Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 16: Personal Sin and Social Sin, Part 1

This section on Personal Sin and Social Sin is long and significant, and we’ll take some care with it over this post and the four that follow.

The main sticking point in this section, as I recall the discussion from the 80s, (and which we’ll cover in detail in part 5 next Monday) was Pope John Paul II’s dismissal of one element often referred to as “social sin,” as he claims it was stressed in some liberation theologies.

I find myself in agreement with him on one important principle: sin is perpetrated by persons. Not systems, groups, or ideologies. The Holy Father saw a danger in a kind of absolving individual persons from culpability, which may be a partial misreading of liberation theology.

That being said, individual persons find themselves sinned against in grievous ways over long periods of time, as part of a cultural acceptance of a persistent wrongdoing. Slavery is a grave evil, violating the basic freedom of individual persons. But individual persons, no matter how clouded they may be by cultural norms, persist in sin by buying, selling, mistreating, and even just possessing slaves. The Church teaches that mortal sin must include a personal awareness of intentional separation from God. Frustrating to those who might desire to label people as sinners, but it might well be that a slaver’s acts are always mortally sinful, but the individual has yet to awaken to the evil.

Enough commentary; let the sainted pope tell it:

16. Sin, in the proper sense, is always a personal act, since it is an act of freedom on the part of an individual person and not properly of a group or community. This individual may be conditioned, incited and influenced by numerous and powerful external factors. He (or she) may also be subjected to tendencies, defects and habits linked with (their) personal condition. In not a few cases such external and internal factors may attenuate, to a greater or lesser degree, the person’s freedom and therefore his responsibility and guilt.

At the root of John Paul II’s teaching is the reality of human freedom:

But it is a truth of faith, also confirmed by our experience and reason, that the human person is free. This truth cannot be disregarded in order to place the blame for individuals’ sins on external factors such as structures, systems or other people.

I would stress this includes placing the blame on supernatural beings as well, despite what comedian Flip Wilson promoted in the last century. I continue to see many Christians excuse objectively sinful behavior by blaming it on cultural factors. (Like a few people in the comments here.)

Above all, this would be to deny the person’s dignity and freedom, which are manifested-even though in a negative and disastrous way-also in this responsibility for sin committed. Hence there is nothing so personal and untransferable in each individual as merit for virtue or responsibility for sin.

As a personal act, sin has its first and most important consequences in the sinner (her- or) himself: that is, in (their) relationship with God, who is the very foundation of human life; and also in (their) spirit, weakening (their) will and clouding (their) intellect.

This reference to “clouding” has appeared previously in this document. The word is apt. Many times we find ourselves operating as if in a fog, swept along with limited sight along paths we might not choose in direct sunlight.

This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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