Social Sin and Structures of Sin What Are We To Do?

"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' "

Matthew 25:35-36

Our topic for discussion here focuses on social sin but to understand social sin we must first understand what sin is. In 1999, Pope John Paul II said, "Now, looking at the world today we have to admit that there is a marked decline in the consciousness of sin. Because of widespread religious indifference or the rejection of all that right reason and Revelation tell us about God, many men and women lack a sense of God's Covenant and of his commandments. All too often the human sense of responsibility is blurred by a claim to absolute freedom, which it considers threatened and compromised by God, the supreme legislator." ("General Audience, Wednesday August 25, 1999", paragraph 2).

How we define sin? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraphs 1849-1850, "Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as "an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law."  Sin is an offense against God: "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight." Sin sets itself against God's love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become "like gods," knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus "love of oneself even to contempt of God."In this proud self-exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation."

There are two degrees of sin, mortal and venial. Mortal sin separates us from the love of God while venial sin wounds our relationship with God but it does not break it. There are three conditions that must be meet for an action to be a mortal sin. It must be grave matter, we must know the action to be grave matter, and we must consent to the action. Thus, any action we are forced to do against our will does not constitute mortal sin (CCC, 1854-55).

The obvious question is what is grave matter? Grave matter are those acts that are known to offend God. We can know that the actions are offend God through scripture, the teaching of the Church (cf. CCC 1852), and our use of reason.

Generally, when we talk about sin we are talking about the individual acts we do ourselves. We are not personally responsible for the sins of others. However, we share in their sin if we help others by helping them, protecting them, or not doing what we can to stop them (CCC, 1869).

Personal sin affects our own relationship with God. Social sin are those actions of ours that affect the people around us and our relationship with them. We read in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, "Certain sins, moreover, constitute by their very object a direct assault on one's neighbour. Such sins in particular are known as social sins. Social sin is every sin committed against the justice due in relations between individuals, between the individual and the community, and also between the community and the individual. Social too is every sin against the rights of the human person, starting with the right to life, including that of life in the womb, and every sin against the physical integrity of the individual; every sin against the freedom of others, especially against the supreme freedom to believe in God and worship him; and every sin against the dignity and honour of one's neighbour. Every sin against the common good and its demands, in the whole broad area of rights and duties of citizens, is also social sin. In the end, social sin is that sin that “refers to the relationships between the various human communities. These relationships are not always in accordance with the plan of God, who intends that there be justice in the world and freedom and peace between individuals, groups and peoples” (118)."

Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to love our neighbor. Thus, it is sinful to ignore the needs of others. Can we help with every one of their needs? As individuals it is unlikely, but we must do what we can do to help.

From individual sin comes social sin in a larger sense. The combined effects of our sin form Structures of Sin. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states, "The consequences of sin perpetuate the structures of sin. These are rooted in personal sin and, therefore, are always connected to concrete acts of the individuals who commit them, consolidate them and make it difficult to remove them. It is thus that they grow stronger, spread and become sources of other sins, conditioning human conduct. These are obstacles and conditioning that go well beyond the actions and brief life span of the individual and interfere also in the process of the development of peoples, the delay and slow pace of which must be judged in this light (119)."

These structures of sin can be things like racial attitudes that keep us from recognizing the dignity of all people, thinking ourselves better than others. These structures can also be official public policy like the old segregation policies eliminated in the civil rights movements in the 1960's. Today, examples of structures of sin might be policies that keep people living in poverty from being able to better themselves. It isn't that policies explicitly say the poor must remain poor. Rather, the policies fail to ensure that the have the opportunity to advance themselves. As such they are sins of omission rather than commission (cf.Pope John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliation and Penances, 16). It is the attitude that is sinful. In sins of omission it is our failure to care enough to act that makes it sin.

We can act against these structures of sin in two ways. First, there is always direct charity where we do what we can to help the people by providing assistance, whether by offering financial help or volunteering our time in some way to help. The other way to work against structures of sin is to advocate to change public policy. How do you do this? First you must be aware of the needs of others. In your own community this can be as simple as looking around you. It also means looking at both your local news and the national/world news to see the needs of people beyond your own neighbor. When you are following the news, also pay attention to what issues are being debating by the various governmental bodies. Then, write or call your legislators when they are debating on these issues.

Help those who you can and stand up for the rights of all in need.

For Further Reading

Other Sources

Catechism of the Catholic Church Second Edition. English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the United States of America copyright © 1994, United States Catholic Conference, Inc.—Libreria Editrice Vaticana. English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Modifications from the Editio Typica copyright © 1997, United States Catholic Conference, Inc. Available online at

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Available at the Vatican Website ( at

Pope John Paul II, "General Audience, Wednesday August 25, 1999". Available online at

Pope John Paul II, "Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliation and Penance to the Bishops, Clergy, and Faithful on Reconciliation and Penance in the mission of the Church Today. 1984. Available online at

Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). Available at the Vatican Web Site ( at