Though guilt feelings may linger, a single confession bestows definitive forgiveness for a particular incident.
  • The objectively wrong behavior must be done knowingly. It is possible to honestly be ignorant of right and wrong; pre-school children, for example, or sometimes the mentally challenged. Rationalization, however, is a sin; as in “I didn’t know our company didn’t allow bribery.”
  • The objectively wrong behavior must be done willingly. It has to be an outcome of complete free will.

As we become aware of defective structures, the notion of social sin makes some sense. Racism, for example, is a social sin. But who is the sinner? What is the behavior? Oh yes, there are many culpable individuals who do sinfully racist things. For example, there is the person who joins a white supremacy group and promotes its message on the internet or during an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. This behavior is an individual sin, but it is also a product of our shameful history and is reinforced by anti-Black sentiment embedded in some local institutions. So who commits the social sin? Is it the supremacist group?

Further, once a social sin is named, how does confession and forgiveness occur? Is there, let’s say, structural grace? Several small civic and church groups now meet (usually in cyberspace) to discuss race relations. This can be an exercise in consciousness-raising, but what is the practical outcome? Did the group knowingly and willingly engage in any behavior (not guilt feelings) that it can confess as sinful? Can the group make any amends for structures of racism? For example, can the group integrate their neighborhood or a local school?

Despite its initial difficulties, let’s not yet give up on this idea of social sin. To be continued…

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

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