Justice exalteth a nation: but sin maketh nations miserable. – Proverbs 13:34
Is there such a thing as a “social sin”? It is out of a respect for my friend Brendan/Darwin that I want to examine and critique his rejection of the idea of social sin, with which I partially agree, but which I believe also leaves out some crucial facts. This is not a point against Brendan/Darwin, since I don’t believe he intended his post to be a treatise on the issue. It is rather a point in his favor, since his general considerations give us the opportunity to explore the question in greater detail.
It must be said at the outset that there are obviously different things that one might mean by “social sin.” Brendan/Darwin begins his argument with the observation that there are those who become “frustrated” with the emphasis many Christians place on individual failings to the neglect of “social or political sin.” There is a significant difference, however, between social and political behavior. My intention is not to split-hairs in order to undermine a valid point (which it is), but rather to highlight the extent to which society and the body politic have become indistinguishable from one another. In my recent essay on the social effects of abortion, I make a distinction between organic and artificial social bonds; the former are those that necessarily follow from man’s social nature, while the latter are those created through politics, i.e. laws. Because we are imperfect and often malicious beings, some artificial authority will always be required for men to attain “the highest good.” But human laws are not foundational – they are supplemental to natural and divine laws, or at least they were in most places in the Western world until the 19th century.
I cannot go into all of the historical reasons why the hierarchy of laws was overturned, and human law came to subvert, dominate and destroy the divine and natural laws. The effort began in earnest with Thomas Hobbes in the middle of the 17th century (though he may have been prefigured by Machiavelli in the 16th), who bequeathed to us most of the ideas we regard as “liberal” today. Because of his efforts and those who took them to heart, we have now reached a point in our civilization in which nothing escapes the pull of politics. Because of our natural tendency to make religions out of ideas – to systematize them and attempt to practice them as a way of life – there really are now such things as “political sins”, or as they may be called, deviations from the party line, or in modern Western society, the consensus of the political class.
The typical advocate for “peace and justice” these days, however, is not necessarily concerned with a party line or the consensus of the political class. Thus they do not typically speak of “political sin” in the way a devout Marxist-Leninist may have in the Soviet era. Nor, however, do they fully understand the proper meaning of “social sin”, which is anything that violates or undermines the organic social bonds or the “laws” that govern them. Hence, abortion is a social sin because of the manner in which it undermines the natural social order established by God (and which even a rational atheist not entirely given over to hedonism must recognize as at least established by nature). There are few sins, upon this understanding, that would fail to qualify as social sins in addition to individual sins, which is precisely why no such distinction existed throughout most of human history.
Rather, the P&J advocate recognizes what I would call institutional sin. Thus, my friend Darwin/Brendan is not entirely accurate when he writes the following:
Societies do not perform sins, people do. While it may make sense to talk about some pervasive evil such as racism as being a “social sin”, racism does not in fact consists of “society” being racist but rather of a number of individual people within a society behaving in a racist fashion. If workers are being treated badly or paid unjust wages, it is not because society does this, but because a certain number of individual people choose to commit those acts.
There is both truth and error in this thesis. “Society” cannot sin, because society is not a person (though it is an organism), but rather the sum total of the bonds between individuals – bonds upon which, I must add, all individuals depend upon for their existence as individuals. It is also true that in any given case, “a number of individual people” make a decision to sin. But it is not irrelevant when those individuals all belong to a particular institution, which is a part of society, and whose collective activity is directed at a common goal. In both examples Brendan uses – racism and unjust wages – the perpetrators are undoubtedly individuals, but they are also members of institutions, and they sin in their official institutional capacities.
Would it, for instance, have made any sense to speak of the “individual sin” of Jim Crow laws in the South? Of course not; laws are not individuals. But if a law protects or promotes sin, this is a case of institutional sin. The same might be said of those capitalists who collectively worked to prevent the enactment of good laws, of basic protections for workers, resulting in enough widespread social misery to warrant an unprecedented development of Catholic political philosophy by Pope Leo XIII. Though individuals may ultimately be responsible for obeying or resisting an unjust law, or for establishing a necessary law where none exists, it would not be altogether accurate or helpful to reduce the problem to one of individuals.
There are always those, however, who go too far, who are utterly infected with the secular spirit of the age, who continue the work of the usurpers of previous centuries. And from here on my critique ought to support Darwin/Brendan’s main idea.
On many campuses, from the lowliest community college to the loftiest ivy league university, the influence of Marxism is still felt, even if it has been shorn and stripped of much of its modernist methods and terminology in favor of more fashionable post-modern garb. The central proposition remains that men are almost entirely social products; it follows from this that man’s salvation from sin is almost entirely dependent upon reforming, or perhaps even destroying and rebuilding, society. In this schema, there is no room for the idea that Christ’s death upon the cross has already saved mankind. Nor is there room, more broadly speaking, for the idea that a spiritual transformation born in the free will and conscience of human beings is of any social value. If men are entirely products of society, then free will is an illusion; only the “conscious” vanguard of communists, racists, or feminists have a developed enough social psyche that equivocates to something like a free will, which entitles them to rule in the name of the people, and justifies the crimes, destruction, and mass murders they perpetrate.
They suffer from many disorders of the mind and spirit, chief among them, I believe, an intoxication with the possibilities of power. Whether their issue is class, race, sex, or some other demographic indicator, subversive radicals spend their lives and careers obsessed with analyzing power relations and reducing all social phenomenon to conflict between one or more groups. “Truth” becomes nothing more than what the dominant class, race, gender, etc. says it is, while simultaneously denouncing as “false” the ideas of those they oppress. In other words, truth is entirely replaced with power. This is one of the arguments of the post-modernist philosopher Michel Foucault, whose work “Truth and Power” is aptly summarized in the following words:
‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it. A ‘regime’ of truth.
This is not how I believe, or how Catholic tradition holds, that human societies have operated throughout history, or how truth is established, though it is what happens when people who project their own diseased thoughts onto all of history finally seize power.
Yet in Leviticus, we read:
Thou shalt not do that which is unjust, nor judge unjustly. Respect not the person of the poor, nor honour the countenance of the mighty. But judge thy neighbour according to justice. (19:15)
In this one holy law, all of modern social theorizing is ground to a halt and turned on its head. Judge thy neighbor, not according to how much wealth he has, the color of his skin, his sex, or any other variable, even when they are rich white males. But judge thy neighbor according to an objective moral law, a truth, a standard which retains its essence and its validity outside of time and space, preceding man and all of his works, and outliving him as well. This is not to deny or to minimize a preferential option for the poor, which is present in many parts of the Old and New Testaments. I wrote about this extensively here, and have developed these thoughts further since that time.
For now I will say that God’s love of the poor, and his call for justice, do not justify welfare states, intrusive bureaucracies, excessive taxation, or other infringements upon genuine human liberty. To proclaim as much is not “liberalism”, but a rejection of collectivist tyranny and the usurpation of family and community by alien and hostile ideologies, policies and programs. It was Pius XI who noted and warned against the disintegration of society into nothing more than “individuals and the state.” In such conditions, to return to the opening idea, the social becomes the political, society becomes the state, and opposition to the expansion of the state, opposition to “the common good” – all juxtaposed to the only remaining alternative, the isolated individual.
This is a false dichotomy! Most American conservatives are decidedly NOT, as certain pretentious people typically label them, “liberals” or “individualists”; they resist the state out of a conscious, semi-conscious, or barely-conscious desire to preserve marriage, family, faith and community from the usurpations of secular religious fanatics. They have every right, and indeed a moral obligation to do so. Those that do reject these organic associations and bonds in the name of personal autonomy are precisely those most likely to insist upon state intervention in every other area of life, because life cannot be lived outside of associations of some kind.
The worst libertines are often the most statist, and the most condescending about their statism.
Among the least statist are to be found those who sincerely value the organic social bonds, or the “traditional” social structures.
The former want complete moral and spiritual autonomy while insisting upon materialist collectivism for society; for perversion and degeneracy subsidized by the state in a never-ending orgy. Their ways are completely summarized in Chapter 2 of the Book of Wisdom.
The latter want material and political autonomy so that they may better build and nourish the true spiritual community, comprised of faithful families, headed by faithful spouses, governed by a faithful covenant with God. This is the “society” to which we are beholden, and which against we can sin. But it is certainly no sin to resist or to disobey an artificial political power when it infringes upon God’s laws (Acts 5:29). Anyone who dares to call such motives “liberal” is a fool. They are better compared to those of the Vendee.
In a sermon (the final one of this book) that I can honestly say changed my life, Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, speaks about the extent to which a belief in utopia has replaced hope in eternal life. Says Ratzinger,
We should finally bid farewell to the notion of working to build the ideal society of the future as being a myth and should instead work with total commitment to strengthen those factors what hold evil at bay in the present and that can therefore offer some guarantee for the immediate future. (emphasis added)
In my view, this somewhat less ambitious earthly goal requires little more than a return to Aristotle, Aquinas, and Pope Leo. Americans in particular should look to Thomas Jefferson. And this is more or less what the Papacy continues to advocate today.