6.3.4 ‘Structures of sin’: background

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Unit 6 Contents



We saw earlier in this unit that the concept of ‘structural’ injustice is central in liberation theology’s analysis.  We now return to it because SRS chapter V is the main place where CST documents address it. On this screen we give some background, before coming to the text on the next.

As also noted earlier, the idea that we may speak of social, economic and political ‘structures’ as just or unjust was already present in CST before the rise of liberation theology.  Mater et Magistra, Gaudium et Spes and Populorum Progressio, had employed these terms.

For example, PP referred to “oppressive social structures due to abuses of ownership or of power” (#21), while Gaudium et Spes said this:

It is in full conformity with human nature that there should be juridico-political structures providing all citizens in an ever better fashion and without any discrimination with the practical possibility of freely and actively taking part in… the direction of public affairs. (#75; this was part of a reading in Unit 4.)1

This statement implies that there can be better and worse structures for enabling political participation, and that sometimes these are discriminatory and therefore unjust.  An example of what this means in practice is given by the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, led by Rev. Martin Luther King (which was at its height at the time Gaudium et Spes was issued).  You might have seen Selma, an excellent film focusing on King and named after a town that, in 1964, was at the centre of a specific campaign to secure equal voting rights for black US citizens. The campaign’s focus was long-embedded practices in the way law was interpreted in Selma that discriminated against people on the ground of race.  It led, after a non-violent but painful struggle, to legislation in Washington DC that achieved change from an unjust to a just structure.

In light of this very brief outline of Selma, now read the following quotation, which is the clearest description in a Vatican document of what ‘social structures’ are.

[Social structures] are the sets of institutions and practices which people find already existing or which they create, on the national and international level, and which orientate or organize economic, social and political life. Being necessary in themselves, they often tend to become fixed and fossilized as mechanisms relatively independent of the human will, thereby paralysing or distorting social development and causing injustice. However, they always depend on the responsibility of man, who can alter them, and not upon an alleged determinism of history…  One can therefore speak of structures marked by sin, but one cannot condemn structures as such.2

This quotation can be read as a striking summary of precisely what Selma is all about.  The statement says that people can alter social structures, but the film puts across how immensely challenging and costly this can be.  As Gaudium et Spes said, “When the structure of affairs is flawed by the consequences of sin, man, already born with a bent toward evil, finds there new inducements to sin, which cannot be overcome without strenuous efforts and the assistance of grace” (#25).



If you have seen Selma, do you agree that it gives a good illustration of what it means to talk about ‘social structures’ and, in particular, how they can be changed for the better?

Can you give another real example that illustrates this?


The above quotation about social structures comes from one of the documents in which the Vatican responded to liberation theology, the CDF’s Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (ICFL) of 1986 (see 6.2.7).  This lies in the immediate background of what John Paul said in SRS the following year.

Note that that statement speaks of “structures marked by sin”, rather than unjust structures – and this screen’s title also refers to “structures of sin”.  Since at least the Puebla conference in 1979, liberation theologians had spoken of both unjust and sinful structures, and Pope John Paul had used the latter language at Puebla too.3 Clearly, ‘sin’ is the broader category because injustice is only one kind of sin – so ‘structures of sin’ include ‘unjust structures’.  In SRS, John Paul uses both these terms (in ##40 and 44 respectively).



The quotation above says also that social structures are a matter of human responsibility and that they don’t exist because of “an alleged determinism of history”.  What is this particular phrase alluding to?


Here is another illustration.  In the UK, the retailer Sports Direct has become widely known, even notorious, for poor employment practices in the huge warehouse from which it distributes goods ordered online.  Here is a BBC news item on this: ‘Sports Direct staff “not treated as humans”, says MPs’ report’ (22 July 2016).  Various practices, including to do with pay rates, sickness, and deductions from wages for workers without bank accounts, led a House of Commons Committee to state that Sports Direct’s business model treated workers “as commodities rather than as human beings” (quotation from that BBC report).

Such practices certainly established a set of structures within which employees had to operate, and by 2016 there was wide agreement that these led to unjust treatment.  How should we understand this kind of case, fundamentally?  It is fairly obvious that it can be illuminating to think about it terms of a class difference: capital owners and senior managers are the employers and these, collectively, have great power to determine the employment conditions for everyone else, the workers.  So the social structures here correspond with a distinction between two economic classes.

CST has sometimes spoken in terms of social and economic classes ever since Rerum Novarum.  But, as we have seen earlier in this unit (and in the module), CST has also rejected a Marxist theory of class difference (see especially 6.2.6, ‘Liberation theology and Marxism: class analysis’; cf. 5.2.2).  We need not repeat what has already been covered, but a brief reminder might be helpful.

The defining aspect of a Marxist approach is that, in a capitalist society, the contrast between the bourgeois and proletarian classes constitutes, and also divides, society at the most basic level. Moreover this difference arises because history has always been driven forward by conflict between opposed economic classes.  As the first Vatican Instruction on liberation theology put it, “For the Marxist… the fundamental structure of history is characterized by ‘class-struggle’”.4

In referring to social structures seen as depending on “an alleged determinism of history”, the quotation above from the second Instruction (ICFL) is alluding to a Marxist perspective.  The use of “alleged” reflects CST’s repudiation of Marxist class analysis.5

It is CST’s fundamental principles of human dignity and the common good that entail that repudiation.  People are human first and only in some secondary way distinguishable into social classes.  People together find human fulfilment in the common good, not in the context of any exclusive subgroup whether defined by race, class or any other difference.  At the same time, CST’s principle of subsidiarity insists on recognition of many kinds of social body and institution within a society, but all these help to constitute the common good, rather than existing in opposition to it.

Against this background, CST needed to speak about social structures in a way that refused Marxist understanding, while expressing what this terminology needs to put across. Liberation theology was the catalyst for CST developing in this way.   We shall now look at how Pope John Paul II did so in SRS.



End of 6.3.4

Go to 6.3.5 SRS, chapter V on ‘structures of sin’

Module B outline

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  1. For other passages which speak of social structures, see Mater et Magistra ##11-13 and 83, and Gaudium et Spes #25. 

  2. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (ICFL) (1986), #74.  Cf. especially ICFL, #75 and also #32, 36, 42 and 68.  The other main document of John Paul’s papacy on which SRS draws in addressing structures of sin is his apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia of 1985. 

  3. CELAM, Puebla Final Document, #281, at http://www.celam.org/doc_conferencias/Documento_Conclusivo_Puebla.pdf (in Spanish), accessed 28 Apr. 2017; Pope John Paul II, Homily at the Basilica of Our Lady of Zapopán, 30 Jan. 1979, at  https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1979/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19790130_messico-zapopan.html (accessed 25 Apr. 2017). 

  4. CDF, Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” [ICATL), VIII.5 

  5. It should be noted that, among different interpretations of Marxism, only some have been ‘determinist’ in the sense of holding that class conflict drives history forward regardless of human freedom and responsibility.