By: Nathan Deg

Catholics are often accused of being obsessed with sin.  We seem to talk about it all the time.  About what sin is (in simple terms, things/actions that separate us from God), what actions are sinful, how we are all sinners.  Hopefully we talk even more about how God loves us and saves us from our sin.  How His love and mercy are far bigger than anything we do.

But, there is one thing that I personally never hear too much about, but I think it’s incredibly important that we know about it.  That thing is ‘structural’ or ‘institutional’ sin.  Sin involves my own action, but, when enough people commit the same sin, it gets much bigger.  It gets accepted by society and has much larger reaching effects.  When talking about sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

“Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a “social sin.” (CCC 1869)

Unpacking that statement a bit, it’s clear that sin is not private.  My sin affects everyone around me.  A structural sin is when my sin is so accepted and practiced within a society that it affects everyone in it.

South Africa was home of one of the great examples of structural sin; apartheid.  A person’s prejudice against people on the basis of colour, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. are all individual sins.  When that sin was accepted by society and written into law, it became one of the most horrific institutions of the 20th century.  The individual sin of some people become a structure which affected the entire country.  The institution of apartheid became larger than any one person and inflicted untold suffering and devastation on millions.  The evil of apartheid cannot be overstated!

Even now, decades after the fall of apartheid the continuing scars of that sin remain.  It remains in structures of racism and racial economic inequalities.  And make no mistake, the current levels of income inequality, educational opportunities, unemployment, and more are structural sins.  Other structures of sin include embedded institutional sexism like the gender wage gap and attitudes of ‘boys will be boys’, xenophobia, homophobia (and make no mistake, the Church teaches that homophobia is a sin), and the destruction of the environment.  There are many more than these, and I’m sure that you can think of more examples.  Even more generic things like a lust for wealth can lead to structures that dehumanise the poor and become institutionalized sin.

The thing about structural sin is that it’s so big that it is almost impossible to avoid.  It is true that sin is a personal act, but, even when we aren’t directly committing them, we still have a responsibility towards them.  As the CCC says:

”Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them:

– by participating directly and voluntarily in them;

– by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them;

– by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so;

– by protecting evil-doers” (CCC 1868)

When we simply accept that things are the way the are and that nothing we do can change them, we are cooperating in that sin!

The good news is, that Jesus came to save us from all sin.  And structures of sin can be destroyed.  Apartheid fell, and so can all these other structures.  It is not easy, but it is possible.  Structural sin is individual sin writ large, so we can create structural virtues to counteract them.  When we cooperate with God and with each other, when we live life’s full of love, no sin, no evil, can stand against us.

The big question is how can we fight structural sin?  I know that when I look at all these massive structures, I can’t begin to see how to fight them.  I feel like an ant looking at a mountain.  How could I possibly fight that?  But, Jesus did say “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20).  How do we fight structures of sin?  We start there, with prayer.  All institutional sins are large, evil, and appear to be insurmountable to us…but God is bigger than the mountains and He is bigger than sin!  So pray for it to fall…and then take action!

Take individual actions first.  Maybe there’s a company that is unjust is some way.  Boycott that company.  Maybe there’s an event to educate people about some issue.  Go to that event.  Maybe you are in a position to employ people.  Don’t just pay them market wages (because those are usually way too low), pay them just wages.  These actions are small, but they do add up.

Beyond the individual action, it is important to interact with society at large.  To defeat societal sin, societal virtue is needed.  This means doing things like helping to spread awareness of the issues that are being faced.  It means organising events, charities, and sometimes protests and marches.  It even means taking part in politics to make sure that the laws of the land are just and equitable and not oppressing anyone!

Maybe this sounds very abstract, so it is worth discussing something concrete like the pay for domestic workers.  In Cape Town (where I’m based), domestic workers salaries are far below a living wage.  It may not seem like it, but the fact that the market rate is not at least a living wage is a structural sin.  The obvious action that individuals can take against this sin is to pay their domestic workers a truly just wage.  Beyond that we can work together to implement minimum wages that are living wages.  I know this example seems small compared to some other structural sins but it’s also something that is so common that many people don’t even see it as a problem.  And it’s something that has some fairly straightforward ways to build societal virtues.

Yes structural sin is large and evil and scary, and yes fighting it is exhausting.  But it is something every single person is called to do.  In the Our Father, we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven’.  God’s kingdom is just and without sin and we are asked to help build that kingdom, that place of infinite love here on earth.  It is hard work and it is not something that we are going to succeed at alone.  It can only happen through God.

The fundamental reality of the Universe is that God loves all people and all people are made in the image of God.  You and I must glorify that image by loving God and therefore loving each other as He loves us.  That love is the building block of the Kingdom of God.  The miracle of love is that it begets more love, which begets more love.  And that is the one thing structural sin can’t stand.

Do not lose hope in your struggles.  Because I promise you, when we live together in God’s love, all structures of sin will crumble.  Amen.


P.S. Another nice article on what structural sin is can be found at:

About the author: Nathan DegVersion 2

I am an astrophysicist working as a post-doctoral fellow at UCT.  I obtained my Ph.D. in 2014, and am currently studying barred spiral galaxies, stellar streams, and the Milky Way.  I enjoy way to many video games, books, movies, and tv shows and have a deep and abiding love for real (ice) hockey.