Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16

Tuesday, April 6, AD 2010

In light of the fascinating discussion of personal and social sin kicked off most recently by Darwin here (make sure and read the comments) and followed up by Joe here, I thought it would be worth posting article 16 of John Paul the Great’s post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, entitled “Personal and Social Sin”. It’s obviously very pertinent, yet unless I missed it, no one has referenced it yet. The actual text is below the break. As the reader will note, one point relevant to the discussion here is that sin properly speaking is an act on the part of an individual person. Yet while social sin is such only in an analogous sense, JPII makes clear that it does describe something real. Now, on to the text.

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6 Responses to Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16

  • Great stuff. I would add the pertinent section of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:

    117. The mystery of sin is composed of a twofold wound, which the sinner opens in his own side and in the relationship with his neighbour. That is why we can speak of personal and social sin. Every sin is personal under a certain aspect; under another, every sin is social, insofar as and because it also has social consequences. In its true sense, sin is always an act of the person, because it is the free act of an individual person and not properly speaking of a group or community. The character of social sin can unquestionably be ascribed to every sin, taking into account the fact that “by 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”[226]. It is not, however, legitimate or acceptable to understand social sin in a way that, more or less consciously, leads to a weakening or the virtual cancellation of the personal component by admitting only social guilt and responsibility. At the bottom of every situation of sin there is always the individual who sins.

    118. 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”[227].

    119. 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[228]. 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[229]. The actions and attitudes opposed to the will of God and the good of neighbour, as well as the structures arising from such behaviour, appear to fall into two categories today: “on the one hand, the all-consuming desire for profit, and on the other, the thirst for power, with the intention of imposing one’s will upon others. In order to characterize better each of these attitudes, one can add the expression: ‘at any price”'[230].

  • I agree that this is good stuff. I would only want to point to a couple problematic or confusing parts, toward the end.

    The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals.

    I’d say persons rather than individuals. In other words, there is no “system” or “situation” apart from human persons.

    A situation-or likewise an institution, a structure, society itself-is not in itself the subject of moral acts. Hence a situation cannot in itself be good or bad.

    The last sentence undermines everything he said about the “culture of death.” Is a “situation” in which abortion is considered birth control NOT “bad”?

    At the heart of every situation of sin are always to be found sinful people. So true is this that even when such a situation can be changed in its structural and institutional aspects by the force of law or-as unfortunately more often happens by the law of force, the change in fact proves to be incomplete, of short duration and ultimately vain and ineffective-not to say counterproductive if the people directly or indirectly responsible for that situation are not converted.

    Notice all he aid was that systemic change does not complete the job. He did not say that the way to change structures of sin or sinful “situations” is merely to “change hearts,” which is the nonsense we hear from politically conservative Catholics.

  • (A complaint about the title “JP the Great” would be off-topic, and I don’t want to ruin the potential thread, but I hope I get the chance to rail against that some time.)

  • Thank you for the authoritative reference. I suspect Darwin agrees with all of what Pope John Paul II writes here. Sin is a personal act with individual and social consequences.

  • Thanks, Chris. What John Paul II says here clarifies things for me a lot, especially in regards to the correct use of the terminology of “social sin”.

    It sounds like in my original post what I was attempting to address was not a dichotomy of “social sin” versus “personal sin”, but rather an offshoot of what John Paul II says in his fourth paragraph from the last in regards to those who assign virtually all blame to structures of sin and none to the person acting. Further, I’d say what I was attempting to address was a side-issue of this tendency to place huge emphasis on structures of sin over personal will, which is the tendency to ridicule the important of focusing on avoiding ones own sins and instead place primary moral weight on whether one is correctly alligned on combating structures of sin in the wider society. Essentially, dismissing most sins one is capable of committing oneself as unimportant and instead chosing to focus almost exclusively on whether ones advocacy is in the right place.

    I think if I re-wrote the post I would drop the term “social sin” entirely and focus on the primary point of how advocacy and aligning oneself with large just causes can not be a substitute for pursuing virtue in one’s own life.

  • Darwin,

    I think that approach would be best! Our enemy here is fatalism, determinism, and any other theory that deprives man of free will and moral culpability.

    For all of the ranting and raving some people do here about our “Calvinism” (in addition to our “Americanism”, “individualism”, “liberalism” and the like), I sure see a lot of Protestant-sounding opposition to the concept of personal sin.