REFLECTION: Seven Social Sins

At Catholic Conscience we like to speak in terms of the principles, values, and virtues of Catholic social thought, since they tend to consist of broad, positive, general exhortations to seek and do good.  The Church has also stressed, however, the important concept of social sin, for times when we have collectively gone too far.  In this time in which every person on earth has been forced to sacrifice and suffer with us through Lent, perhaps it is good to reflect upon sinful aspects of our society.

The Church teaches that social sin includes “every sin against the rights of the human person… and every sin against the physical integrity of the individual; every sin against the freedom of others, especially against the supreme freedom to believe in God and worship him; and every sin against the dignity and honor of one’s neighbor. Every sin against the common good… is also social sin.”

As the world suffers through the horror of a virus our bodies have not yet learned to respond to, and as too many of us continue to put material desires before the health and well being of others and the planet, how are we as a society doing?

The concept of a grouping of seven social sins originated in the 1920s, as a complement to the traditional seven deadly sins of the individual.  The original version, announced in a sermon in England, was adapted by Mohandas Gandhi in the struggle for Indian independence, and later by a Vatican Bishop.  The following listing was created by Catholic Conscience, with reference to the earlier listings and with special reference to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:

  1. Politics of fear, hate, or exclusion
  2. Abuse of creation
  3. Society without love
  4. Acquisition or retention of unjust wealth
  5. Commerce or industry without morality
  6. Science without humanity
  7. Perpetuation of ignorance

The First Social Sin:  Politics of Fear, Hate, or Exclusion

Oppression, marginalization, and unjust discrimination in any form are inconsistent with any proper form of government. If the purpose of life is to seek truth, and if that truth is God, then such practices are not only likely to hinder individuals in their search, but they are wholly inconsistent with the exhortations of our Creator, which teach clearly that we are to seek God in one another, and that we are to care for anyone within our reach who needs help.

It would be unjust, for example, for a government to place one class of citizens under restraint, or expose them to unnecessary harm, or ignore them altogether, in order to benefit another group – for example by putting the economic interests of one group above the health of another. In our battle with the new Coronavirus, are we providing guidance and assistance in an even-handed, just form, considering all, or have some of us considered requiring other groups to suffer so that we might maintain our material wealth?

It’s important to remember that we are collectively responsible for the actions of our societies (Matthew 25:31-46), particularly when we live in democracies and decline to participate meaningfully.

Forms of problematic political behavior include:

  1. Government by fear, division, or abuse.
  2. Derogation of conscience rights; interference with free, responsible speech.
  3. Military or police oppression.
  4. The adoption of unjust or non-sustainable social, economic, or legal structures.

The Second Social Sin:  Abuse of Creation.

“Man and woman are created in relationship to others above all as those to whom the lives of others have been entrusted. With this specific vocation to life, man and woman find themselves in the presence of all the other creatures. Their dominion over the world requires the exercise of responsibility, it is not a freedom of arbitrary and selfish exploitation… All of creation in fact has value and is “good” in the sight of God, who is its author. Man must discover and respect its value. This is a marvellous challenge to his intellect, which should lift him up as on wings towards the contemplation of the truth of all God’s creatures… (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, sections 112, 113.) According to the New Testament, all creation, together indeed with all humanity, awaits the Redeemer: subjected to futility, creation reaches out full of hope, with groans and birth pangs, longing to be freed from decay (Compendium section 113).

Our responsibility for all creation extends not only to each of our fellow creatures now, but to all creatures of all generations. In building and maintaining our economies, in our work, in our leisure activities, we cannot escape this responsibility.

As a society, how are we doing? As we make choices each day, and encourage each other in their choices, do we have the good of others – now and in future generations- in mind?

The Third Social Sin:  Cultures of Indifference.

“The opposite of the love of God, of God’s compassion,” Pope Francis has said, “is our indifference: ‘I’m satisfied; I lack nothing. I have everything. I’m assured of my place and this life and the next, since I go to Mass every Sunday. I’m a good Christian.’ But walking down the street, I pass others, who lack shelter, food, proper clothing, and I look the other way so that I not need to see them.”

Too often, as a society, we do the same thing with refugees, the unemployed, the underemployed, the elderly, the young who are struggling to find homes and raise families… the list goes on and on. Recent UN reports have suggested that the world now produces enough to maintain everyone in a comfortable – if not luxurious – lifestyle. As the Pope has put it, “there’s enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

What can we, as voters and engaged citizens, do about it? What are we doing about it? With the Pope, let us pray to the Lord “that He heal humanity, starting with us. May my heart be healed from the sickness of the culture of indifference.”

The Fourth Social Sin:  the Unjust Accumulation of Wealth

“The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” – Mahatma Gandhi (often quoted or paraphrased by Pope Francis).

It is certainly true that effort should be rewarded, that the willingness to work hard should be valued more than laziness. In the words of the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church, “no Christian, in light of the fact that he belongs to a united and fraternal community, should feel that he has the right not to work and to live at the expense of others (cf. 2 Thes 3:6-12). Rather, all are charged by the Apostle Paul to make it a point of honour to work with their own hands, so as to “be dependent on nobody” (1 Thes 4:12). (Compendium Section 264)

But there are limits. Christians are “called to practise a solidarity which is also material by sharing the fruits of their labour with “those in need” (Eph 4:28)… “Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (Jas 5:4). (Compendium Section 264)

How are we doing as a society?

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals proposed by the United Nations and unanimously adopted by all UN Member states in 2015, observe that “Billions of our citizens continue to live in poverty and are denied a life of dignity. There are rising inequalities within and among countries. There are enormous disparities of opportunity, wealth and power… Unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, is a major concern… It is also, however, a time of immense opportunity. Significant progress has been made in meeting many development challenges. Within the past generation, hundreds of millions of people have emerged from extreme poverty. Access to education has greatly increased for both boys and girls. The spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies, as does scientific and technological innovation across areas as diverse as medicine and energy.” (see paragraphs 14 and 15)

If the purpose of our lives on earth is to seek truth, and if that truth is God, and if God told us that we are to care for those around us, how do we address the fact that in many parts of the world families live in abstract squalor within miles of immensely affluent homes and activities?

The Fifth Social Sin:  Industry without Conscience. 

“The Church’s social doctrine insists,” the Compendium notes, “on the moral connotations of the economy… The relation between morality and economics is necessary, indeed intrinsic:  economic activity and moral behaviour are intimately joined one to the other…”  (Compendium, sections 330-331)

Pope Francis says it more simply: “economies are meant to serve people,” he points out, rather than the other way around.  He has frequently spoken out against economies of exclusion and the encouragement of a throwaway culture designed to fuel profits at the expense of people, the quality of life, and the environment.  “We have created new idols,” he explains.  “The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose…  The problem, he explains, is the single-minded focus on profits:  “This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born…”

The result?  Tragedies like Bhopal and, in Pope Francis’s words, “the reduction of man to a single need: consumption.”  For example, deliberate attempts to addict generations of young people to tobacco smoking.

Happily, there are signs that his message is taking root.  In August of 2019, the Business Roundtable, a US lobby that represents many of America’s largest corporations, revised its decades-old definition of the purpose of a corporation as solely to maximize shareholder return.  Following pressure from civic organizations, the public, and young employees, the group redefined legitimate stakeholders to include customers, employees, suppliers, and the communities in which they exist.

It’s a small step, and the road will be hard:  Business Roundtable’s resolution is not binding, and the urge to maximize profit is very strong.  But it’s a sign of hope.

The Fifth Social Sin includes at least the following:

  • Creation and exploitation of false needs, promotion of unsustainable consumption.
  • Exploitation of workers, or by workers.
  • Interference with dignified work, e.g., unnecessary automation.

The Sixth Social Sin:  Technology without Humanity.

Science and technology have unquestionably brought good things to the world:  wonders have been achieved in medicine, transportation, communication, and security, for example.  But it is also clear that sometimes, in search of power and the satisfaction of greed, we choose to develop technologies in ways that are not primarily intended to improve life on a human scale.  We build machines intended primarily to kill, to control, to make money by putting people out of work or distracting them from things that matter.

Where are the lines?  Airplanes can carry either people or bombs.  How do we tell which one is better for people than the other?  How do we build a world where ploughshares are valued more than swords?

The Seventh Social Sin:  the Perpetuation of Ignorance.

If our first priority in life is to seek the truth so that we can serve God properly, then anything that interferes with that effort raises concerns – and things that are deliberately meant to hinder us could be considered sin.

Many things can hinder the search for truth: the deliberate termination of human life at any time between conception and natural death, for example, along with any means of denying others their dignity or access to the necessities of life. Likewise deliberately attempting to distract others from truth.

Too often our society distracts us, in too many ways – for example:

• By promoting unprincipled education, or acquiescing in it
• By promoting unprincipled or unconscionable entertainment, such as salacious media and opportunities for substance abuse
• By promoting vanity, frivolousness, or self-centeredness
• By manipulating the news for improper purposes, or promoting irresponsible journalism.

Each of us bears not only a responsibility for our own education, but a responsibility for what is passed to others by society in the name of education, news, or entertainment.

“The lamp of the body is your eye. When your eye is sound, then your whole body is filled with light, but when it is bad, then your body is in darkness. Take care, then, that the light in you not become darkness.” Luke 11:34-35