Social Sin Sinful Structures

In this address to the Pacific Partnership for Human Development in December 1988, Bishop Peter Cullinane of Palmerston North in New Zealand, sets out clearly the position of Catholic Social Teaching regarding social sin and structures of sin.

He systematically addresses the following claims:

  1. Evil exists not only in the choices individuals make but also in the social structures and economic systems which result from our choices:
  2. Structures and systems have a life of their own over and above, and even independent of, the life and the powers of the individuals within them;
  3. Because the evil that becomes enshrined in structures and systems is over and above what can be attributed to individuals, the way to counter that evil is different from how one goes about changing individuals;
  4. Changing oppressive structures and systems requires the methods of confrontation;
  5. The Church, by reason of its commitment to the oppressed, must be involved in confronting and changing oppressive structures and systems.

Bishop Cullinane concludes that both individual persons and structures need to change. He does not agree that confrontation is the only way to change structures, and prefers methods that are consistent with the freedom of heart and mind that they seek to achieve. He says:

“In practice, the Church acts sometimes as a counter-culture and sometimes as a leaven, subject to all that is most human. But whatever the method that is most appropriate in the circumstances, the obligation to challenge social sin and sinful structures is unambiguous.”

Read the full address here

Bishop (now Emeritus) Cullinane’s writing and speaking about social justice, social sin and structures of sin, are an important contribution to the local social teachings of the Pacific region. A number of his writings, including this classic piece, can be accessed at the website of the Palmerston North Diocese.

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