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Chapter 13: What Sin Is and What It Is Not

Question E: In what sense does sin extend beyond individual sinners?

1. Scripture often speaks of sin almost as if it were an autonomous power at work in the world. Thus St. Paul: “Sin will have no dominion over you” (Rom 6.14); sin misused the commandment so that it “might become sinful beyond measure” (Rom 7.13); the very cosmos is in “bondage to decay” (Rom 8.21). According to St. John, the world shares a common condition of sin (see Jn 1.29); it hates those who believe in Jesus (see Jn 15.18–20). Such passages have a true and important meaning, but one must be careful not to misunderstand what this is.

2. Clearly, sin is not simply deviation in isolated pieces of behavior. Sin is evil in the existential domain (see B above). It extends to all that exists by or is affected by sinful choices. Thus, of itself moral evil persists in the being of the person who sins, and one morally evil commitment can lead to many morally evil acts.

3. Moreover, sins in social acts affect members of the community who do not personally participate in them. When, for example, a nation does an injustice, all its citizens become involved whether or not they wish to be; to the extent they approve or needlessly tolerate the injustice, they share in doing it. Social injustices also tend to become institutionalized as part of the fabric of common life. Social processes and structures, cultural forms and products are marred by sin and embody more or less profound injustices.

4. Once embodied in social and cultural reality, such injustices take on a life of their own, independent of the primary modes of voluntariness of individuals, yet voluntary in some of the secondary ways previously described (9‑G). For example, the civil rights movement of recent decades has made us aware of much racial unfairness which we long shared in unawares. Furthermore, such injustices often lead to disease, generate anxiety, and prompt people to seek various escapes from the harsh realities of life.

5. Humankind is thus confronted not only with the particular sins of individuals but with a whole system of evil deriving from both original sin and actual sins, individual and social. In consequence, not only are there individual souls to be saved—there is a world to be redeemed (see GS 13 and 25).8 People need also to be saved from the slavery of fear of death (see Heb 2.14–15) and from the malaise which accompanies sin (see Lk 5.17–26; Jn 5.14).

6. Although an individual’s suffering cannot always be explained by the fact that he or she has sinned (see Jn 9.2–3), still moral evil and the other miseries which afflict us cannot be neatly compartmentalized. The perception that there are some intimate connections between sin and palpable human suffering constitutes a permanent temptation to accord to sin a reality in itself. Some erroneously elevate sin to the status of a superhuman power, sometimes identified with the devil, and consider evil a primary reality apart from and opposed to God. This line of thought leads to Manichaeism. Evil is objectivized, and the reality of personal moral responsibility is denied. Much modern secular humanist ideology moves in this direction.

7. Christian faith makes it clear that, while there is a moral element to all human misery, this can be explained without positing a source of evil independent of sin. The doctrine of original sin clarifies this matter. Similarly, it does not follow from the fact of social sin that because all share responsibility, no one is guilty. Every social sin originates in and is perpetuated by people’s personal wrong choices—which, however, are sometimes only materially, not formally, sinful. Particular persons are responsible, for instance, for initiating such social sins as unjust wars, the oppression of minorities, the waste of natural resources, and needless damage to the environment.

A serious Christian analyst of complex social problems must refrain from the easy moralism common among less committed social critics and the deterministic analysis of secular humanists. Christian social reflection must trace the lines of responsibility back to the many and diverse wrong choices in which they originate. The choices which contribute to social sins can be of very different kinds, yet share in common effects. For example, various businesses might collaborate in carrying on an industry which unjustly exploits the poor in an underdeveloped nation; consumers in industrialized nations might indulge themselves with the products of such an industry with no concern for the source of supply; government officials might collaborate to make the system work; many people who could bring the matter to light and help rectify it instead choose to spend their time in idle chatter and pointless amusements.

8. See Dionigi Tettamanzi, “La Dimensione Ecclesiale e Sociale del Peccato del Cristiano,” La Scuola Cattolica, 107 (1979), 516–44; Patrick Kerans, Sinful Social Structures (New York: Paulist Press, 1974), 5–7 and 55–82.