The Structures of Sin 

Rings of a tree

Sin begins in the heart but often finds expression in what we do, permeating society, government, and even the Church. The social teachings of the Church show us how to push back against systemic sin. 

Catholic Social Teaching pops up everywhere, but often we don’t realize it because we think we are just reading about things like student loan debt, police brutality, Jim Crow laws, or even abuse within the Church itself. Nonetheless, these issues and many others have one thing in common: They are all related to and expressions of “structures of sin.” 

These “structures” are built on personal sin that, in turn, can permeate human institutions, making them hard to recognize—much less root out. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (119) states: “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.” 

In short, sin begins in the heart, but it does not stay there. It gets expressed in what we do. So the things we create end up reflecting, among other things, the sins that live in our hearts. This isn’t true merely of people who make pornography or manufacturers who produce shoddy products. It suffuses everything we make, especially the globe-spanning political, social, and economic systems we create to dominate the world. 

Examples of Structures of Sin

Structures of sin are nothing new, as we see in the account of Paul’s visit to Ephesus in the earliest days of the Church (Acts 19:23–41). When Paul went to Ephesus to preach the Gospel, he did not simply threaten a religious system that worshipped Diana, the moon goddess. He threatened an entire socioeconomic and political system organized around her temple, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Consequently, it was not just a gaggle of random members of the cult of Diana that attacked him. It was a mob organized and spurred on by the silversmiths of Ephesus, who made their living selling Diana trinkets to pilgrims. The Gospel threatened (and in good time would eventually dismantle) a religious-economic-sociopolitical structure of sin in Ephesus that stood opposed to the kingdom of God. 

Now we—to the degree we all sin—are all idolaters just like the Ephesians because sin is the disordered attempt to get our deepest happiness from something other than God. Our Big Four in the pantheon of idols are (and always have been) money, pleasure, power, and honor. Just as the Ephesian silversmiths did, we, too, create political and economic systems to support our idols. These idolatrous systems fight against those trapped within them, including those genuinely trying to do the right thing. 

We see just such a conflict in the early United States. The Founding Fathers, who fought for the proposition “all men are created equal,” nonetheless were trapped in the structure of sin known as a “slave economy” and could not find a way to get rid of it. Result: Thomas Jefferson, the man who cowrote the Declaration of Independence and said of slavery, “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever,” never freed his own slaves. 

The system of slavery helped enslave Jefferson to what his own conscience told him was the grave sin of owning slaves. This does not absolve Jefferson of his sin. After all, others of his time did free their slaves. But it remains the case that structures of sin can both blind and bind us from seeing and acting on evil that later generations (and sometimes even we ourselves) rightly regard with repugnance. They exert enormous pressure on people to acquiesce to sin while providing them with countless excuses, often against the cries of their own conscience, to do so. 

Similar situations apply today concerning a host of human institutions. A person who works, for example, for a corporation where an increase in profits is the only measure of success will be pressured and even compelled by fear of job loss to act in ways that may not be in accord with the Gospel. Institutions provide structures that guide decision-making and set up systems of rewards and sanctions. The question is whether these systems reward the good or do the opposite. 

That is why Catholic tradition insists that, in addition to confronting our personal sins, structures of sin must be battled as well, since they exert pressure on us to not repent our personal sins—and they often blind us from even seeing that these structures exist. This is a dynamic that applies in all institutions and must be confronted in all institutions—even the Church, as the clerical sexual abuse scandal abundantly illustrates. 

A Gospel Challenge

The teachings of the Gospel have challenged structures of sin many times in history, from ending murderous games in the Roman Colosseum, to the abolition of slavery, to reforming unjust labor laws, to enacting the Civil Rights Act. Such a process nearly always occurs with agonizing slowness, since it takes human beings centuries to grope toward pulling down such structures, especially given that huge amounts of money, power, and the sheer dead weight of human habit resist such change. Still, dismantling structures of sin can be done, and the leaven of the Gospel repeatedly has been kneaded into societies in order to do it. 

These changes to structures of sin usually have involved a combination of moral persuasion and the help of the state. For instance, the barbaric games in Rome ended when Christian monks confronted the cheering mobs with their own consciences by entering the arena—where for centuries people had been forced to kill each other or be mauled by wild beasts—shouting, “For God’s sake, forebear!” The brutality was outlawed by the increasingly Christianized state because citizens’ consciences could no longer endure it. For the same reason, crucifixion was banned by that same state because it could no longer bear to inflict on other human beings what it had once inflicted on the Son of God. 

In the 19th century, the great English Evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce likewise made the slave trade morally unbearable to the English conscience and, with the help of the state, abolished it. In the United States, Christian abolitionists made slavery intolerable to the consciences of many Americans before the state abolished it by force of law. A century later, the civil rights movement continued the unfinished work of the Civil War abolitionists through the moral appeal of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who helped unravel the structure of sin called the Jim Crow laws via citizen protests and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Again, this does not mean the state itself cannot be a structure of sin. It obviously can. But the state also can be an instrument for healing structures of sin. On many occasions, such healing would have been impossible without the help of the state, since it alone has sufficient power to back reform with the force of law. 

The point is this: Structures of sin make it hard to be good and often punish us for trying while blinding us from even being able to see the good. Healthy institutions, in contrast, make it much easier to do the right thing and even reward us for trying. Structures of sin are usually reformed—or, where necessary, dismantled—through good actions by each person, together with good statecraft and just laws. 

From Sin to Solidarity

The Compendium (193), a landmark 2004 document summarizing the Church’s body of social teaching, is clear about what is required to change structures of sin:  

They must be purified and transformed into structures of solidarity through the creation or appropriate modification of laws, market regulations, and juridical systems [emphasis added]. 

In short, nonstate efforts to effect change (e.g., boycotts of corporations that support abortion or use child slaves, or mass marches against police brutality) are wonderful, but very often it is necessary to change legal, political, social, and economic structures by the force of law as well. Here, not just the citizen but the state bears a responsibility. 

This does not relieve individuals of responsibility for solidarity or the common good. Indeed, attempts to effect change merely by force of law without winning the consciences of most of the citizenry can often be doomed, as Prohibition demonstrated. Therefore, since the state neither can nor should do a great deal of moral formation, the responsibility falls squarely on our shoulders as good citizens, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, workers, and employers to make it our personal and hands-on business to love our neighbors by teaching them. This is particularly true under a system of government where citizens elect representatives who create the laws. After rendering his taxes unto Caesar, Jesus (who was so poor he had nowhere to lay his head) still found plenty of opportunities to go about doing good. We should do the same. 

The Church’s insistence on solidarity is often deeply threatening to much of Western—especially American—culture, but it is key to destroying and transforming structures of sin. 

Take, as one example, the vast structure of sin called student loan debt, which impedes people from starting families and eats up the prosperity of Americans. Many complain about forgiving it, asking why we should bear the burden of debt for others. Yet this is to forget that we live in a permanent relationship of debt to God, to all who come before us, and to all who come after us. We also owe a debt to all who came before us and to the vast interconnecting web of relationships that sustains us at this very hour. 

We owe this debt because Jesus has commanded us to love one another as he has loved us. That is how our debt is repaid: By paying it forward to our neighbor, we love the God who needs nothing from us and to whom we can give nothing that is not already his. 

The Compendium (195) calls us to “the willingness to give oneself for the good of one’s neighbor, beyond any individual or particular interest . . . so that humanity’s journey will not be interrupted but remain open to present and future generations, all of them called together to share the same gift in solidarity.” 

Through this gift of solidarity, we can dismantle the structures of sin so that, by the grace of God, his kingdom can come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  

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5 thoughts on “The Structures of Sin ”

  1. You want to forgive student debt? Why are they taking out loans they can’t repay? To not repay one’s debts is comparable to stealing. Those students made a “deal” to repay, so repay they must. A deal is a deal.

    I’m a conservative, so you’re not going to catch me taking out a loan I can’t repay. If I can’t afford something, then that’s that. Life goes on and I will try and live without. My philosophy is “less is more.” And don’t forget all of the famous Ben Franklin quotes.

    I don’t have a college degree, but so what?

  2. I found this treatment to be outstanding and I’m thankful for stumbling upon it. Sin is a force with roots and understanding the what snd why is important. Bravo Mr. Shea. Bonus points for triggering conservatives with student debt relief. 😆

  3. Michelle Kuhl

    I have a problem with the idea that student loans should be forgiven. Both of my daughters, as well as myself, attended community college and also worked so as not to have student debt. I do not think that people who feel they were too good to go to community colleges or local state colleges and then get themselves into huge debt are to be felt sorry for. They could have chosen a cheaper route, but did not do so. Why should taxpayers have to pay for people who were behaving irresponsibly?

  4. Michael Furtado

    Interesting challenge, Carol! and the answer may lie in the fact that you, like me, are middle-class, abstemious, with some accumulated personal or inherited wealth to sustain us, and accordingly inclined to side with the Dutiful Son against his Prodigal Brother. Surely, in invoking that telling parable Jesus points to the superiority of the virtue of debt-forgiveness over the important but proportionately lesser virtue of prudence and self-sufficiency. Thanks.

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