This essay is part of our series on Race and Racism in America. See the full collection here.

In the modern world, our daily lives rely on the actions of innumerable other people, most of whom we will never meet. The regulator who inspects meat plants, the manager of the oil field in Nigeria, and the countless laborers of a large supply chain all work together to bring us our $5 drive-thru lunches. It’s natural to ask ourselves: if the products we buy and the comforts we enjoy were made possible by oppression or injustice, are we morally culpable for that injustice?

These questions are bound up with our understanding of sin. For Christians, the idea of sin implies guilt and responsibility, the forgiveness of which is perhaps the core characteristic both of Jesus’s own public ministry and of the meaning attributed to his death. The forgiveness hinges on a willingness to admit our responsibility for our sins, as well as a resolution to “go and sin no more.”

In the centuries leading up to the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic tradition became very “act-centered” in its understanding of sin, due in large part to legalism and the emphasis on naming individual sins in sacramental confessional. But as the notion of sin narrowed, the structures of society were becoming more complex.

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This combination of a highly individual act-centered notion of sin and a society of complex, structurally-mediated relationships led the Catholic tradition to talk about “structures of sin” or “social sin.” Though the concept originated in Marxist-inspired Latin American liberation theology in the late 1960s, Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI also relied on the term. While it is often misunderstood, the concept can help us to understand the theological dimensions of social problems. It emphasizes our individual responsibility to confront the reality of the social structures within which we live, choose, and act.

John Paul II and Benedict XVI on Structures of Sin

The idea of structural sin may initially seem counterintuitive. Can a structure be “responsible”? Can it seek forgiveness? Why introduce this confusing concept?

In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II observes that, while “structures of sin” are “rooted in personal sin,” they tend to “grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people’s behavior.” According to John Paul II, “one cannot easily gain a profound understanding of the reality that confronts us unless we give a name to the root of the evils which afflict us.” In his view, social analysis that refuses theological categories is not properly grasping reality as it really is. Yet the opposite is also true: overly individualistic theological analysis that ignores social reality ignores reality, too.

In Caritas in Veritate, his 2009 analysis of the global economy after the financial crisis, Benedict XVI likewise emphasizes the necessity of an explicitly theological analysis of social structures, such as the market. He insists that “the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift . . . can and must find their place within normal economic activity” and “not only outside it or ‘after’ it.” If John Paul II talked of structures of sin, Benedict XVI was equally insistent that the world needed social structures of grace.

The documents are careful to avoid imputing agency to structures, as if structures directly and unambiguously cause sin. Thus, John Paul avoided certain terms, like “social sin” or “structural sin,” which might suggest that structures themselves did things. At its worst, such a notion suggests that, if structures were reformed, sin itself might be erased. This tempting but secular idea is consistently rejected. While the transformation of structures is necessary, it is not sufficient; it necessarily requires personal conversion as well.

Social Positions, Individual Choices, and Personal Responsibility

Still, the relationship between structures and individual agency is not carefully articulated in these papal documents. In his 2016 article “What is a Sinful Social Structure?” Daniel K. Finn has worked to overcome this difficulty.

Finn prefers the term “sinful social structures” because it clearly indicates that structures themselves cannot “sin.” Drawing on the work of British Catholic sociologist Margaret Archer, Finn describes social structures as systems of preexisting social positions that people occupy. Based on one’s position in the structure, each person faces a particular set of restrictions, enablements, and incentives. In other words, actions that are effortless for one person may be nearly impossible for someone occupying a different social position. Social structures do not determine our actions. Yet, according to Finn, each of us exercises his or her freedom within preexisting constraints. People cannot simply “choose” structures: the system of social positions, with its restrictions and incentives, preexists any particular person. Yet systems can and do change over time, and they are changed precisely by the choices of individual people. Thus, while each of us faces choices with pre-structured options, we can still help change the structures—not all at once, but incrementally, over time.

This analysis of social structures can help make sense of the idea of “structures of sin.” As Benedict XVI taught, the Church “has always pointed to the presence of original sin in social conditions and in the structure of society.” Our positions with sinful social structures can distort our individual agency, restricting the engagement of the whole moral self. Finn’s point is not to excuse people who participate in sinful social structures but to offer a realistic sense of what their agency actually looks like.

This is where things get difficult. Am I responsible for the sins of distant others whom I can’t control, or sins from the past that put my nationality or ethnic group in a position of privilege?

The Catholic tradition has a robust account of “cooperation with evil” that tries to enable genuine accounting for responsibility in a complicated world. The tradition insists that avoiding sin means avoiding formal cooperation with evil, in which a person shares the intent of the one doing the action. However, material cooperation with evil—in which one abhors the intent, but nevertheless contributes something material to a sinful action—may be acceptable. Such analysis works best in smaller settings, where there is a specific sinful act that requires a number of assistants. But as the connections become more diffuse, the ability to understand responsibility in this way becomes almost impossible. What is the responsibility of individual citizens for the actions of their democratically elected officials? How does a person’s choice of where to live today unintentionally but materially reinforce discriminatory barriers of past generations?

In this case, as in many others where it is difficult to identify a discrete sinful act, a larger structural analysis seems better suited than categories of cooperation, even if it leaves us more ambivalent about our responsibility.

Salvation Is Not Individualistic

When John Paul II dramatically states “we are all really responsible for all” (his italics), he asks us to bear responsibility for doing what we can to improve the “sinful social structures” that, following Finn’s analysis, involve unjust restrictions, enablements, and incentives. If we ignore this duty, diffuse as it sometimes is, we are truly part of the sinful problem, when our responsibility is to be part of the solution.

I think most resistance to this conclusion arises from three sources. First, there is a mistaken tendency to identify “being part of the solution” as “being totally on board with this or that party’s policy proposals.” In many cases, the work of overcoming sinful social structures might require overcoming the partisan prejudices that can blind us to nuanced solutions.

A second resistance is a failure to recognize that the Christian tradition does have a robust sense of collective responsibility. It is not just about me and God. Old Testament prophets assumed that the people bore collective responsibility for the sin of Israel, and the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s execution are marvelous in their diffusion of responsibility for this most heinous of all sins. The Good Friday liturgy makes it clear that humanity collectively bears responsibility for this death. The goal is to accept that we have sinned so that we can receive the healing forgiveness of God.

Yet the deepest resistance is to the idea that salvation itself—eternal life itself—is social. In his most beautiful and least appreciated encyclical, Spe Salvi, Benedict XVI gently but firmly criticizes individualistic understandings of “heaven,” instead drawing on French theologian Henri de Lubac’s insistence that salvation is in fact the name of “the common destiny of man,” the deep “unity of the human race” that sin destroyed. Redemption, Benedict writes:

presupposes that we escape from the prison of our “I,” because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself—to God. While this community-oriented vision of the “blessed life” is certainly directed beyond the present world, as such it also has to do with the building up of this world—in very different ways, according to the historical context and the possibilities offered or excluded thereby.

Benedict insightfully argues that secular, historical progressivism appeared because Christians abandoned their own sense of articulating a collective destiny for the human race, reducing their “hope” to an individual and private one. Unless salvation is imagined as involving what John Paul would call the “solidarity” of the human race, it will be difficult to understand sin as having this necessarily corporate dimension.

As this discussion illustrates, we simply cannot ignore theology when looking at social problems. The ultimate point of speaking about structures of sin, then, is the point the Catholic social tradition has made over and over again: that genuine peace, justice, and solidarity cannot happen in society without a belief in God. Deep conflicts over social injustices, especially structural ones rooted in long and complex histories, need a transcendent mechanism of forgiveness and reconciliation. For Christians, the notion of “sinful structures” is the difficult but ultimately liberating admission that the existing social positions we occupy are often not in conformity with that “order of God.” To pretend they are or simply to blame “the other” is to remain in that sin and perpetuate a cycle of secularized conflicts from which it seems there can never be an end.