Pope Francis speaks a lot about social sins, such as environmental degradation, racism, and anti-Christian economic structures. He is not the first pope to speak about environmentalism, but he is the first Pope to have written an encyclical devoted to the topic. He constantly denounces the oppression and injustice of our global economic system. He calls on us to work for social justice and peace.

In fact, his emphasis on social sin explains much of the opposition to his teaching. Particularly for those who self-identify as conservatives, the Pope’s message is upsetting. They say he should spend more time discussing personal morality, particularly personal sexual morality, and less time discussing social conditions. They joke about going to confession for sins committed against the environment.

The Catholic Tradition

A concern with social sin is very traditional for Catholics, however. As the Catechism says:

The consequences of original sin and of all men’s personal sins put the world as a whole in the sinful condition aptly described in St. John’s expression, “the sin of the world.” This expression can also refer to the negative influence exerted on people by communal situations and social structures that are the fruit of men’s sins. (408)

Sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a “social sin.” (1869)

Where sin has perverted the social climate, it is necessary to call for the conversion of hearts and appeal to the grace of God. Charity urges just reforms. There is no solution to the social question apart from the Gospel. (1896)

This concern about social conditions is grounded in the Bible. In both the New and the Old Testaments, the people of God are called to care for the poor and the oppressed. The prophets were never slow to speak the truth to power in the defense of the weak, and Christian saints have carried on this tradition.

In fact, traditionalist Catholics often talk about the “social reign of Christ the King.” Even though this concept is sometimes distorted to provide support for fascist or authoritarian political orders, it is grounded on a deeply Catholic realization. We are not saved as individuals, but as a group. We are called to become part of the Mystical Body of Christ that is the Church. As such, our Faith is a social phenomenon, not an individual hobby or viewpoint. This means that our faith has concrete social and political ramifications. Seen in the light of this long Catholic tradition, an aversion to discussing social sin looks less like authentic Catholicism and more like individualist Americanism dressed up in a Cappa Magna.

Current Ideologies

The world is currently obsessed with social sin. This makes it all the more important to emphasize Catholic teaching on the topic. At least in the United States, the public discourse on social or structural sin has fallen into dueling positions, both of which are flawed from a Christian viewpoint. As with many of our political and social debates, this one maps onto the false dichotomy between individualism and collectivism.

On the one hand, there is the so-called “conservative” position that denies or downplays the reality of social sin and structural injustice. Devout Christians are perhaps more likely to fall into this position. They realize that they have been redeemed from personal sin by Christ, and so can be tempted to see themselves as being fundamentally righteous. Such righteousness, however, tends to be limited to personal morality, particularly in the areas of sexual morality and outward religiosity. It runs the risk of conflating the Faith with social respectability and the suburban “good life.” And it can lead to a harsh, judgemental stance toward those who are in difficult or messy situations. Since the “conservative” believes only in personal responsibility and personal sin, those who are struggling are seen as being ultimately responsible for their own predicament. Having drawn a hard line between the “sinners” and the “just,” it is no surprise that conservatives see the very idea of social sin as a threat to their worldview. Accepting the reality of social sin would end up classifying them with the sinners and would shatter their illusions of self-reliance and private virtue.

On the other hand, there is the so-called “progressive” or “left-wing” position. Those who identify with the “progressive” position typically embrace the idea of social sin and the need for a struggle for social justice. However, this acceptance of the reality of social sin is often accompanied by a dismissal of personal sin. Just like the conservative position, it is also marred by a search for self-righteousness. Like the conservatives, progressives can be prone to seeing evil as being “out there,” as something belonging to the “bad guys.” Unlike the personal morality of the conservative, however, the righteousness of the progressive is typically found through membership in a group. Progressives seek redemption by holding the right views and backing the right causes.

As such, progressive activism can become rather shallow at times. For instance, exploitative companies often seek social acceptability by promoting progressive causes on social media and making token donations to progressive causes. On a more personal level, this shallowness can be seen in the phenomena of “Twitter activism.” It is painless to like or retweet radical slogans, engage in green consumerism, to put up the right lawn signs—painless and insufficient. It is easy to decry the injustices of the past—on a smartphone manufactured with slave labor. Even more authentic expressions of progressivism can sometimes overemphasize collective movements at the expense of personal conversion.

The progressive position is typically viewed as more supportive of mercy toward others. In many cases, however, this mercy is not extended to “outsiders” who reject the orthodoxy of the group. In fact, progressive social righteousness is sometimes ranked by how strongly progressives condemn and oppose the “enemy.” This can lead to a rejection of the past and of one’s own community as a way of avoiding the shameful burdens that come with being part of a historical community. While conservatives tend to avoid this burden by denying that it exists, progressives are more likely to avoid it by walling themselves off from it. Neither approach is authentically Christian. As Pope Francis writes in Let Us Dream:

What worried me about the anti-racist protests in the summer of 2020, when many statues of historical figures were toppled in several countries, was the desire to purify the past. Some wanted to project onto the past the history they would like to have now, which requires them to cancel what came before. But it should be the other way around. For there to be true history there must be memory, which demands that we acknowledge the paths already trod, even if they are shameful…

The ignominy of our past, in other words, is part of what and who we are. I recall this history not to praise past oppressors but to honor the witness and greatness of soul of the oppressed. There is a great danger in remembering the guilt of others in order to proclaim my own innocence.

Of course, those who pulled down statues did so to draw attention to the wrongs of the past, and to deny honor to those who committed those wrongs. But when I judge the past through the lens of the present, seeking to purge the past of its shame, I risk committing other injustices, reducing a person’s history to the wrong they did.

The past is always full of situations of shame: just read the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospels, which contains —as do all our families—quite a few characters who are hardly saints. Jesus does not reject his people or his history, but takes them up and teaches us to do likewise: not canceling the shame of the past but acknowledging it as it is.

Personal Morality and Social Justice

The personal morality championed by conservatives is praiseworthy, as is the social consciousness championed by progressives. Problems arise when they are set in opposition to each other, because these positions are the shattered fragments of a more coherent whole. As fragments, both are used as means to achieve righteousness, to position oneself as one of the “good guys” in contrast to the “bad guys” of the past or present. Both conservatives and progressives want to be on the “right side of history.”

To avoid such misuse, these fragments need to be reintegrated back into a single coherent position. Catholic spirituality can offer this needed coherence. Fundamentally, Catholic theology is premised on a realization of sin: both social sin and personal sin. There are no “good guys.” Except for Jesus and his mother, we are all sinners.

Christianity is ultimately about becoming conformed to Christ. He came in all humility and assumed the burden of human sin that did not belong to him, except insofar as he had chosen to become one of us. When he joined the crowd of sinners awaiting the baptism of John, he did not carry a sign proclaiming that he was not a “real” sinner! Instead, he got in line with the rest of us. His mercy did not shrink from our ugliness. With this example before us, we can’t refuse to show mercy to others by taking up their burdens. Part of this burden is spiritual. We should extend mercy to others by taking part of the blame for their sin upon ourselves. If those who are marginalized commit sin, how are we contributing to the unjust structures that lead them into temptation? If oppressors sin, are we not contributing to their sin of oppression? If we consume more than our fair share, then we are in fact oppressors stealing what belongs to another…and the average American consumes far more than a fair share of the world’s resources.

The Epistle of James tells us that external wars and disputes are the result of evil passions within individual souls. Laudato Si extends this idea to the created world; it tells us that “the external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” This movement from the internal to the external means that our personal stance before God is of the utmost importance. Conservatives are not wrong to emphasize personal conversion.

Neither are progressives wrong in emphasizing social justice. A true conversion is a turning from self-obsession toward concern for others. As the Epistle of James also tells us, such a turning requires material action. Those who merely wish that their brothers and sisters would be comfortable and well-fed, without sacrificing to bring about this desired condition, are condemned. Part of willing the good of others is a commitment to uprooting social sin. As Peter Maurin would say, we need to build a world where it is easier to be good.

This need for practical action dispels the idea of a merely personal morality. In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis reminds us that it is folly to imagine that we can remain healthy in a world that is sick. Similarly, it is folly to imagine that we can remain righteous and untroubled in a world that is burdened with social sin.

Image: Pope Francis meets with media, 2013. © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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