Sexual abuse scandals are shaking the Catholic Church and many Catholic feel deeply ashamed. The concept of structures of sin can help us to understand the relationship between personal and collective responsibility.
This article first published in Eureka Street explains.
In an effort to encourage and support Catholics shaken by clergy sexual abuse scandals, Bishop Greg O’Kelly of Port Pirie wrote a pastoral letter to his people on 20 November. He rejected generalisations and inaccuarcies in some media reporting, insisted that responsibility for wrongdoing lies with ‘individuals within the Church’ rather than with ‘the Church’, and pointed to the good done by many church organisations.
Much of what Bishop O’Kelly says is true, but he misses the opportunity to examine the relationship between personal and collective responsibility. There is such a thing as social responsibility and the Catholic Social Teaching concept of structures of sin can help Catholics to understand and deal constructively with their shame.
Bishop O’Kelly objects to the assertion that ‘the Church’ has committed sexual crimes against children, shielded offenders or obscured police investigations, yet presents examples of ‘all the good that the Church continues to do’. I don’t think we can argue that ‘the Church’ is responsible when individuals and Catholic organisations do good things, but that ‘individuals within the Church’ are responsible when evil acts are committed.
Sin, strictly speaking, is a free act of an individual person. Structures, processes and institutions, such as organisations and their cultures and policies, do not sin — people do. This is why Bishop O’Kelly rightly says that individuals are responsible for abuse.
Social structures, processes and institutions, organisational cultures and policies can reflect, reinforce and even encourage personal sins. They can do this by restricting our freedom to choose the good by conditioning and influencing us, or by condoning or providing opportunities to sin with impunity.
Catholic Social Teaching calls these structures of sin. They may mitigate but do not remove personal responsibility. They also give rise to a social responsibility. We share in responsibility for harms that we have not directly caused if we share in the responsibility for creating, maintaining or failing to challenge structures of sin.
Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Reconciliatio et Paenitentia explained it in this way:
Whenever the Church speaks of situations of sin, or when she condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behavior of certain social groups … she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins.
It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world, and also of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of a higher order. The real responsibility, then lies with individuals.
Responsibility lies with individuals, but not just those who directly committed acts of abuse.
We can’t avoid the fact that the Catholic Church in Australia is a social institution by describing it in theological terms as the Body of Christ. Both dimensions of the reality of the Church must be acknowledged because this mystical body continues to be incarnated in time and place — and not as a collection of individual body parts.
We have already seen evidence that the organisational cultures and policies of some Church entities in particular times and places put the reputation of the Church ahead of the wellbeing of children. Such organisational cultures and policies can surely be called structures of sin just like the ‘all-consuming desire for profit’ or ‘the thirst for power’ which Pope John Paul II identified as structures of sin in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.
Pointing to the good things done by the Church doesn’t help. Catholics need to take responsibility, both personally and collectively, to dismantle structures of sin and build up instead structures of grace. The Church is indeed the Body of Christ, and the head can’t say to the foot ‘you kicked that person, I didn’t’.