The concept of social sin is derived from the biblical account of Israel's struggle to remain faithful to the terms of the ancient covenant. Torah committed Israel to a life of society free of the inequality and exploitation that characterized its own existence in the Egyptian land of bondage. Whenever Israel tolerated the oppression of the poor, of orphans, widows and immigrants, the prophets accused the people of collective infidelity to God. To know God was to do justice (Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah). Jesus himself included in his mission the release of captives and the liberation of the oppressed (Lk 4.18–19).
De-privatization. The concept of social sin has come to the fore in post–Vatican II Catholic theology, especially political theology and liberation theology, and has assumed a prominent place in the Church's social teaching. One of the principal tasks of political theology, according to J.-B. Metz, is the "de-privatization" of the Christian message, i.e., the overcoming of the inherited individualistic interpretation of sin, conversion, and new life, and the retrieval of the original social dimension of the Good News. Sin has both a personal and a social dimension; and the two are interrelated. One of the tasks of Latin American liberation theology is the analysis of the structures of marginalization that inflict misery and hopelessness on the people of that continent. In A Theology of Liberation, G. Gutierrez argues that institutionalized injustice reveals the collective dimension of human sin.
Since post–Vatican II Catholic social teaching based itself, not on the inherited natural law theory, but on biblical revelation and, guided by its light, on human reason, the ecclesiastical documents began to use theological terms to designate the violations of justice. Institutions that violate justice are called sinful.
Influenced by the perspective of the Medellin Conclusions (Latin American Bishops Conference 1968), the statement "Justitia en mundo" published by the 1971 Synod of Bishops, spoke of "recognizing sin in its individual and social manifestation" (n. 51) and acknowledged that the dynamism of the gospel "frees men from personal sin and from its consequences in social life" (n.5). The statement recognized "the network of domination, oppression and abuses" (n. 3) that was being built around the world and that stifled freedom and kept the greater part of humanity excluded from power and resources.
Institutional Injustice. The Church itself is not altogether free of social sin. The same statement demanded that the Catholic Church critically evaluate its own self-organization (nn. 40–48).
Within the Church rights must be preserved …(n. 41). We also urge that women should have their own share of responsibility and participation in community life … of the Church (n. 42). The Church recognizes everyone's right to suitable freedom of expression and thought. This includes the right of everyone to be heard in a spirit of dialogue which preserves a legitimate diversity within the Church (n. 44).
Social sin refers to institutionalized injustices. At Medellin the bishops spoke of situations that were so massively unjust that they had to be called "institutionalized violence." The Canadian bishops, following John Paul II, spoke of the plague of unemployment as a "moral evil" and as "symptomatic of a basic moral disorder" (Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis, n. 3; cf. Redemptor hominis, n. 52). In their pastoral, "Economic Justice for All" (1986), the North American bishops defined injustice as the structured exclusion of people from political, economic, and cultural participation in society (n. 77). Since these patterns of exclusion are created by free human beings, "they can be called forms of social sin" (n. 77).
The notion of social sin has not yet been fully explored theologically. Since the term "sin" usually refers to a personal option, how can one speak of sinful institutions or sinful structures? Replying to this question, the Vatican Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (1986) recognized that sin in the primary sense refers to voluntary acts, but because unjust structures are created by sinful humans, it is possible to speak of "sinful structures" and "social sin" in a derived and secondary sense (n. 75).
Source and Consequence. How do structures become sinful? The ecclesiastical documents offer several suggestions. First, and most obviously, structures may be sinful because they have been created by sinful men to institutionalize exploitation and discrimination. More often, however, institutions are created to serve a good purpose. How, then, do they become sinful? In Redemptor hominis (n. 15), John Paul II introduced dialectical thinking into Catholic theological reflection. He argued that what humans produce with the best of intentions often turns against them in the long run. Instruments and institutions created to serve human purposes may actually come to control their masters and exercise dehumanizing influence. It follows from this that it always remains necessary to test structures to see if they still serve their purpose or if they have come to damage human life. If the latter is true, personal sin enters the situation only when those in charge refuse to be critical and rebuild the inherited structures. "Acquiescence with sinful structures or failure to correct them when it is possible to do so is a sinful dereliction of Christian duty" (Economic Justice for All, n. 77).
This dialectic reveals how even holy institutions, such as the Church, created in accordance with the demands of justice and love, can become tainted by social sin. Administrative structures set up to serve the life of the community may, after a period of time, actually become obstacles to the Spirit-guided unfolding of this life. The sin is then not in the founders of these structures but in those who refuse to recognize the present damage and resist efforts to reconstruct them.
Personal sins, then, generate social sin. Conversely, social sin multiplies personal sins. Marginalization creates conditions that foster resentment and despair in the victims and thus easily provoke irrational responses. More than that, since institutionalized injustice affects all members of society, it creates conditions that facilitate personal sin on all levels. Social sin distorts people's perception of reality; it makes them see the structures of marginalization as natural and necessary; it falsifies their moral conscience. That is why the Medellin Conclusions (Justice nn. 17, 20, 23) included "conscientization" in the Church's pastoral mission, i.e., the raising of people's consciousness in regard to the historical obstacles that prevent them from assuming responsibility for their lives. Social sin, often hidden by the dominant culture, must be made visible.
Bibliography: g. baum, Religion and Alienation (New York 1975). d. dorr, Option for the Poor (Maryknoll, NY 1983) j.-b. metz, Theology of the World (New York 1973). p. kerans, Sinful Social Structures (New York 1974).