Structural sin is personal sin deflected and justified
We hear a great deal today about systemic or structural sin, such as systemic racism. And the truth is that we all participate in sin in many more or less institutionalized forms. We take certain modes of action for granted, without examining the network of institutions, beliefs and habits which underlie the results such “systems” produce. What sound Catholic would deny, for example, that contraception and abortion are systemic or structural sins today, as well as personal ones? That is an inescapable problem in life. But we also take advantage of systemic or structural sin to deflect our own personal guilt.
Most social, political and economic “orders” are unjust in significant ways. It is to temper such injustices that the prophets of the Old Testament so frequently reminded the Israelites to care particularly for those who were injured by, or fell through the gaps in, the prevailing “order”—especially widows and orphans. This is also why Jews who had been taken into slavery by other Jews to pay debts were supposed to be released from bondage after seven years. Also, under Jewish law, ancestral properties which had been alienated to pay debts were returned to their originating families in the Jubilee Year, which occurred after “seven sabbaths of years, even forty-nine years” (cf. Lev 25:8-13).
The Sabbath and Jubilee years were too often observed in the breach, as is true of our habitual concern for the marginalized in our own society. Often we don’t think much about the problem, or don’t see what we can do about it beyond occasional acts of charity. A habitually stable social life is very difficult unless a certain status quo is taken for granted, at least within broad limits. It is part of the human condition that some prosper and some decline under any given set of conditions, and the institutional arrangements of any society evolve and develop in ways that suit the needs and goals of those classes of people with the most power, wealth and influence.
We know all this, and we think about it more often as modern society continues to evolve into a perpetually “managed” or even totalitarian society, not so much because of a brutal and repressive power group as because of the shared values of the dominant commercial/governmental class. It belongs primarily to perceptive, moral and courageous politicians and judges to attempt prudently to restrain the worst excesses and greatest inequities, since excesses and inequities are inseparable from social life and social arrangements. And it belongs to strong families and charitable institutions and individuals to attempt to help those who would otherwise fall through the cracks in the habitual structures of any given society—that is, to help those whom a particular social order is not, or perhaps even cannot be, designed to help—to offer, as we might say, “a leg up”.
There is no question, of course, that some individuals and groups fail to live responsibly as human persons. But there is also no question that it is far more difficult for some to exercise such habits of responsibility successfully, depending on their background and options and the place in society from which they begin. It should go without saying that a good Catholic, above all other people, has more reason to be aware of and try to assist those who are in special need, through a love of and sacrifice for neighbor which is also a love of and sacrifice for God.
But that is not the whole story.
Over 1600 years ago, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote: “Man spins out a whole net of falsities around his spirit by the repeated consecration of his whole self to values that do not exist.” In addition to dominant cultures with intrinsic unrecognized shortcomings, there are dominant narratives which are carried forward not only by persons and families but, increasingly, by the media and educational institutions which are informed by the dominant culture. This includes what we call “virtue signaling”, and it is important to note that secular cultures signal virtue in substantially different ways from religious cultures.
This virtue-signaling arises inescapably from the sense of guilt which is entirely natural to the human condition, and which may be at times denied but never escaped. For Christians, this sense of guilt is deliberately focused on personal sins. While Christians may not always recognize clearly the particular forms of heartlessness and even violations of “fairness” which are endemic to the cultures of which they are a part, when they do recognize them they typically recognize that they are personally involved in the pattern and must strive to break the pattern in their own spheres of influence through deliberate changes in their own behavior.
That’s how Christian guilt works. It is largely the same as with our own more obvious personal sins. Certain evils that are protected or fostered by the larger patterns of any given culture—in our families, our socializing, our businesses, and our laws and governments—become opportunities for the recognition of our own personal failure to mitigate these evils, first through our own cultivation of missing virtue, and then through whatever influence we can bring to bear on those around us, those with whom we interact, those for whom we vote, and so on.
Yet that is most definitely not how guilt works for secularists, for it is in the nature of secularists to be in denial. Refusing to acknowledge an authentically spiritual horizon—a God who is to be worshipped, a conversion that is to bear personal fruit here and now so that the converted can be welcomed joyfully in heaven—secularists must find a different way of dealing with guilt, which is the human person’s natural response to sin. If a Christian seeks to renew himself to be worthy of the perfect society of love in heaven, the secularist seeks to transform his earthly heaven by eradicating the attitudes and influence of others whom he sees as impeding the progress of a worldly paradise.
Sometimes this requires the marginalization of particular groups believed to stand in the way of a permanent earthly paradise (as if anything earthly were permanent); sometimes it requires more overt revolutionary action to raise up a new right-thinking regime which promises to force social perfection on all those who fail to see the great promise of each new worldly moment. Now, Satan, of course, operates at the heart of moral zealotry (as opposed to moral goodness), ever hiding his face and his purposes under the guise of an angel of light—and we are not wrong to notice that secularists are far more likely to acknowledge Satan than to acknowledge God.
But the point is that, even as the true Christian takes the guilt of others onto himself, the secularist continually projects his own guilt onto others, making them almost literally the scapegoats, sacrificing them to the brave new world. And yet nothing ever suffices to end the relentless cycle of enforced change to create a misconceived heaven on earth.
This is what I mean in my title which says that “structural sin is personal sin deflected and justified”. Pope St. John Paul II made this same point in his 1985 “Letter to Youth” (Dilecti Amici) when he wrote the following:
The strategy which he [Satan] used and continues to use is that of not revealing himself, so that the evil implanted by him from the beginning may receive its development from man himself, from systems and from relationships between individuals, from classes and nations—so as also to become ever more a ‘structural’ sin, ever less identifiable as ‘personal sin’. In other words, so that man may feel in a certain sense ‘freed’ from sin but at the same time be ever more deeply immersed in it.
Moreover, the secularist continually projects his own sins onto others, thereby justifying himself—placing himself on the road to paradise by remaining on the “right side of history”. It is always others who must be reformed or eliminated. This does not mean there are no systemic or structural sins. It is inevitable that the habitual sins of a society will be reflected deeply in its social, economic and political arrangements, precisely where they are at once harder to see and harder to correct. But it does mean that secularists can also selectively evade personal reform by denouncing the “system” and the “structure”, in the vain hope of creating sinless institutions without freeing anyone of his own sins.
In any case, the difference between the Christian and the secularist is clear. To use a new term which is very convenient in this context: The secularist projects his guilt onto the world at large and asks: “To create the perfect world, what must be changed and whom must I cancel?” But the Christian, who is always profoundly ashamed, asks: “To love God better, how must I change and whom must I help?” And when enough Christians ask enough hard questions of themselves, “structural sin” recedes.
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