Examining Our Social Sins

Lent is a time dedicated to evaluation and reflection, conversion and return to God. But what does it mean to embrace honestly an examination of conscience at a time and in a world where racism, violence and environmental degradation are so present?

Over the last few months, our attention has been drawn to events that reflect persistent structures of inequity and injustice in our society. Because we are all interrelated in ways that are not always easily recognized, few are willing to take responsibility for the abiding reality of social sin. It can be so satisfying and self-gratifying to assess our lives and actions by what we have done that we ignore the evangelical challenge to confess our responsibility for what we have failed to do.

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That is why I believe that our prayer, penance and almsgiving this Lent should begin with an examination of conscience, one that forces us to confront our own complicity in the structures that permit and perpetuate the particular sins we see on the news and witness in our communities. Here are just three examples.

Racism. The recent deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and 12-year-old Tamir Rice at the hands of police officers have thrown our nation into a heated discussion about the treatment of men and women of color, especially by law enforcement. While the tragedies of lives ended prematurely are always particular and uniquely painful, the persistent injustice of the racism that provides the condition for gross inequality is all too common. Part of what permits its continuation is the unacknowledged white privilege and supremacy in the United States.

We must ask ourselves how we choose to view the world and whether we intentionally or inadvertently overlook how things really are. Those of us who are white (especially white men like me, who are beneficiaries of gender privilege too) need to recognize the unfair privileges from which we benefit in the United States. The benefits are often masked over by omission, by the lack of negative or oppressive experiences, by the absence of the skeptical gaze or the dismissive posture or the guilty-by-color association, by never having been targeted or judged because of the color of our skin. Others do not have these privileges. Racism cannot be addressed until those of us who benefit from it, knowingly and unwittingly alike, acknowledge our privilege and own our responsibility to work toward surrendering it.

Violence. I have never shot or stabbed or seriously punched anyone. But still I can recognize ways that I contribute to the prevailing culture of violence. Typically, unless we are direct victims of violence or know someone who has been, we are likely to go about living life as guilty bystanders. We are desensitized to the violence that is a daily reality for many people around the world. We are often willfully ignorant of the physical, emotional, psychological and sexual violence in our own communities. By not talking about violence, by not asking questions about human trafficking, by not thinking about what is happening beyond the comfortable borders of our own experience, we may still not be shooting or stabbing or punching another, but there is much that we have nevertheless failed to do.

The environment. Rumors of Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on care for creation have generated much speculation and curiosity. In some circles, the mere notion has led commentators to dismiss or negatively pre-empt whatever call to action and challenge to conscience the pope may present. It can be easy to be “for the environment” in word only, without the moral fortitude and will to put that talk into action. How do I make decisions about what to buy, what to eat, where to go, how to travel and how to live with the rest of creation in mind? What about the rest of the human family, particularly the poor, who suffer disproportionately from climate change and pollution? We can advocate for changes in corporate and government policies that better protect our planet, but do we?

These are just a few of the many aspects of our common life that call us to reflection; one could easily add sexism, poverty, homophobia, poor care for the elderly, religious intolerance or any of the many other systemic evils in our world. This Lent, may we spend some time evaluating not just what we have done but what we continually fail to do. It is never too late to repent and be faithful to the Gospel.

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E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 11 months ago
Racism Michael Brown was a huge, 18 year old adult, not a teenager, and a thug after being caught on a camera robbing a store and assaulting the owner. The evidence showed that he assaulted the police officer, was wounded while attempting to gain possession of the officer's gun, refused to obey the officers commands to stop, charged the officer and was fatally shot by the officer in the line of duty.. Eric Garner was a very large small time crook with numerous arrests. He knew the drill, hands behind your back, handcuffed, taken to the police station and released with a desk ticket, maybe 3 hours at the most. The video clearly shows that Mr.Garner resisted the police's efforts to handcuff him and physical force was used to subdue him which led to his unfortunate death. Both of these men would be alive today, possibly in jail, had they simply obeyed the policeman's orders. Unfortunately, media sources are painting these petty crooks as victims and the police as. blood thirsty racists. This so-called journalism is biased, rabble rousing and incites violence.Why not place the blame for their deaths where it belongs on their own behavior. One significant piece of information missing from all major media reports and official reports is that the sergeant in charge of the police contingent attempting to arrest Mr. Garner was a black, female police officer. One has to wonder why this was not and is not reported loud and clear. Of course it would change the the whole racial argument against the police. While Tamir Rice was only 12 years old the Medical examiner reported that he was 5ft 7in and weighed 195 lbs information which was readily available but hardly ever mentioned by the media as it does not fit 'racist cop kills black 12 year old' scenario as Tamir Rice did not have the appearance of a 12 year old child. When Willis Sutton, a noted bank robber, was asked why he robbed banks and he replied "That is where the money is". If you asked a police officer of any race why more minorities are arrested than whites does anyone think the answer would be "white privilege and supremacy"? More than likely the reply would be "That is where the crime is."
E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 11 months ago
The environment To the Vatican scientists,if any, One hopes that Pope Francis and his science advisers take the opportunity to review the testimony of the experts and seek their advise and counsel before making pronouncements climate change,nee global warming, based on pseudo-science. "The House Science, Space and Technology Committee heard from scientists who poked holes in the prevailing catastrophic theory of man-made climate change and said researchers are under pressure to support more alarming scenarios." “The science is not settled, no,” said Roger Pielke Sr., professor emeritus in meteorology at Colorado State University. University of Sussex economist Richard Tol told the lawmakers, “Science is, of course, never settled.” “Some things are more or less settled, some things are not,” said Princeton University geoscientist Michael Oppenheimer. “The question of whether carbon dioxide is 30 to 40 percent above pre-industrial times, that’s settled. The question of exactly how warm the Earth will become as a result, that’s not.” Daniel Botkin, professor emeritus in biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the U.N. panel’s 2014 report and the White House National Climate Assessment are “scientific-sounding,” but also present “speculative, and sometimes incomplete, conclusions embedded in language that gives them more scientific heft than they deserve.” “I want to state upfront that we have been living through a warming trend driven by a variety of influences,” said Mr. Botkin. “However, it is my view that this is not unusual, and contrary to the characterizations by the IPCC and the National Climate Assessment, these environmental changes are not apocalyptic nor irreversible.” Even the President of the IPCC has admitted publicly that there has been no warming for 18 years despite a slight increase in CO2. Question: From a theological standpoint does the Pope and his science advisers truly believe that the Creator of the Universe and all that is in it would have allowed CO2 the life blood of of the earth, exhaled by every living, breathing creatures and absorbed by trees and vegetation to provide the O2, oxygen, needed by all living ,breathing creatures to destroy the earth?
Stanley Kopacz
2 years 10 months ago
Water is necessary for life. But you can drown in it. CO2 is necessary for the life cycle, but it is also a human waste product . Lock someone up in a hermetically sealed room and the CO2 will kill them. There are upper and lower limits, goldilocks zones. The earth has experienced upper and lower temperature excursions in its history that would exterminate the human race. These excursions were related to the effects if greenhouse gases. Is there an upper limit to what CO2 can do as a greenhouse gas? If there is, it's something like Venus. Assuming God will bail out our present mode of living is the sin of presumption, and, in this case, it is a collective social sin. I hate coming back here to this nasty place and this depressing topic.
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 11 months ago
Good luck, Dan. You're in for a whole boatload of backlash from those who absolutely don't want to go down this road.
E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 11 months ago
Ms. Cioffoletti, Assuming that you are referring to my comments perhaps you would clarify what "don't want to go down this road" means. Are you suggesting that the good Father ignore the truth and the facts about the alleged "racist cops" and the hoax of man-made climate change, nee global warming? If so, perhaps you would provide factual evidence that "this road" he is on is the right road.
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 11 months ago
I don't recall that I was referring to your comments, Patrick. Actually what I had immediately in mind were two recent events: The reaction to President Obama's Prayer Breakfast speech, and an article I read in the NY Times in the last couple of days about lynchings. The article never once identified the lynchers as "white". This inability to look into our own souls (examine our consciences) feels strangely obstinate, rooted in fear. A few years ago I read Wendell Berry's book, The Hidden Wound. It is about how the wound of racism affects the white race as much as the black, only with the whites it is a soul wound. Rather than look at that soul wound, whites are stuck in delusions of superiority and privilege and must jump through layers of denial in order to justify this lie to themselves. Thank you to Dan Horan for attempting to rock this boat.
E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 11 months ago
Thanks for your explanation which I find begs the question on Father Horan's use of the Brown, Gardner and Rice cases as some proof of inherent racism,white privilege and supremacy. And your overreaching accusation that whites, are "stuck in delusions of superiority and privilege." lacks any qualification, justification or factual proof. Apparently you have bought into the Obama/Holder/Sharpton trio who see rampant racism in almost every situation starting with the white cop in Boston except when it is a black cop who kills an unarmed white youth. Now the NY Times(which I seldom read), in your eyes, is a racist paper since it failed to mention whites in the article on lynching. Actually I fell there is reverse racism in all of the media as there was little or no mention of President Lincoln and the million of Union soldiers who fought, died or wounded on Lincoln's birthday, February 12th, during what has become Black History Month.
Bill Mazzella
2 years 11 months ago
Right Patrick. Just read Fox News and you can sleep in peace with that arm of the Republican party
E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 11 months ago
Mr Mazzzella, Two points: 1. There is no access to Fox News as I do not have cable, a false assumption on your part 2.Typical progressive/liberal response, falsely attack the messenger, ignore the message. As you obviously disagree with my comment make your point, if you have one.
E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 11 months ago
Daniel P Horan and Ms. Cioffoletti, Had the white powers to be heeded the advice of noted black leaders of the 19th century the idea that whites must suffer some universal guilt today for alleged inherent racism,white privilege and supremacy and that whites, are "stuck in delusions of superiority and privilege." would not be a topics of discussion and featured articles. "Asked by whites in 1865 what to do for freed blacks, Frederick Douglass responded: “I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! . . . If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength . . . let them fall! . . . And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs!” Douglass was essentially saying, give blacks equal opportunity and then leave them alone. Booker T. Washington, another late 19th century black leader who had been born a slave, once said that it is important and right that all privileges of the law be granted to blacks, but it is vastly more important that they be prepared for the exercise of these privileges." Source: IMPRIMIS Race Relations and Law Enforcement Jason L. Riley Editorial Board Member, Wall Street Journal imprimis.hillsdale.edu/current A second required reading is "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action (the 1965 Moynihan Report) was written by Assistant Secretary of Labor[1] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a sociologist and later U.S. Senator. It focused on the deep roots of black poverty in America and concluded controversially that the relative absence of nuclear families (those having both a father and mother present) would greatly hinder further progress toward economic and political equality. The Great Society programs and the myriad of follow-up social programs simply exacerbated the nuclear black family problem rather than improving it. The law of "unintended consequences" was either not considered or ignored in formulating the legislation and like all government programs once started they will continue whether they produce the intended results or not.
Roberto Blum
2 years 11 months ago
This is a time to reflect on our personal responsibility for the grave social sins afflicting our world. As social beings, our faults and sins are never individual. As Catholics we are responsible for all our brothers and sisters. The answer to Cain's question was clearly in the affirmative. No way to dodge it. We just cannot turn our face away from social sins and injustices.
J Cabaniss
2 years 11 months ago
Fr. Moran phrases his argument in such a way that there is no room for honest disagreement. We are charged with sins of omission and the failure to properly acknowledge them. To disagree with him is to confirm his other charges: that we are not willing to "embrace honestly an examination of conscience" and that we are unwilling "to confront our own complicity". We are divided into sheep and goats at the outset. I do not acknowledge that racism in this country is "persistent", and least not in the sense Fr. Moran seems to mean it. So, how are we to debate the issue? The examples of Brown, Garner, and Rice actually show nothing at all beyond a willingness to believe. There are Bureau of Justice Statistics available on line showing that the percentage of blacks killed during arrests is virtually identical to that of whites. Again, how do we know that racism is persistent if it is "masked" and "absent"? If it is not visible how do we recognize improvement? I agree that there are social problems that we are all called on to address, but I cannot believe it is helpful to suggest that those problems stem from the complicity of white males, or that those who reject Fr. Horan's accusations need to repent of anything.
Frank Gibbons
2 years 11 months ago
Father Horan, With all due respect, why did you leave out abortion as a social sin? As someone who is against torture, the death penalty and who absolutely believes in a preferential love for the poor and forgotten, I am mystified that abortion is always left off the table when we speak of social sins.
J Cosgrove
2 years 11 months ago
Examining Our Social Sins
I am sorry but this OP in nonsense. There are individual sins but there is no such thing as social sins. We act as individuals. I am well aware of social influences and they can be powerful but we are not as individuals responsible for negative social influences but should do our best as individuals to prevent them. There is an extreme culturally and spiritual poverty in our world and definitely in the US but in the US there is not material poverty and material poverty in the rest of the world is getting less each year. So just what is this OP about? Its agenda is hidden beneath the surface. Maybe that is what we and Father Horan should be discussing.
But what does it mean to embrace honestly an examination of conscience at a time and in a world where racism, violence and environmental degradation are so present?
Is there more or less of this in our world at this time? I would argue less of all so why the examination of conscience as we are getting better in all of these areas. There certainly is no such thing as a social sin. Nor is the concept of white supremacy a meaningful concept. If anything the power of the descendants of the European settlers are becoming less each year. So as I said this is all nonsense meant to cover up the true underlying causes of the dysfunction in several parts of our society and what is necessary to decrease this dysfunction. Maybe Father Horan should try to address that rather than throw out left wing political talking points.
Jim Lein
2 years 11 months ago
So like greed is not one of the seven deadly sins? A force for good in the world? Such a narrow self-centered wealth-amassing perspective is not a social sin? Even though it has immediate negative consequences for our neighbors, whom we are to love and not just compete against for wealth? Our corporate economy leaves little room for considering our neighbor; at least we should be aware of this. Although it is much easier to dismiss this Christ-like perspective as nonsense.
J Cosgrove
2 years 11 months ago
Several comments: First, there is no such thing as social sin. I never heard of it in my 16 years of Catholic education with the last being my Jesuit college degree. So why use this term? Second, I never implied that I support greed. But wealth formation is not greed and is in fact supported by the Bible. The parable of the Talents in Matthew is all about the approval of Christ for wealth formation. The question is what does one do with this wealth formation. So being wealthy is not undesirable but it is important to do something good with your wealth. Our society has moved from one that people had few options in life except some very harsh ones and then died young. We have moved to one with long life, good health and many fruitful ways to lead one's life. All because of wealth formation, prudent investment and innovation. This phenomenon of advancement is unequal across the world but is most evident where capitalism has been allowed to thrive. Even in areas where capitalism is very limited and people are on the edge of extreme poverty, the people there share in the innovations of the capitalist areas of the world which help make their life better. We should recognize this and celebrate it, not berate it with nonsense about guilt. Third, the ideas of guilt, inequality, male dominance, violence, and the environment are out of the extreme left talking points. Socialism in all its forms has been a complete failure everywhere it has been tried in this world. When this became obvious, those who advocated socialism did not abandon its eventual implementation but changed the language they used to change what they thought was an unfair world. Thus, individual need was replaced by equality, wealth was said to be bad, emphasis was changed to such things as woman's issues, homosexuality, ethnic or racial groups, environmental issues, violence. These all became the left's talking points starting in the 1960's. All in the name of destroying capitalism, the one force that has improved the lot of mankind more than anything. So I object strenuously to Fr. Horan's article here because it is anything but Christian, and is extreme politics dressed up in nice sounding religious terms as we begin Lent. Finally If Fr. Horan wants to solve the problems he listed, he should get at their root causes and not list a political agenda which will only exacerbate the problems.
E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 11 months ago
The seven practices of charity toward our neighbor, based on Christ’s prophecy of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:35), that will determine each person’s, not presidents, politicians, nor government bureaucrats, final destiny was taught us from the Baltimore Catechism: 1. Feed the hungry 2. Give drink to the thirsty 3. Clothe the naked 4. Shelter the homeless 5. Visit the sick 6. Visit those in prison 7. Bury the dead For those who claim that Jesus was a big-government socialist provider with regard to helping those in need and reducing individuals personal responsibility to only “Love the Neighbor’ and replacing it with government programs is a misreading of His message. Jesus Christ made the point “to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” with no guidelines as to how the Romans were to spend the tax monies. “For you will have the poor always with you” Matthew 26.11 and nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus Christ lay the responsibility for caring for the poor, the sick the hungry or thirsty, the homeless or any oppressed people on any governmental body. He did not cite King Herod, the priests of the temple, the local politicians or the Roman powers as the source of Charity. He made it an individual responsibility time after time in His sermons, in His parables and in His own acts. The Good Samaritan was not an example of “Love thy neighbor” because he stopped at the inn to make a 911 call but because he acted, providing aid, comfort and financial assistance to his neighbor. Jesus Christ’s teachings cannot be used be used to support states becoming the major or only source of charitable acts.
J Cosgrove
2 years 11 months ago
I have a suggestion for Father Horan or any of the other authors and editors at America. Yesterday, Juan Williams, a well known conservative commentator wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal titled.
"America’s Most Influential Thinker on Race"
http://www.wsj.com/articles/juan-williams-americas-most-influential-thinker-on-race-1424476527 It was about Clarence Thomas. Now Justice Thomas is a Catholic, a graduate of a Jesuit university (Holy Cross) and someone who should know about race relations. It would be a coup for America to get one or a series of interviews with one of Jesuit America's most famous graduates. Give it a shot and maybe he might grant one or more interviews.
James Schwarzwalder
2 years 10 months ago
Father Horan confuses four distinct terms, Privileges, Rights, Justice and Luck. Upon conception we all are initiated into the everlasting or eternal. According to our faith Heaven or Hell is our eternal destiny. Or maybe Purgatory for a while, a sort of a rest stop for some along the Turnpike of eternity. Our sex, race, looks, talents, intelligence, physical and mental attributes, family, DNA, etc., are either at the behest of the Creator or our parents & ancestors, or just random luck. None of us had a "choice" to be here. So if Father thinks he hit the lottery as a white male, or if he feels guilty that he is a "privileged" white male, then that's his issue. The Declaration of Independence declares that ALL men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Slavery was the "original sin" of the nascent United States and the signers of the Constitution of the U.S. debated slavery, but could not come to an agreement to end slavery. The Republic has been at it since 1776 attempting to secure these Rights, Liberties and Justice for all.
Kevin Clarke
2 years 10 months ago

To the gentleman perplexed by Father Horan's use of the term "social sin"—it is hardly an unknown concept in Catholic anthropology. Please see catechism numbers 408, 1869, 1887 on social sin and unjust structures. The term would also be familiar to any student of liberation theology and was used for example by John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation "Reconciliatio et Paenitentia," and referenced again in "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis," number 36, as "structures of sin."

All of number 16 in RetP is worth reviewing for a full picture of the meaning, but here is the footnote used in SRS from "Reconciliatio et Paenitentia" (December 2, 1984), n. 16: "Whenever the Church speaks of situations of sin, or when she condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behavior of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole nations and blocs of nations, she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins. It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world, and also of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of a higher order. The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals. A situation—or likewise an institution, a structure, society itself—is not in itself the subject of moral acts. Hence a situation cannot in itself be good or bad."

J Cosgrove
2 years 10 months ago
To the gentleman perplexed by Father Horan's use of the term "social sin"
I am still perplexed. The description offered is vague at best and as such could mean anything. Sin is a personal thing, not a group or collective thing. Yes, we can commit sin by participating in a group action, but it is still an individual thing. We do not commit a mortal or venial sin because we belong to a group but what we do as individuals. I also understand the implications of what "we fail to do." So I am still perplexed by this OP and it is still a political position and not a moral one. To show how this term is so vague, are those who vote for Democratic candidates guilty of social sin? If one reads David Carlin's "Can a Catholic be a Democrat?" then one could come to that conclusion if there is such a thing as social sin. http://www.amazon.com/Can-Catholic-Democrat-David-Carlin/dp/1933184191 Are liberal Democrats responsible for the extreme dysfunction of the underclass in the United States? Charles Murray and Myron Magnet make a good case for this conclusion. They even point to individuals who have led the social reaction that led to this dysfunction. So are the followers of these men and their policies guilty of "social sin?" Certainly Marxist policies and all its socialist offshoots have led to extreme dysfunction in societies so are those who follow the principles of liberation theology guilty of social sin even it they are tying to improve the plight of the poor. Are those who say they are for social justice, guilty of social sin since many of the policies of social justice have led to extreme problems with the poor. These concepts of social sin and social justice are dangerous because they can become the basis for any action one wants with only a little bit of rhetorical manipulation. One man's social justice can be hell for others as we have found out with those who advocate extreme social policies that try to reorganize society. In such a case who is guilty of sin?
Roberto Blum
2 years 10 months ago
Isn't the same arguments valid against your own position?
candice eisberg
2 years 10 months ago
I am convicted. Knowing what to do and not doing it is still sin. Turning a blind eye is still sinful, because we have firstly been convicted by the Holy Spirit to do something. If people are reacting strongly it is because you are speaking truth. How often do I drive by a homeless man without sharing Christ? How often do I laugh at a stereotypical joke? I love how your article even points out the mindfulness of our purchases! I really agree with what you have to say. Thank you for sharing.
Steven Reynolds
2 years 10 months ago
At the risk of adding to an already long list of comments, let me compliment Fr. Horan's column and, in particularly, comment on the argument some are advancing that Jesus commanded private charity only. The frequent reference is Mt 26:11 (or Mk 14:7, Jn 12;8). We are told to believe that you will always have the poor means support for social structures and a prohibition on anything beyond private charity. Nonsense. The phrase would certainly to its listeners have recalled Deut 15:11 and related passages describing both the individual and the collective responsibility to care for the poor found in Mosaic law.
Mary Morich
2 years 10 months ago
I would like to take issue with the person who said that Matthew 's Parable of the Talents supports wealth formation. It does not. Jesus did not live in a capitalistic system. In fact, it was viewed that anyone who amassed large amounts for himself could be seen as greedy. There are two possible interpretations. One is that the possessions are God's creation that is being entrusted to us the servants. As we go through life we are given opportunities to use our God given gifts to care for creation which may involve risk. If we fail to take that risk we will be judged. The second interpretation presented in a commentary suggests that the Master was not God but a greedy individual for he "reaped what he did not sow and harvested where he did not plant. This would suggest that the third person is the honorable one since he did not add to the injustice by cooperating with the Master. For this he was punished which is often the way of the World when one tries to resist injustice. Either interpretation, I believe, supports Father Horan's point that we need to grapple with our failure to "risk" confronting the injustices of our time.

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