1. The Nature of Social and Structural Sins
Church documents seem to be too broad in describing the nature of social sin. Social sin is an offense against God whose very object is a direct assault on one’s neighbor. It is a sin committed against justice and social relations between individuals: between the individual and the community, and between the community and the individual (CSDC # 118).
Pope John Paul II says: “If the present situation can be attributed to difficulties of various kinds, it is not out of place to speak of structures of sin…which are rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove. And thus they grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people’s behavior” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n. 36).
In the document Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, the Pope characterizes social sins as some sins which, by their very nature, “constitute a direct attack on one’s neighbor and, more exactly, in the language of the Gospel, against one’s brother and sister. They are an offense against God because they are serious offenses against one’s neighbor….” [T]he term ‘social’ applies to every sin against justice in interpersonal relationships, committed either by the individual against the community or by the community against the individual…Also social is every sin against the common good and its exigencies in relation to the whole broad spectrum of the rights and duties of citizens” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentita, n. 16).
What is clear in the Church teaching is that it understands both “social” and “structural” sins as direct and serious attack or injustice to one’s neighbor. They are both rooted in personal or individual sins and are created by the accumulation of many social attitudes, two of which are the all-consuming desire for profit and power (PCP II# 270). What is unclear, however, is the distinction between these two types of sin. They seem to refer to the same reality.
In sociology, the word “structural” always implies the social and the social also always involve in some sort of structure. The social world of people is intimately related to the social structure of society. It involves social stratification of people in terms of social status, social class, roles, and groups. Unequal distribution of wealth and statuses in society can lead to unequal opportunity structure for people in society, with the wealthy and powerful always at the top and the poor and powerless at the bottom of the hierarchy. To maintain their grip of power and control of society’s wealth and opportunities, the rich and powerful create structures of various kinds, whether economic, political, cultural or legal, both formal and informal, to protect their vested interests. Formal–through creation of laws, and informal–through the creation and maintenance of personal alliances or power cliques and networks in customs and informal cultural norms.
The similarity of social and structural sin is also implied in the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines. Although it does not directly use the word “structural sin”, the Council seems to characterize “structural” and “social” sins as one reality. Both involve clustering of people and rooted in individual sins. It states that there indeed, “structures” of sin or social sins which consist of situations, collective behavior or structures that cause and perpetuate social injustices” (PCP II, #270).
Social and structural sins are, therefore, sins against social justice. These are grave sins which involve groups, organizations, institutions and other collectivities which conspired to attack the common good. In particular, they can be sins committed by social networks of people or individuals conniving to defraud a community for personal and collective gain. It is a collective sin committed by any member of the social network or by the entire network or a cluster or clusters thereof either intentional or unintentional to control the resources and power of society. The network may be a group of relatives and friends, a political party, a power block within a government, or private or corporate organization.
Social or structural sins are not only sinful collective actions but also sinful situations that offend the common good of the community. It is every sin committed against justice due in relations between individuals, between the individual and the community” (CSDC #118). It is also the sinful situations created by these sinful collective actions. Social action and the social order are in dialectic process.
People’s action affect the quality of social order that they want to create. But the social order or status quo also affects people’s action or behavior. Thus, if the powerful effectively exploits the social order, then that social order becomes sinful and exploitative. The individuals who belong to this order would also be sinful and carriers of its social sins. Thus, social and structural sins can either refer to the sinful collective actions of the powerful or the sinful social structures which are created by these sinful collective actions.
2. What is Difference between a Social Sin and a Structural Sin?
Although both social and structural sins share the same nature as having to do with collectivities and social groups of people in society, Church documents imply that social sins and structural or “structures of sin” are slightly different. Social sins are the sins committed by social agents in a social network while structural sin is the sinful social structure or system–the by-product of social sins.
In short, social sin is the sinful agency of actors conniving in a social network to commit social injustice while structural sin or structures of sin is the unjust social order or system produced institutionalized though time by social sins. Thus, the conspiracy of public official to circumvent the law on public bidding in order earn kickbacks in government contract is the social sin, while the unjust legal structure created by this manipulation in bidding to prevent private bidders who deserve to win the contract is the structural sin.
Honest and legitimate bidders usually offer the lowest bid with high quality product or service and thus beneficial to the government. But because of structural sin, the undeserving bidders always win the bidding with the help of corrupt public officials and unjust rules and regulations. Ultimately, the losers of this corrupt and structural sin are the taxpayers who would pay the substandard government project. If the project has to do with public works, public safety is jeopardized. Substandard roads and bridges built by winning corrupt contractors and bidders because of structural sin are highly disadvantageous to the government and hazardous to life. Committed Christians with social conscience must form social movements to fight this type sin.
Another example of social sin is the so-called “palakasan”(show of power or protégé system). In job promotion, for instance, only those with strong connections with the top managers can be easily promoted even if they are not qualified for the position. Those who are qualified and hardworking and who deserve a promotion are bypassed because they are not protégés of the powerful. Thus, the sin of “palakasan” is connected to another social sin called the “bata system” (sponsorship system). The structural sin or structure of sin here would the highly unjust and biased promotion system in the company and the social sins are the negative Filipino cultural values of “palakasan” and “bata system.”
Finally, laws and policies on paper seem to be just. But in actual social practice, these laws are interpreted and implemented by people–and this is where biases and social ties tainted by social and structural sins can life for ordinary people difficult and unjust.
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