Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (Wikimedia Commons)

Several years ago, I was leaving Guatemala on a Sunday morning when the newspaper ran a front-page story about a wealthy landowner who had been kidnapped a few days before. Such kidnappings for ransom occur there often enough that no one was surprised by the news, but this time things were different. The victim was forty-one years old and was somehow able to escape his captors after a few hours. He returned to his home and reported the crime to the police, who sent to investigate the incident the same three men who had kidnapped him that morning, now in their police uniforms.

The man had connections, he knew the head of the nation’s Supreme Court, and the story made it onto the front page. I asked several locals what they thought of these events and they all responded the same way—with a shrug of the shoulders and some version of “What can you do?”

Corruption plagues every nation to one degree or another, but this kidnapping case manifests a criminal-justice system so pervasively corrupt that, in the parlance of Catholic social thought, one would surely call it a sinful social structure. For decades now, popes have spoken out against sinful social structures, a concept that has arisen from the work of liberation theologians. But neither papal teaching nor liberation theology has explained what a social structure is or how one can be sinful.

Critical realist sociology provides a perceptive analysis to answer the first question. A social structure is a system of relations among pre-existing social positions into which persons enter. A social structure has causal impact on the people within it by presenting them with restrictions and opportunities that frequently alter the decisions they would otherwise make. Structure affects moral agency.

Consider your local parish as a social structure. It is a complex system of relations among positions: parishioner and pastor, parishioner and fellow parishioner, pastor and parish secretary, pastor and chair of the pastoral council, etc. These positions existed long before you or your pastor or the secretary entered into them. One of the critical insights into structures is that they predate the people within them. Critical realist sociologist Margaret Archer reminds us that “the majority of actors are the dead.” Consider the social position you entered into last Sunday, that of a parishioner, during your pastor’s sermon. The social structure we call a parish generates restrictions against your standing during the homily to object or even raising your hand to ask for a clarification, actions you might well take in other settings. There doesn’t have to be an explicit rule against such behavior in church, and the preacher doesn’t have to enforce this implicit restriction on your decisions. The strange looks of disapproval you would receive from your fellow parishioners are penalty enough to prevent such actions.

It is important to notice that social structures restrict your decisions but do not remove your freedom. Any one of us could stand up during the homily to object. The fact that almost no one ever does means that our decision to live within restrictions tends to “reproduce” the structure itself. Most of us, most of the time, agree with the prohibitions implicit in the restrictions that social structures present to us, whether at church, at work, or on the road.

Structures don’t only restrict. If you’re fortunate enough to have a pastor who preaches well, then the structure of the parish also provides you with the opportunity to hear an insightful reflection on the readings and their implications for daily life. Here too there is no determinism. Each of us has the option to ignore the opportunity and daydream during the homily.

We live our lives within social structures, and make decisions in the face of their restrictions and opportunities, whether we enter the position of rider on a city bus, customer at Macy’s, pedestrian on the crosswalk, or bridge player at the Monday night game. At our place of work, restrictions (conditional penalties) may lead us to submit those forms in duplicate even though we think the practice foolish. Opportunities (conditional rewards) also alter work behavior. Time-and-a-half for overtime has led many a factory worker to Saturday labor, and that bonus for meeting a monthly goal leads the salesperson to extra effort. And, of course, we’ve all bought something “because it was on sale.” The opportunity of the lower price wasn’t the only cause but it did alter our decision.


No one is morally responsible for sins committed by an ancestor. The principal insight of the doctrine of original sin is that, whatever our efforts at virtue, we are sinners.

Much more could be said about the critical realist understanding of social structures, such as how they “emerge” from the actions of individuals, how they exist at a “higher” level than persons, how they are ontologically real things in the world, and how people can transform them. Still, we have enough so far to proceed to the second question: How can a social structure be sinful?

Only a person can “commit a sin.” This fundamental insight of Catholic moral theology makes notions such as “social sin” difficult to define precisely, as demonstrated by the debates around social sin in the theological literature. Things can be clearer with the notion of a sinful social structure. Social structures themselves do not sin in the literal sense, but we can reasonably use the adjective “sinful” here in the same way that we can speak of an “evil” plan.

A fundamental intuition into the sinfulness of structures was presented by Pope Benedict XVI in one sentence of Caritas in veritate: “The Church’s wisdom has always pointed to the presence of original sin in social conditions and in the structure of society.” This insight is extended here in the claim that sinful social structures are sinful in the same way that original sin is sinful. Both influence our moral agency, and they do so in similar ways. No one is morally responsible for sins committed by an ancestor. The principal insight of the doctrine of original sin is that, whatever our efforts at virtue, we are sinners. There are eight things we might note about original sin, presented here with little defense due to the constraints of space. All are analogously true of sinful social structures.

First, original sin has its effect through both one’s environment and one’s personal disposition, as Pope Benedict indicated. Describing the views of Karl Rahner, Kevin A. McMahon has said that “the freedom and integrity of our decisions, already restricted by our individual sinfulness, is further compromised by the decision of others, at times in ways that make their influence, for all practical purposes, inescapable.”

Second, when we reach an age of moral responsibility for our actions, we are already disordered due to original sin. As Jesse Couenhoven has expressed it, “disordered beliefs and loves” have shaped our “most basic cognitive, affective, and volitional powers.”

Third, original sin is an inclination to evil, a reality that makes sinful choices more likely. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “human nature…is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin.” 

Fourth, original sin’s influence on our choices occurs through our freedom and not in violation of it. As Karl Rahner describes it, “we are a people who must inevitably exercise our own freedom subjectively in a situation which is co-determined by the objective occasions of guilt...permanently and inescapably.”

Fifth, under the influence of original sin, our sinful choices occur with the psychological sense that only a part of our self is engaged. Describing Rahner’s views, McMahon cites our “inability...to act with one’s entire self in a given decision.”

Sixth, each sinful choice made under the influence of original sin shapes who we are. Rahner explains that sin “is certainly not like breaking a window which falls into a thousand pieces, but afterwards I remained personally unaffected by it. Sin determines the human being in a definite way: he has not only sinned, but he himself is a sinner.”

Seventh, formation in virtue by one’s parents reduces the influence of original sin. Moral character is pivotal.

Eighth and finally, given the interplay of environment and personal disposition in original sin, it is impossible to draw a bright line between our freedom in choosing and the influence of that environment.

When social structures are sinful, they are sinful in a similar way. They do not force individuals to be sinful, but they make it more likely. (1) Sinful structures generate restrictions and opportunities that encourage sinful decisions by persons within them. (2) Sinful structures appeal to our disordered beliefs and loves. (3) Sinful structures incline those within them toward sinful choices. (4) Sinful structures have their influence by leading us to choose differently, but not in a deterministic way. (5) When we make a sinful choice reluctantly in the face of the influence of a sinful social structure, we have the sense that our “true” self has not made this decision. (6) If week after week we make the same sinful choices encouraged by the restrictions we face within a sinful social structure, we slowly become the kind of person who makes such sinful choices. (7) A virtuous person is more likely to be willing to “pay the price” required when violating restrictions presented within a sinful social structure. (8) When both structural restriction and a failure of virtue play a part in a sinful decision, it is not possible to demarcate precisely how much each contributed to the decision.

Returning to the example I began with, we should understand the actions of the kidnapping police officers within the context of a sinful criminal-justice system. In nations where government corruption is taken for granted, officeholders find opportunities to accept bribes or extort payments and face few restrictions in doing so. In U.S. police departments where an unspoken racism prevails, officers stop and harass people of color with disproportionate frequency, as there are few restrictions on these unjust actions. In firms where profit is assumed to be the only goal of the organization, decisions ranging from plant closings to work rules on the shop floor are made with no more respect for the human dignity of employees than the law requires. In a church where the pastor has nearly unlimited authority over parish matters, an autocratic priest can arrive on the scene and undo in a month pastoral policies and practices that had taken decades to develop. In a university department aiming to improve its national status, decisions by senior faculty that leave too many untenured colleagues vying for too few tenured positions can tempt the untenured to destructively competitive choices. Many are the varieties of sinful social structures.


There can be morally defensible reasons for privilege but, even among virtuous persons, privileges are too often excessive and disadvantages too often unjust.

So, are there criteria to distinguish a sinful social structure from a virtuous one? First, just as there are no persons who are only sinful or only virtuous, the same is true for social structures. It seems likely that no social structure is only virtuous. Because a social structure is a system of relations among social positions, different positions face different restrictions and opportunities. Inevitably, persons in some positions are privileged in some way, and others are at a disadvantage. There can be morally defensible reasons for privilege but, even among virtuous persons, privileges are too often excessive and disadvantages too often unjust. At the same time, no social structure is only sinful. A police force that allows kidnapping may still enforce basic traffic laws.

Second, both restrictions and opportunities can be sinful. We are most aware of sinful restrictions because we face a painful decision. Do I act as I know I should (and undergo the penalty this will entail) or do I compromise my principles and do as “the system” expects? But opportunities can also lead us astray. These range from the obviously immoral (e.g., being offered a bribe) to the routinely difficult (e.g., deciding whether to take up the opportunity of a career-enhancing business trip or stay home with the family). Sometimes the combination of opportunity and restriction presents the most heartrending decisions. An Argentine colleague of mine knows a small city mayor there who was offered a $50,000 bribe from a drug cartel, accompanied by the threat to kidnap his son if he did not accept it.

Third, when we judge a restriction or opportunity as sinful, we are making an assumption about how it leads persons to alter their choices toward evil. That is, we are assessing the consequences. This presents a problem for Catholic moral theology, which has traditionally rejected consequentialist ethical theories. Such theories (e.g., utilitarianism) assert that the only things that matter in a moral judgment are the consequences of the action. In institutional life, consequences are not the only things that matter, but they are morally crucial. Traditionally, prudence has been introduced at this point in the analysis, but prudence has to include a moral assessment of competing causal frameworks. The morally optimal driver-safety program for employees of your local electric company isn’t the one that eventuates in no accidents. That would be too expensive and probably impossible anyway. There will have to be a trade-off between more employee hours spent in safety training and a reduction in accidents. The same is true for diversity training in your local police department or public school.

So if we’re going to label an institution as sinful, we need to estimate and evaluate the consequences of any effort to alter existing restrictions and opportunities. This insight goes a long way toward explaining why a liberationist may judge capitalism immoral while a neoconservative thinks otherwise. They might disagree morally, but they certainly differ on the effects that the restrictions and opportunities generated by capitalism have on the people acting within it. Any moral assessment of a social structure—whether your parish, your workplace, or the national immigration system—entails a set of causal assumptions, too often made without thought.

Finally, because what would be sinfully evil in a criminal-justice system is different from what would be sinfully evil in a business, a parish, a city-planning commission, Congress, or the local Little League, there can be no single set of criteria to delineate a sinful social structure. Critical realist sociology offers Christians profound insight into how moral agency is affected by social structures, but a specific moral analysis will be required for each type of structure.

All this may at first sound quite abstract, but it does suggest an important local strategy. If you want to increase justice in any group, bring everyone (or, where that isn’t possible, people representing everyone) to the table and start by identifying the differing restrictions and opportunities faced by different subgroups. It takes moral conviction for leaders to undertake this effort, because it identifies privilege and disadvantage. Each of these may be morally justifiable, but taken-for-granted moral warrants of the privileged often appear thin when exposed to even the most respectful scrutiny. This process cannot, of course, guarantee justice, but it’s a good start.

Daniel K. Finn teaches economics and Christian ethics at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict and is the director of the True Wealth of Nations research project at the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. His latest book is Consumer Ethics in a Global Economy: How Buying Here Causes Injustice There.

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Published in the October 5, 2018 issue: View Contents
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