1. This is a beautiful principle of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It is situated in our contemporary context in which we are all so interdependent with each other, both socially and globally. Our communication technology is proof. Our economic exchange is another proof. In our contemporary world people who live far apart are already linked with each other (see Compendium #192).
2. In fact our interdependence is itself a form of solidarity—there is “bonding” among peoples and nations. Unfortunately disparities exist. We still see the gap between the “rich” and the ”poor”, for example. If we are interdependent today this interdependence needs to be paired with morality or what the Compendium calls as “social ethics” (#192).
3. If we are to talk of solidarity and interdependence, social ethics must be present. Our interdependence must be ethical based (#193). What we find is the presence of “structures of sin” in our societies. These structures must be overcome and a basic way is by solidarity. Let us pause for a while and reflect on what the Compendium is discussing. What is this notion of “structures of sin”?
“Structures of Sin”
4. The term was officially coined by Pope John Paul II in his encounter with the Bishops of South America. The term was later used in the pope’s encyclical, Solicitudo rei socialis. Before he wrote this encyclical he also wrote an encyclical, Reconciliation and penance. There he mentioned “social sin”.
5. In any social world structures are necessary. Institutions are necessary. We need to get organized, somehow. Structures can, however, turn themselves against people. They can be contrary to human fulfillment. People can be crushed by their social structures. People find themselves in social situations that run contrary to human dignity.
6. It may be very difficult to pinpoint who exactly are responsible for the creation of such structures. Somehow, however, everyone turns out to be accomplices too. A very personal sin, says the pope, does not exclusively concern the person committing it. Every sin has repercussions on others. Every sin can be considered as a social sin. By virtue of solidarity and social bonding each individual's sin in some way affects others (see Reconciliation and penance #16). People in society can live in a “communion of sin”. There is a form of solidarity which is marked by sin. There is one feature in this “solidarity”. It is called “omission”. We may be in a position to improve and transform society but we omit doing anything. Or we might be “absent” and “non-cooperative” in ensuring social well-being (see Reconciliation and penance #16). By “doing nothing” we turn out to be “accomplices” in the injustices around us.
7. In his Solicitudo rei socialis Pope John Paul II sees sin as an obstacle to human fulfillment. Sin is contrary to human “blooming”; it is contrary to the common good. Concrete and personal acts create obstacles to human “blooming”. These obstacles—or conditions—are now so difficult to remove. In fact they are so entrenched they already look “normal”. We all live as if it is normal and ok to have injustice and violation of our dignity. We live in “structures of sin” which are the negative factors working against the common good. These structures have become so difficult to overcome (see Solicitudo rei socialis #36).
8. For Pope John Paul II these structures are fed by personal sins. Personal sins reinforce and spread out to become sources of more sins (see Solicitudo rei socialis #37). In fact, as we can see for ourselves, we are in conditions that have gone “far beyond the actions and brief life span of an individual” (Ibid). Just think of how many generations of workers have lived in miserable conditions. How many generations of corruption have dominated our politics?
9. Certain attitudes favor “structures of sin”: “on the one hand, the all-consuming desire for profit, and on the other, the thirst for power, with the intention of imposing one's will upon others” (Solicitudo rei socialis #37). We need conversion to overcome these. What type of conversion do we need? We need “solidarity”.
10. Pope John Paul II takes note of the positive signs in the “solidarity among the poor” who show mutual help and sharing. So many men and women in the world, says the Pope, feel concerned with the injustices and violence against human rights (Solicitudo rei socialis #38-39). There is a sense of unity among people in solidarity. This solidarity “helps us to see the ‘other’-whether a person, people or nation-not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our ‘neighbor’,’ a ‘helper’ (cf. Gen 2:18-20)” (Solicitudo rei socialis #40).
11. What can we say about this stand of Pope John Paul II? In the “structures of sin” there is, already, a form of solidarity. It is a solidarity that is counter to the plan of God; it is a solidarity that is counter to the common good. We are—personally and individually—somehow stuck in it. We are accomplices, one way or another. We are “solid with” the structures of sin. What we are called to do is to “de-solidarize” from structures of sin and engage in a more authentic form of solidarity. We “shift our allegiance”, so to speak from a sinful solidarity to a solidarity of charity.
12. Pope Benedict XVI, looking back at the thoughts of Pope Paul VI, makes a statement about solidarity. Paul VI, he says, has seen the ideal of solidarity-fraternity which is marked by charity. This is “the principal force at the service of development” (Caritas in veritate #13).
13. Let us return to the Compendium and see what it says about solidarity.
Back to the Compendium
14. Solidarity is a “moral virtue”. It is a moral characteristic; it is a moral feature in us. It is an effort—a persevering effort—to work for the common good. Hence solidarity is a strong and persevering effort. We make the effort to promote the common good—so that we all “bloom”. We feel implicated in this; we sense our responsibility in it (see Compendium #193).
15. Solidarity is our effort of “togetherness” (or “belonging”—Jean Vanier) working for the common good. We are “solid” here—we “bond” together. We recognize our links with each other; we recognize that “space” of liberty that allows each of us for growth—for blooming. This is an effort we make even in a world that tends towards fragmentation, individualism and particularism (see Compendium #194).
16. This is both a personal and a social virtue. We are, as Fr. Arrupe S.J. once emphasized, “men/women-for-others”. We “lose ourselves” for justice. We “go down” in service for others (#193).
17. In solidarity we make the effort to form our conscience—to cultivate our conscience (#195). In other words we are conscious of the fact that we “owe it” to generations of the past. We “owe them” gratitude for the humanization they have transmitted down to us. They have transmitted cultural patrimony, science, technology, wisdom, etc. We are indebted to those who “adventured” to give us our human conditions today (#195).
18. We want to continue this. Do not interrupt the “adventure”. We too are to “adventure”, open up to others both now and the future (#195).
19. Of course we base all this effort on Christ. He “adventured” by being in solidarity with us. He was even willing to die on the cross for us (recall the notion of “go’el”). Jesus so took seriously his mission that even the threat of the cross did not stop him.
20. Jesus is “Immanuel”—God with us. In his solidarity he shared our human conditions. Can we not rediscover social life by looking at him? He makes us see the link between solidarity and charity. His solidarity was itself an act of charity. In our solidarity with others we see others as image of God, beloved of God. We see others as redeemed by Christ who was also in solidarity with them (see #195). The other must be loved even if the other is an enemy. Love others as Jesus loved. This includes the willingness to sacrifice for others, just like Jesus. Just like Jesus we strive to be “men/women for others” (see #196).
Supplement to the discussion on “structures of sin” by way of “social sin”
1. I re-read the “apostolic exhortation” of Pope John Paul II, RECONCILIATION AND PENANCE, and I would like to add a note supplementing our reflections. It is a tough document to work with especially because it deals with the question of “sin”, “conversion” and “penance through reconciliation”. These themes can be “ticklish” for modern ears. In fact, before Pope John Paul II wrote this, he called for a synod of Bishops. A synod is organized by a pope to discern on specific issues. The Synod then came out with its reflections which then found their way to RECONCILIATION AND PENANCE.
2. Just think of your communities and you have your superiors meeting now and then and coming out with reflections. Your “General Community” may then put all those reflections in writing. RECONCILIATION AND PENANCE is a bit like that.
3. Now, I am not going to discuss the whole document with you (which might put us to sleep in class). I just want to focus on the sections dealing directly with the notion of “social sin”, which is just one section of the document: #16. The section is entitled “Personal Sin and Social Sin”. The pope situates social sin within the context of personal sin.
4. The section immediately makes a stand: “Sin, in the proper sense, is always a personal act, since it is an act of freedom on the part of an individual person and not properly of a group or community”. Note then that this is about the distinction between “personal” and “group” (or “social”). When it comes to sin it is always about specific persons doing it. We do not impute to groups!
5. In some circles, notably in some “liberation theology” circles, there is a strong emphasis on institutional sins. Yes, we are in situations in which structures and institutions impose on us. We are not so sure as to who in particular is (or are) responsible for this injustice. Indeed, we might then conclude that it is a “collective sin”. The anonymity of responsibility leads to concluding that the whole fault lies in the institutions.
6. Pope John Paul II gives a emphasis saying that although there is such a thing as “social sin”, we still have to attribute the sin to persons; to unique individual persons. Insisting on the collective should not make us lose track of the personal responsibilities of those who do injustice. Faulting the collective is itself a disrespect to human dignity. In other words, “thanks to” human dignity, even individuals can do injustice. Faulting the collective, the social, is “to deny the person's dignity and freedom, which are manifested-even though in a negative and disastrous way-also in this responsibility for sin committed”.
7. Sin, as the Pope says, has consequences. It wounds our relationship with God and with others. It also wounds the sinner: “sin has its first and most important consequences in the sinner himself: that is, in his relationship with God, who is the very foundation of human life; and also in his spirit, weakening his will and clouding his intellect”. There is no sin that is, however, “that exclusively concerns the person committing it”. The pope considers sin as “in community”. In other words we are in communion in sins. Thus every sin has repercussions on “the whole human family”. In principle, then, a personal sin is “considered as social sin”.
8. Social sin is a kind of “solidarity”. The personal sin affects others. What I do is “in solidarity” with others and can hence affect others: “each individual's sin in some way affects others”.
9. Of course there are deliberate sins that directly attack others. These sins offend God and neighbor. These sins are also “social sins”.
10. Then there is sin against justice. There is sin against human rights. There is sin against the freedom of others, notably the freedom to profess a religious faith. There is sin against the common good.
11. One description of the pope is worth observing. There is sin of omission. Some persons omit working for “the improvement and transformation of society”. Some stay absent from working for the well-being of others. They do not cooperate in advancing well-being.
12. Then there are group relationships or relationships between social groups and even nations. “These relationships”, says the pope, “are not always in accordance with the plan of God, who intends that there be justice in the world and freedom and peace between individuals, groups and peoples”. The pope gives the example of class struggle. He also gives the example of the “obstinate confrontation between blocs of nations, between one nation and another”. (We remember that the time of Pope John Paul II was a time of competition among nations. Remember also that the Pope was originally from Poland where a strong sense of class struggle was present.)
13. These are all social sins. All the different personal sins may cause or support evil or even exploit it. Some are “in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils” but they do nothing. They stay secretly complicit or indifferent. “The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals”, says the Pope. If we want to go to the roots of social sins, we really have to go deep in searching for personal sins. Specific persons are responsible. (This may then include everyone especially because everyone would rather not cooperate and stay indifferent. Just think of the continual use of plastic.) If we stay in the level of anonymity then we dilute the meaning of sin. We lost track of “who” and we just stay “in general”.
14. Social sin is therefore analogical to personal sins. Let us not “underestimate the responsibility of the individuals involved”. Each persona is still responsible enough to “shoulder his or her responsibility seriously and courageously”.
15. Do we see the implications of what the Pope is saying? I can always say, “What can I do, plastics are used everywhere, it is in the whole system”. Then I can exonerate myself and say, “It is everyone’s fault anyway”. My own place in this is relegated to the anonymous “everyone”. By relying on this anonymous “everyone” we are led, says the Pope, “more or less unconsciously to the watering down and almost the abolition of personal sin, with the recognition only of social gilt and responsibilities”. Blame thus “is to be placed not so much on the moral conscience of an individual, but rather on some vague entity or anonymous collectivity such as the situation, the system, society, structures or institutions”. By doing this we assume that we cannot be responsible anymore. (The Pope, by the way, was a philosopher, so we can see his philosophy in this reflection too.)
16. Social sin then is “the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins”. Mea culpa also. Let us cite the final paragraph of the pope dealing with this section:
17. “At the heart of every situation of sin are always to be found sinful people. So true is this that even when such a situation can be changed in its structural and institutional aspects by the force of law or-as unfortunately more often happens by the law of force, the change in fact proves to be incomplete, of short duration and ultimately vain and ineffective-not to say counterproductive if the people directly or indirectly responsible for that situation are not converted”.
18. How do we get out of this? In #23 the pope mentions the role of piety and the mercy of God. God’s love is “more powerful than sin, stronger than death”. Hence we can recognize this and accept that “God's love for us does not cease in the face of our sin or recoil before our offenses, but becomes even more attentive and generous”. If we do see this—and adhere to it—then we can move to “conversion”. A sign of conversion is precisely “solidarity” based on charity and not based on cooperating with social sin.
Solidarity, a “simplified version”
1. The word “solidarity” of course has the root word “solid” in it. The table is solid; knock on it; place books on it; even sit on it; it stays. It is solid. Now solidarity means that we are “solid” together in our social relationships. When we go to the store and buy a food product, for example, we are “solid” with the people who manufactured that product; we are “solid” with the farmers who first made the raw materials later transformed by the manufacturers; we are “solid” with those who packaged the product; we are “solid” with those who transported the product and brought it to the store; we are “solid” with the original owner of that product; we are “solid” with the store keeper and the laborers in that store. In other words we as “buyers” are “solid” with a whole system of “supply”. It can be a very complex “solidarity” but somehow we are linked together in various ways. We might find the product costly or cheap but we cannot just steal it from the store. Part of the “solidarity” is the “agreement” about its price. There is an economic system with its “market” to comply with. We are “solid” with that complex system.
2. Note then that we can be related with very anonymous persons and groups. We cannot pinpoint exactly who is responsible for the pricing of the product. We cannot pinpoint exactly who is responsible for the wage levels of workers—from farmers to store laborers. It is, indeed, a very complex system with very anonymous links.
3. Unfortunately there is such a thing as “structures of sin” (Pope John Paul II). A lot of injustice may be found in a complex system but we just cannot get out of it. We are all part of the system. We are accomplices in it. When we buy something we participate in the whole economic and market system. Our money is our way of complying with the system. Again we do not know who are the major players in a system—in a structure. But we can see that we are in it. Just think of the many things we do each day, from the eating of the food each lunch hour to the turning on of the lamp each night. We participate in so many systems. We are a complex world and our interdependence has turned quite complex.
4. In the “structures of sin” we participate, even in many indirect ways. We too “sin”. Now without turning ourselves into neurotics, can we do something about this?
5. Why do we say “neurotics”? Well, if for every move we make we always have to investigate our share in injustice we do turn ourselves into neurotics. Take the example of taking a meal. The rice may be from one country, the meat is from another country, the onion and garlic and spices may be from another country, the fruit jusic may be from another country. The amount of carbon spent to bring that meal to the table has contributed to the pollution of the air! But do we stop eating? Do we have to ask first from where is the rice coming before we eat it? If we investigate every detail we do in daily life we do turn ourselves into neurotics.
6. Yes, we are stuck in the complex systems of “structures of sin” and a full liberation will have to come in the next coming of Christ. But right now we can still do major steps. If we are in solidarity with “structures of sin” we can “de-solidarize” in major areas.
7. Some communities have done this. A community may have stopped, altogether, the use of plastics with BPA. Some communities may have opted for organic farming and stopped their “solidarity” with chemical farming. Some may be boycotting particular products dealing with child slavery. Etc. We can look at major areas of our lives and form new solidarity. New linkages may be created and they are linkages marked by “charity” (Pope Benedict XVI). Again without turning ourselves into neurotics we can also “do something” significant.
8. Some authentic solidarities have proven themselves significant in history. Think about the options of the American Blacks who refused to ride buses and trains and went through the effort of walking to work or school. That changed the treatment they received from the “whites” in the buses and trains. Think of Nelson Mandela. Think of Mahatma Ghandi. Look at the big changes done thanks to some forms of charitable and authentic solidarity.
9. But maybe, right now, we are not in the position to do such major changes in our societies. But in the small ways that we can, in daily life, we are able to do some forms of de-solidarity from “structures of sin” and solidarity to more just and dignified structures. It might mean some changes, minor as they may be, in our own life styles. It may also imply entering into solidarity with particular marginalized sectors of society.
10. If this sounds corny and abstract, we can try an look at our very own selves. So many people carry us on their shoulders. The food we eat each day comes to us from the hard work of farmers, transport groups, cooks, etc. The electricity we use for our computers and lamps comes to us from the hard work of laborers.
11. Imagine a student of medicine who has no time to study because of cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, etc. Some people may have to do those chores for the student so that the student can finish the degree.
12. Notice then the “solidarity” others make towards us to liberate us from certain tasks and to allow us to “bloom” in a specific way. We also owe them a lot and many of them are anonymous. (Some of them are not at all anonymous; we know them well. Think of our parents, for example, and how they worked hard to bring us to where we are now.)
13. Hence we also might need to review our forms of solidarity and ask how much of these help others find their paths of “blooming”. Hopefully we really get our acts together and be “of service” to them too. Others may need to be carried on our own backs.
14. Of course the main model here is Jesus Christ. He is the “Word who became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn1/14). He went into solidarity with our human conditions through his incarnation. In Paul we read that “he emptied himself and became a slave” (see Phil.2/7). Not only did Jesus become “solid” with us in humanity but also in social conditions. He went into solidarity with the poor. In the footsteps of Jesus can we somehow form ways of a more charitable solidarity?