One hears, at times, frustration expressed that too many Catholics think only in terms of “personal morality” or “personal piety” and that insufficient attention is paid to social or political sin. Certainly, the results of an average Catholic’s examination of conscience might seem paltry on the stage of political activism. How can people worry about paltry wrongs such as, “I lied,” “I took the Lord’s name in vain,” or “I indulged in lustful thoughts,” when there are third world workers being cheated out of their just wages, the environment being destroyed, racism being perpetuated, nuclear weapons being built and imperialist wars being fought? Isn’t it time that we stopped obsessing over these small issues of lying and swearing and sex in order to concentrate on the massive, societal evils that afflict our country and our planet?
This line of thinking strikes me as, in the end, an approach no less dangerous than that of the Pharisee who was so notoriously contrasted with the publican. Why? Because while there are unquestionably social evils that afflict us at a wider level (though there is certainly room for debate as to the precise nature and cause of social evils, I don’t think there’s any question that such things do exist) morality must, in the end, be examined at the level of individual actions. And for us, that means our actions. Societies do not perform sins, people do. While it may make sense to talk about some pervasive evil such as racism as being a “social sin”, racism does not in fact consists of “society” being racist but rather of a number of individual people within a society behaving in a racist fashion. If workers are being treated badly or paid unjust wages, it is not because society does this, but because a certain number of individual people choose to commit those acts.
I think the instinct to think of the large scale problems as social rather than personal moral problems is that in many cases the social problems that people find themselves most concerned about involve actions that they are fairly remote from. Say, for instance, one reads about a clothing plant in China in which managers routinely lock workers in for 16-20 hour shifts, forcing them to work overtime in order to meet production quotas without their consent and without paying them for the additional hours worked. I don’t think it would be controversial to say that those factory owners and shift supervisors are acting wrongly — they they are far away from us and our ability to change their behavior is minimal.
And yet, people are often uncomfortable with admitting that there is little they can do about some evil that is being committed. And so, moral weight is assigned to another set of activities which surround the issue. Do you advocate against low wages and seek to raise awareness? Are you in solidarity with the oppressed? Do you buy local, or buy fair trade, or live sustainably? Do you denounce “the system”? Do you vote for change?
I do not want to argue that people should not engage in advocacy on issues they believe to be important. Helping other people to understand what is right is a moral action, and as citizens in a polity we also have a civic responsibility to persuade our fellow citizens to support policies which will be to the common good of us all. So I would certainly encourage people to engage in political advocacy on those issues they believe to be most pressing (whether that issue is abortion, unjust wages, immigration, human trafficking, etc.) But at the same time it seems to me important for us to remember that our most basic moral responsibility is for our own personal actions, not for advocacy we engage in or groups we join.
The great temptation with these social and political understandings of morality is that they make it all too tempting for people to put all their moral energy into focusing on other people’s sins rather than their own. In the story of the pharisee and the publican, the pharisee may in fact be a person who has committed fewer unjust and immoral actions than the publican, but his great fault is that when approaching God he asks not for forgiveness for his own sins (and the strength to avoid them in the future) but rather provides God with a quick run-down of everyone else’s sins.
Given that most of us do not have it within our personal power to mistreat third world workers, declare war, torture terror suspects or destroy wetlands, a heavy focus on issues such as these necessarily means focusing on the sins committed by others rather than the sins we ourselves commit. However un-exciting admissions such as “I gossiped about the guy in the next cube behind his back” or “I lied” or “I was short tempered with my kids” might be, if those are the sins we actually have the chance to do something about it is important that they be our primary focus in our moral life. When we focus on sins which are more distant to us to the exclusion of our own, we risk turning morality into an enemies list — a danger which is the same whether that list is populated with “torture advocates”, “economic imperialists” or “baby killers”. If he can convince us to focus, in this way, on the sins of others while allowing our own to fester (after all, they are so insignificant compared to the great injustices in the world!) the great tempter scores a victory, not a defeat.