Lesson 17: Justice and Structural Sin

THEO 20605 Lecture Notes: Justice and Structural Sin


  1. Recall that in our previous discussion of conscience we began by distinguishing (with Gula) among conscience understood as a capacity, as a process and as a judgment.
    1. Understanding conscience as a capacity focused on recognizing a basic moral sense in each person, understood as the ability to grasp the principle: “do good and avoid evil.”
    2. Focusing on the process of conscience revealed a bigger problem: namely, that part of educating one’s conscience is training it to become sensitive to morally relevant issues, to habitual connections among our various behaviors, and about sensitivity to how people are affected by our actions.
    3. Only once we see clearly can we have any comfort that the judgment of our conscience in a particular situation is even working on the right “data set” of morally relevant factors.
  2. Consider the following distinction between different models of sin proposed by James Keenan, SJ (from his book, Moral Wisdom [Rowman & Littlefield, 2004]), which examines the nature of sin in order to understand how conscience can be in error, particularly in regard to its formation. (p. 27-65)
    1. Old Model: Evaluating Mortal Sins in terms of acts—a moral sin required that the act in question be (1) a grave act, (2) with full knowledge, and (3) with full consent of the will. So practices of confession focused on the “avoiding evil” aspect of conscience and not enough on the “doing good” part.
    2. New Model: Three Truths About Human Sinfulness from the Gospel
      1. We are probably greater sinners than we admit (self-deception)
      2. We sin more out of our strength than our weakness (don’t see things as sinful that we should notice if our consciences are well educated)
      3. People are often surprised (and offended) when their sinfulness is pointed out to them (but they see it once they learn to think about the interconnectedness of their behaviors)
    3. Four Gospel Stories to Illustrate his Point
      1. Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:9-14)
      2. Rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16: 19-31)
      3. Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37)
      4. Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46)
    4. New Definition of Sin (p. 57) “the failure to bother to love” (or “the failure to bother to know from another point of view”)
    5. It is helpful to compare Keenan’s account with the recent enumeration of the “Seven Social Sins” by the Roman Catholic Bishops (as cited from Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, L’Osservatore Romano, March 8)
      1. “Bioethical” violations such as birth control
      2. “Morally dubious” experiments such as stem cell research
      3. Drug abuse
      4. Polluting the environment
      5. Contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
      6. Excessive wealth
      7. Creating poverty
    6. These sins have dimensions that are analyzable in terms of moral acts, but they also have dimensions which transcend or are not fully captured by an act-only analysis.


  1. To this point, we have been looking at conscience primarily as an individual capacity, process and judgment.
  2. Even so, we noticed that there were certain community factors that could inform conscience or deform conscience.
    1. Exemplarity of good people, and how they act in difficult situations, informs our habits of thinking in difficult situations.
    2. If all we see is the example of anger, impatience, violence, range, disrespect, any innate sense of discerning the good and avoiding evil is at best obscured if not removed.
    3. Past choices inform our current choices. Consider the example of balancing work and family commitments: if we are in the habit of working all the time and ignoring the needs of our family and friends, it becomes easier to do this again in the future.
    4. This is how conscience can arrive at what the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes called “invincible ignorance.”
    5. An educated conscience requires that one consult the sources of moral wisdom that are available to one (the imaginative powers of reason to discern the good and rank goods; the effect of one’s own experience and the experience of one’s communities to discern goods, tradition (family and church), and Scripture)
  3. Our discussion of conscience has been focused on the difficulty of loving other people, as unities of body and spirit (creativity or capacity for self-transcendence), in a world where the goods we want for ourselves and others always seem to be in conflict.
  4. We can think of different ways to prioritize goods or choose to advance certain ones and not others. Think of the examples that we have seen thus far:
    1. Utilitarian way of prioritizing goods: pick a standard (economic, intensity of feeling, lessen physical pain to others) and then assign a standardized equivalent to each. (Becker and Posner on marriage)
    2. Deontological way of prioritizing good: one must follow one’s duties based on a universalizing principle of reason. (Tell the truth even if it results in the ruin of your friends.)
    3. All basic goods are not equivalent and one should never act in a way that disvalues any.
  5. But in seeking to maximize the good for ourselves and our families, we are frequently challenged by the conflicts that arise when other people are trying to do the same thing.
  6. It requires us to adopt a perspective outside of what is satisfactory to one’s own conscience. Indeed, we might say that concerns of justice are the social expansion of individual conscience.


  1. Now just as the concern for justice is the social expression of the concern about individual conscience, so too is this category of structural sin the social extension of the problem of individual sin.
    1. Recall the distinction from Keenan between sinning from weakness (doing evil) and sinning from strength (failing to bother to love).
    2. This idea of structural sin is an expansion of that notion of sinning from strength.
  2. What this category of structural sin is basically about is the effect of our decisions on the decisions of others (a kind of moral butterfly effect). Marciano Vidal captures this in his notion of the situation:
    1. “My free action always places the other in a situation which incites him to good or evil, which offers him a support or deprives him of it, which presents him with norms or values or deprives him of these. The situation is the bond which unites one free decision with another in such a way that history can be defined as the interchange of decisions and situations.” (p 184)
  3. Developed in what is called the theology of liberation: strands in early Catholic theology focused, almost exclusively, on the salvation of individual souls, so that you would behave well so that you would not face eternal damnation. Liberation theology emphasizes “the importance of Christian salvation understood and brought to fruition as integral liberation.” (p 185, both liberation from sin and injustice)
    1. A foundational insight in this regard was the understanding of sin proposed by Gustavo Gutiérrez in A Theology of Liberation: “sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of man by man, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races and social classes…Sin shows itself as a fundamental alienation.”
  4. Structural sin exhibits a complex relation to personal sin, because structures do not have wills but people do. (contrary to fictions we hear about “the will of the market…”)
    1. John Paul II (Reconciliatio et Penitentia): “The culpability of structures consists in the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins…of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who could do something to eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear of the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference.”
    2. John Paul II’s example: all the good family people who let the Holocaust happen. (or Keenan's example of Albert Speer)
    3. Or perhaps an example more immediately relevant to Notre Dame students: littering, using non-recyclable coffee cups, or perhaps later in life--once you are alums selecting your neighborhood because of a “good school”
  5. Social dimension of personal culpability in Vidal's categories:
    1. Social repercussions of every sin: failure to report cheating
    2. Collective sin: not the sum of individual sins, but emerging sense of false value that transcends individual values (consumerism, conquest of evil)
    3. Inter-individual sin: sin that damages not just individuals but relationships (divorce, adultery); makes it difficult to see the original relationship and what was so good about it
    4. Social sin: inter-generational suspicion of marriage (decline in marriage rate because of the past experience of high divorce rates)
    5. Structural sin: discriminatory lending practices, selling insurance policies to mother of high risk youth; drug trafficking preying on inability of people to find other work (esp. children)
  6. Review Handout on Freedom, Sin and Conscience


  1. How do we set our own moral priorities? What are we going to care about and to what will we commit our time, ourselves, our families? My first point was actually rather simple: we are conditioned, because of our upbringing, our social context, our family and friends, to see one or another moral concern as more immediate or more pressing than the other. Even so, both of these issues, in terms of Catholic theology, are viewed as assaults on the dignity of human life. But in practice, we do tend to choose and, I submit to you, in doing so we are always making limiting choices. There are goods to do that we are ignoring, even as we are choosing to devote ourselves to some goods. Doing so ought to lead us to an appropriate level of religious humility, and to respect for those who disagree with how we have chosen to prioritize our moral lives.
  2. There are two kinds of moral problems. My second point is that whenever you confront a moral problem (and you might want to consider this issue in as you think through your group projects, whether the moral problem you are addressing is basically a terminal moral problem or basically a cumulative moral problem. As you think more about the other cases we will consider--war, abortion, racism, crises in global health--ask yourselves what kind of moral problem you are confronting.
    1. By a terminal moral problem I mean one that is focused on the immorality of particular acts and its moral weight resides in whether or not the particular acts are morally good or evil. These are the kinds of problems that John Paul II identifies as objective moral evils (artificial contraception, abortion, genocide, slavery). When we commit an objectively immoral act, we are at the same time conditioning ourselves to commit those kinds of acts (or worse) in the future. But these are all acts that have a certain determinate effect or effects. We can see clearly what we are doing and we can evaluate it.
    2. But there are also cumulative moral problems and what distinguishes these problems is that often the effects of our individual choices seem neutral (at worst) or good (at best) when taken in isolation (think of the examples of where to buy a house or where to send your children to school, or what kind of coffee you drink, or what you eat or what kind of clothes you wear), but destructive or even malicious over when viewed cumulatively over a long period of time. These would seem to be instances that would fail to be included in John Paul II’s analysis of moral actions because we cannot clearly determine their effects (or we only see them after many years, when they accumulate in such a way as to finally be recognizable). Here I think that environmental degradation and dietary choices are excellent examples, or even the presence of visual media in our culture. Most of the time we just do not think of these things as morally relevant, but at least part of the issue here is that we have become trained to ignore certain behaviors because we have been trained to see them as morally neutral. These are the kind of moral problems that the idea of structural sin is intended to reveal.
Citation: Clairmont, D. (2009, February 03). Lesson 17: Justice and Structural Sin. Retrieved October 24, 2014, from Notre Dame OpenCourseWare Web site: http://ocw.nd.edu/theology/introduction-to-catholic-moral-theology/lectures-1/lesson-17-justice-and-structural-sin.
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