When I was in high school, I wanted to go to a party. I knew that my parents would say no, so I lied and said that I was at a friend’s house and went anyway. This was wrong, but was it a sin?
The Bible calls for us to “love God with all of our strength” and “love our neighbor as ourselves.” In general, sin refers to free choices that harm and break our relationship with God and with others.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church categories individual sinfulness into venial and mortal sins. These two kinds of sins each injure the core component of being human—the ability to love God and to love others. They are choices that we make that either wound (venial) or seek to eviscerate and destroy (mortal) our very ability to love. In this way, they attack God’s own image that we all carry, and through this attack jeopardize our communion, both now and into eternity, with the divine and with one another. We are creatures who yearn for relationship and mutual self-giving. The language of sin refers to those ways of living—thoughts, words, actions taken and not taken—that impede authentic, mutually self-giving relationships.
Sin is a break in a relationship thanks to our words, thoughts, actions, and inactions. My lie caused a small rupture in my web of relationships. It was a wound to myself, to others, and perhaps even to God. God’s grace—reckless love that is healing, and empowering—brings us out of the depths of sinning and into our authentic selves. God reminds us who we are and how to love.
But sin is more complicated than my lie to my parents: Sin can also occur on a social or structural level. Corporate or structural sin is more insidious but also attacks our very ability to love—God’s image in us.
We often are unaware that we participate in structural sin. For example, a person may not harbor overtly racist attitudes or actions but still cooperate with the sin of structural racism. One may say the right things and form healthy interracial relationships while remaining complicit (“in what I have failed to do”) in the complex webs in which black lives are devalued. The same can be true for our webs of relationships that affect women, the poor, the unborn, the disabled, and those whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual, to name a few.
Unfortunately our sacrament of Reconciliation is focused on individual sins and has yet to be fully integrated with corporate and social sinfulness. The sacrament directly addresses the scourge of venial and mortal sins in our everyday lives but it is less clear how we can communally atone for our structural sins.
This article also appears in the July 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 7, page 49).