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Chapter 15: Distinctions among Sins; Sins of Thought

Question D: How can an individual become guilty of a mortal sin by involvement in a group which acts in a seriously wrong way?

1. Groups can sin. But to what extent do members of a group share personally in its sins? In particular, how can one be guilty of mortal sin by involvement in a group which does serious wrong?6 Earlier we saw how one individual can be responsible for the actions of another (see 2‑F, 12‑G, and 13‑E). At issue here is the responsibility of a group member for his or her involvement in the group’s action.

2. Societies engage in no positive acts except by the personal acts of some of their members. Those who do what constitutes an immoral social act are responsible both for their personal wrongdoing and for the wrongdoing of society to which they contribute. For example, the leaders of a nation which wages an unjust war are guilty both of abusing their office and of the injustices which make up the unjust war.

3. For a society to fail to do something will be a grave omission only if some of its members could and ought to act in a manner which would constitute a required social act. Those who choose to omit acts which would cause the society to fulfill its grave responsibilities, or who deliberately choose in ways which will make it impossible for society to do so, can be gravely responsible for both their own omissions and the social omissions which they cause.

For example, if a student in a boarding school is becoming deranged, other students have a collective responsibility to inform the rector of the problem. If the situation is serious enough (always assuming sufficient reflection and the relevant choice), those who could and should act but fail to do so are gravely responsible not only for their personal failing but for the irresponsibility of the student body to which they belong.

4. Often a society engages in an action which some of its members consider immoral or omits something which some think it has a serious obligation to do. The responsibility of members in such cases cannot extend beyond their power to affect their society’s actions. If, for example, one’s country carries on an unjust war, one’s responsibility cannot extend beyond one’s power to stop the war or, at least, to withhold personal involvement in it.

5. Individuals do have a responsibility to rectify the actions of groups to which they belong, but this responsibility is nonabsolute. Conscientious people in particular may be aware of innumerable wrongs by groups of which they are members; actively attempting to rectify them all would exhaust their time and talent. In such cases, the norms of resolving conflicts of duties (discussed in 12‑E) apply. Those whose lives are already organized by upright commitments which they strive to fulfill and which include no special commitment to righting social ills generally have no responsibility to take an activist stance toward social wrongs.

For example, a cloistered nun or the mother of a large family probably is not morally responsible for doing the political work which might be necessary and useful to change unjust public policies toward underdeveloped nations. However, a person whose life is not organized by personal vocational commitments and who spends much time and energy in self-gratifying amusements could have a grave responsibility to become politically active in the cause of justice.

6. Sometimes an individual can avoid contributing to a group’s immoral action simply by not doing something. Even in such cases, the responsibility not to act is nonabsolute, provided the socially required act can be done for some good. For example, paying taxes furthers many evil acts of a society, and a citizen might avoid involvement in these acts by refusing to pay taxes. Most societies, however, also do many good acts, and citizens can be justified and even obliged to pay taxes to further these and avoid imposing heavier burdens on those less able to bear them. Similarly, one who thinks a war unjust has a nonabsolute obligation to refuse to register for service; but such a person could be justified in registering to avoid the legal penalties for draft evasion.

7. Nevertheless, no group member can rightly do things which directly contribute to the group’s wrongdoing and of themselves do nothing else. Thus, a person who thinks a war immoral has a grave obligation not to take part in any military action in that war. The fact that refusal might entail criticism, legal penalties, even death, does not justify doing what one believes immoral.

6. For a survey of relevant literature: Dionigi Tettamanzi, “La Dimensione Ecclesiale e Sociale del Peccato del Cristiano,” La Scuola Cattolica, 107 (1979), 516–38.