6.3.5 SRS, chapter V on ‘structures of sin’

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Unit 6 Contents



SRS chapter V is headed ‘A Theological Reading of Modern Problems’ and within this single chapter John Paul addresses both structures of sin and solidarity in ways that develop CST on both of them.  The basic message of the chapter is plain. What is needed if ‘structures of sin’ are to be overcome is the practice of solidarity.  Our study will make clear what this means.

What chapter V says about structures of sin is anticipated by the ‘Survey of the Contemporary World’ in chapter III (see 6.3.2).  In the context of John Paul’s largely pessimistic assessment there of progress towards development since PP, he speaks of the economic ‘mechanisms’ that sustain the North/South contrast.

[I]n spite of the praiseworthy efforts made in the last two decades by the more developed or developing nations and the International Organizations to find a way out of the situation, or at least to remedy some of its symptoms, the conditions have become notably worse.

Responsibility for this deterioration is due to various causes. Notable among them are undoubtedly grave instances of omissions on the part of the developing nations themselves, and especially on the part of those holding economic and political power. Nor can we pretend not to see the responsibility of the developed nations, which have not always, at least in due measure, felt the duty to help countries separated from the affluent world to which they themselves belong.

Moreover, one must denounce the existence of economic, financial and social mechanisms which, although they are manipulated by people, often function almost automatically, thus accentuating the situation of wealth for some and poverty for the rest. These mechanisms, which are manoeuvred directly or indirectly by the more developed countries, by their very functioning favor the interests of the people manipulating them. But in the end they suffocate or condition the economies of the less developed countries. Later on these mechanisms will have to be subjected to a careful analysis under the ethical-moral aspect. (#16, italics added)

He refers back to this discussion at start of chapter V.  The following reading is the first half of the chapter and needs care and concentration.  Before you do it, look at the question to be addressed in the exercise after it.


Reading (3pp)

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, chapter V (i): ##35-37




In light of what this screen outlined before the reading, what three or four points seem to you to be most important in what SRS says here?




To follow up the three points in the Response, John Paul is here making full use of the language of ‘structural’ sin made prominent by liberation theology, indeed stating its importance and embedding it in CST.  At the same time, he is recasting it within a moral and, as the chapter title shows, a theological analysis.  In this way he is implying that “socio-political analysis” (#36) alone – whether Marxist or any other kind – is insufficient.  Those three points can be seen as summed up in the final paragraph of the reading:

I have wished to introduce this type of analysis… in order to point out the true nature of the evil which faces us with respect to the development of peoples: it is a question of a moral evil, the fruit of many sins which lead to “structures of sin”. To diagnose the evil in this way is to identify precisely, on the level of human conduct, the path to be followed in order to overcome it. (#37)

This part of SRS is an important part of CST’s response to the challenge that liberation theology had posed over the previous two decades.  It articulates a clearly non-Marxist understanding of ‘structural’ sin or injustice.

In the concluding words of the above quotation, John Paul is referring forward to the next part of chapter V – but he has already emphasized one aspect of what “the path to be followed” involves. As the Response outlined, those who have political power have a very great responsibility (#35).

I emphasize this because we are adding here a highly important point to what we learned in Unit 3 about CST’s view of the role of political authority.  (That unit promised that we would return to the issue of structural justice in order to understand that topic more fully; 3.3.5; cf. 6.2.4.)  According to SRS, part of government’s role is to identify and overturn ‘structures of sin’ (#35).  This is, then, a moral responsibility which falls in a specific way on those who hold political power.  (How it falls on others, we come to on the next screen.)

By recalling some of what we looked at in Unit 3, we should be able to see the logic of this, why it makes sense.

Early in Unit 3, we noted that the primary means by which government acts is law that is, to the extent necessary, enforced (3.1.3).  While most people usually obey the law, everything that government does – whether in countering terrorism, or in international development, or in upholding workers’ rights, or in environmental protection – depends on the possibility of putting the law into effect by enforcement.

The point that we need to recognize here is this: good law that is properly enforced constitutes a structure of justice.  In contrast, the absence of good law, or good law that is left unenforced, can lead to entrenchment of unjust practices and hence to ‘structures of sin’.

A law that prohibits discrimination when people register to vote can prevent development of a sinful shared practice such as Selma portrayed.  But if that law is not enforced, it is likely to fail to prevent such practices.  A law that establishes safety conditions for factory workers, and that is enforced, prevents (for example) use of certain chemicals that damage lungs.  And so on.

Such laws establish just structures.  Neither charitable bodies nor campaign groups, indeed no non-state agencies, can themselves directly establish structural justice, precisely because they lack power to determine what the law is and to enforce it across a territory. Hence it is governments that bear the direct responsibility for ensuring that there is structural justice.

Recognizing this underlines another point made in Unit 3 that is well worth repeating. The principle of ‘the rule of law’ is of immense importance if government is going to do justice.  You will recall this principle insists that government agencies, including judicial institutions themselves, must be subject to the law of the land.

In fact the rule of law is widely violated, not least in poorer countries, but only if it is upheld can good law be enforced. For example, unless judges have anti-bribery laws enforced against them, there will be little possibility of overcoming a shared practice of bribery.  In short, when there is the rule of law, it restrains abuse of power and thereby sustains just structures.

Hence, “the path to be followed” in order to overcome structures of sin requires governments to fulfil their direct responsibility to establish and enforce good and just laws.

But this is by no means all that following that path involves.  Beginning with the words, “This path is long and complex”, John Paul goes on to say what is required in the rest of chapter V of SRS.



End of 6.3.5

Go to 6.3.6 SRS, chapter V on solidarity

Module B outline

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