Structures of Sin

"If the present situation can be attributed to difficulties of various kinds, it is not out of place to speak of "structures of sin," which. . . are rooted in personal sin and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them, and make them difficult to remove. And thus they grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people's behavior. "Sin" and "structures of sin" are categories which are seldom applied to the situation of the contemporary world. However, one cannot easily gain a profound understanding of the reality that confronts us unless we give a name to the root of the evils which afflict us." (Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 36).

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The reality of the "War against the Poor" is a common theme in Catholic social teaching and the Bible, but this is rarely recognized or discussed in the modern debate regarding social policy. Indeed, current rhetoric suggests that the poor are solely responsible for their situations, and that there are no social, economic, or governmental structures that oppress the poor -- other than those specific programs designed to provide food, income, and medical care for the poor, which are blamed for encouraging dependency among the poor. The astonishing thing about these assertions is their willful blindness not only to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the Bible, but also to the general tenor of human history, in which the weak and the powerless have always been at the mercy of the rich and the strong. Based on this historical judgment, the burden of proof would appear to be on those who claim there are no (or very few) structural problems in regard to poverty in America (e.g. Bauman, 4-5).

The great problem tends to be a one dimensional focus and analysis which is so popular these days. Liberal capitalism suggests that if left to its own free operation, the marketplace together with the "natural generosity" of people will resolve all of the problems. In a truly free market, the only poor people will be those who are lazy (c.f. the writings of Charles Murray). The few "deserving" poor people that are still around once laissez-faire capitalism is fully implemented can be cared for by voluntary charity. In this analysis, people are poor not because they have been "made poor", but rather because of inherent personal defects. Politically, this is the dominant philosophy today in the United States. But this analysis doesn't answer the question: is this truly free market possible, given the power of the "overwhelming thirst for profit at any price" and the "overwhelming thirst for power at any price" identified by Pope John Paul II as two of the key problems of the modern era?

This is countered by the Marxist/socialist insistence that the problem as totally structural, that poor people have no responsibility for their situation; everything is the result of class warfare. This focus on structure came to full flower in the 1960s and is fundamental to the design of many of our social programs.

Both of these seemingly opposed schools of thought (laissez-faire capitalism and collectivism) reduce the human person to a mere economic calculation and exalt production and capital over labor and the human person. This has been identified in Catholic social teaching as their major errors (e.g. in Laborem 7, 13). In Catholic social teaching, the problem is personal -- and the problem is structural. Both must be addressed, both must be the objects of conversion, and both must be redeemed by the blood of the Cross. Moreover, Church teaching reminds us that the personal problem that relates to poverty is not only the sin of the poor, but also the sins of the rich. It is these sins that build the primary structures of sin that oppress the poor. Catholic social teaching would predict that social policy that tilts too far either way (i.e. onto structural reasons, or onto blaming the poor) will fail and make the problem worse, which proof seems increasingly evident in modern US welfare systems, including some of the changes recently enacted to the system.

The discussion which follows is focused on the structures of sin that arise from the personal sins of the rich and the poor. The order of the discussion does not represent a judgment of their importance. It is meant to be as comprehensive as possible within the limitations and parameters of this paper. In Sollicitudo, John Paul identifies two of the structures about which he is concerned: the all-consuming desire for profit, and the thirst for power with the intention of imposing one's will upon others at any price (37). Consider this to be an attempt to describe, count, and name the ways those two structures of sin have proliferated and born bitter fruit in many areas of life.

NOTE ABOUT IN-TEXT REFERENCES: In this section, there are two types of in-text references. The first is to various documents of the social teaching canon, which will list the name of the document and the section or paragraph being referenced. The second are references to the Waldrop justice bibliography, which will list the last name of the author plus the page number.

These pages are revised from a paper submitted by Robert Waldrop in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a B.A. in philosophy and religion at Oklahoma City University. They are meant to be considered as an application of Catholic social teaching to modern U.S. social policy and they are the opinions of the author, who is solely responsible for their contents. The author is making no statement that everything herein is somehow "approved" of by the Church or that it represents official church teaching. Rather, it is the result of his sustained and prayerful reflection upon social policy and the social doctrine of the Church by the author. Nor should they be considered to be a "finished product", in that as new information is gained, and more thought is given, and more prayer and meditation is dedicated, various conclusions and recommendations may be changed. Contents of this page and all pages indexed from this page are copyrighted (1998) by Robert Waldrop.

These structures obviously fall with greater or lesser effect on different people in different places and situations. All do not necessarily impact every poor person, but all poor people are impacted in one way or another by some combination of the circumstances discussed in these pages. Different people also react in various ways to the pressures imposed by such structures of sin. Some are able to successfully deal with them, others aren't and still others have some middle-level of ability to cope. More education and more spirituality equals better skills in managing one's personal circumstances in regard to structures of sin -- less education and less spirituality equals poor skills in coping with these structures of sin. With fewer structures of sin, it becomes easier for people to be "good".

Personal Sins of the Rich and the Poor

The Blame Game Discusses the demonization of poor people as a basis for social policy and political success.

Corporate Welfare Who are the real tax hogs in Washington, D.C.? Not poor people, look at what big welfare checks rich corporations are receiving.

Deficit Spending Interest on the national debt costs more than all means-tested social programs. And who benefits from that interest? Not poor people.

Death Talk At the Casa Juan Diego Catholic Worker House in Houston, Texas, they say, "There are many deaths among the poor."

Economic Discrimination Zoning, regulation, occupational licensure.

Health Care

Housing since the 1970s, more than 5 million low income housing units have been destroyed, most by government policies and programs such as urban renewal and tax-supported commercial redevelopment projects.

Monetary Policy considers how monetary policies designed to increase unemployment hurt the poor.

Political Exploitation Democrats, Republicans, poverty pimps, welfare programs.

Secession of the Successful as the rich and affluent and middle class flee the cities, they carve out walled and gated communities to keep the riff-raff out of "their" neighborhoods.

The Middle Class Squeeze shows how government tax, economic, and spending programs and patterns over the last 50 years are driving the Middle Class Squeeze, and shows how this squeeze contributes to politically motivated demands to cut programs for the poor while maintaining welfare programs for the middle class, affluent, and rich. Also discusses the growing income disparities in the U.S.

Welfare for the Rich Welfare for the rich contributes to the deficit and helps drive the pressure to reduce programs for the poor.