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Structures of Sin

By Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
November 2021

Many Christians, including Catholics, have difficulty understanding that “structures of sin” may exist separately from our own individual sins. I suspect that certain religious and political strains of thought in the United States that emphasize the individual as paramount contribute to this problem. The false idea that we are autonomous individuals acting in isolation prevents us from accepting and addressing the social consequences of our sins and the sins of others.

A sin is a personal act. (
CCC 1868) Only individual persons can sin. The consequences of sin, however, are always personal and social. Sin ruptures our relationship with God, but it also ruptures our relationships with each other.

Saint John Paul II put it this way: “The mystery of sin is composed of this twofold wound which the sinner opens in himself and in his relationship with his neighbor. Therefore one can speak of personal and social sin: From one point of view, every sin is personal; from another point of view, every sin is social insofar as and because it also has social repercussions.” (
Reconciliatio et Paenitentia). 

This is easy for us to understand when the sin is of a direct social nature, such as lying to your spouse or stealing from your neighbor. What is harder to understand is how sin has a social consequence when the sin was not directed at another person or we do not see the consequence.

One reason that is hard to understand is that it is part of the mystery of sin and the social nature of the human person. Created in the image and likeness of God — whom, being of three persons, is social by nature — we are social creatures, mysteriously connected to all persons, near and far, past and present. That connection is hard to see and even accept in this individualistic society, yet it exists nevertheless. When we sin, therefore, we rupture that relationship, and the consequences of our sins become social in ways that we may never see in our life in this world. Saint John Paul II wrote: “[B]y virtue of human solidarity which is as mysterious and intangible as it is real and concrete, each individual's sin in some way affects others.”

The social consequences of our sin can build up and become what the Catholic Church calls “structures of sin.” The Catechism describes it this way: “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.” (CCC no.1869)

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church teaches that these structures of sin “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 . . .” (
CSDC No. 119.)

Structures of sin are rooted and have their origin in personal sin. We, personally, may not have created them. Other persons, sometimes many others over decades or centuries, might have created them. Still, as members of the human family and because we are called to solidarity, we have an obligation to address them and eliminate them.

Where are these structures of sin?  This is where the teachings of the last three popes can be difficult for people to accept. Structures of sin may not be obvious evils like an abortion clinic or acts of genocide. They can exist in our laws, cultural customs, financial systems, and business practices. Although these structures cannot themselves sin — only people can sin — these structures may be evil in and of themselves, further injustices, restrict the ability of people to develop to their full potential, impair the ability of people to freely choose what is right. This is what is meant when the Church talks about structures of sin “conditioning human conduct.”  

Structures of sin, therefore, can make systems of law, business, and even technology that are racist, pro-abortion, anti-immigrant, hostile to the poor, and threatening to the environment. Whether or not we intend to further the wrongs built into these systems or the sins that created them, we can find ourselves living, working, and even perpetuating them. 

In all forms, it is our responsibility to remove them. In
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Saint John Paul II wrote at length about how our common existence and the virtue of solidarity compels us to identify and address these structures of sin. The answer, he taught, does not rest solely in changing our own actions toward individuals, but also addressing the structures through the political process, but always with an eye on acknowledging our own sins and responsibilities.

During this Advent season, we should, in addition to taking time to acknowledge and confess our individual sins, identify and work to remove the structures of sin around us.

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The North Dakota Catholic Conference acts on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota to respond to public policy issues of concern to the Catholic Church and to educate Catholics and the general public about Catholic social doctrine.
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