In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, public protests across the United States and around the world have focused on racism, calling for a reckoning not only with his death but also with systemic injustice. There is a sense of déjà vu in what happened. Many recalled the death of Eric Garner or the beating of Rodney King and the outrage and protests these provoked, or remembered the upheavals of the 1960s. It’s not just about policing. A litany of offenses against Black people in America extends across history: from slavery to lynching and other murders; from redlining and Jim Crow to contempt and exclusion from the goods of society. After George Floyd’s death, anger has boiled over again. Will anything change?
This moment in time is perhaps a good one to revisit John Paul II’s teaching on social sin, both for the hope it inspires and for its frank acknowledgement of the challenges we face. To tell this story we need to start in the 1980s. The theme of the 1983 Synod of Bishops was “reconciliation,” and John Paul II wanted to talk about penance. However, the bishops—in particular the bishops from Third-World countries—had something else on their minds. They wanted to talk about social sin, structures of sin, and systemic forms of oppression that magnify and perpetuate sinful situations. Reconciliation is not only a matter of confessing personal faults and seeking forgiveness; conversion requires commitment to social change.
Ever the anti-Marxist, John Paul II resisted speaking about sin in supra-personal terms. Rather than leaning into the problem of structures, he instead turned to the theme of personal responsibility. He blunted the force of the concept of social sin by claiming that every sin is, in a certain way, social. A staunch defender of the practice of individual confession as essential to the sacrament of penance, he also effectively suppressed the communal rite of reconciliation with general absolution—one of the few reforms of the sacrament after Vatican II that was growing in popularity. One might conclude therefore that John Paul II successfully routed those who sought to develop the Church’s teaching on reconciliation to include social sin and communal responsibility.