This past weekend I found myself visiting a local parish that is not my regular home for liturgy. I was not surprised that the pastor mentioned the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, during his homily. We look to our spiritual leaders at times such as these for guidance, and he did his very best to give his parishioners a context for trying to understand the reality of living in a time of mass shootings.
What did surprise me was the context he chose for his homily, namely social sin. He named these mass shootings "social sin." He also named the sexual violence and harassment that has been unmasked by the #MeToo movement as social sin. He named the unjust treatment of our immigrant brothers and sisters as social sin.
This may have been the first time I have heard a homily specifically using this theological term. I give kudos to him for being willing to call these patterns of violence and dehumanization what they are — social sin. What was missing, however, was a suggestion of what to do in the face of social sin, other than throwing up our hands or falling on our knees in prayer.
The thing is, we don't really understand what social sin means, let alone how we are complicit —or even less, how to resist it. I am the product of 12 years of Catholic education. I've also been an RCIA sponsor where I attended weekly catechism classes for a year as an adult, and yet it was not until I studied moral theology at the graduate level that I myself began to get the loosest handle on social sin.
This is a problem. Our society is facing a spiritual and moral crisis that cries out for a framework that enables us to engage the root causes and seek to change the course of our present and future more toward the good.
When we see such actions as mass shootings and sexual harassment simply as individual acts by bad actors or isolated incidents by those with mental illness, we let ourselves off the hook. We put on blinders which let us ignore the pervading patterns of sin that in turn allow lives to be lost and human dignity to be ignored on a grand scale, again and again. We fail to see the root causes, the abuse of power or the hidden bad actors who benefit from such acts, such as arms manufacturers. We are fooled into thinking this is just the way things are, always have been, and forever shall be.
Yet that is not the message of the Gospel, which calls us to live in hope, to shine light on darkness, and to always seek the good.
By contrast, the church's understanding of social sin calls us to see these admittedly individual acts as part of the larger social fabric of the human community. That is where we each have personal responsibility to see, to name, and to act.
In the words of Pope John Paul II in Reconciliation et Paenitentia: "It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause and support social 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."
Who among us has not looked the other way, whether we were afraid, lazy, or — God help us — complicit?
It is easy to think that we can't change the world. Pope Francis has named our time as one marked by a culture of indifference. It is indifference that allowed us to ignore the widespread pattern of workplace sexual harassment for so many years. It is indifference that allows us to ignore the desperate situation of the chronically homeless in our most affluent cities. It is indifference that allow us to … you name it.
In his 1980 essay, "Social Sin: The Recovery of a Christian Tradition," Jesuit theologian Peter Henriot gives us a simple way to understand the interconnecting levels of social sin. First, there is the sin of the "structure that violates and oppresses human dignity and is unjust."
Second, it can be a "situation that promotes individual selfishness." Finally, there is our "complicity or silent acquiescence" to social injustice.
Henriot's model gives clues as to how we can resist social sin and avoid the supposed impossibility of changing the world. I can't help but look to the example of the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, organizing fellow students around the country to advocate for an end to the structures that allow mass shootings to persist in our nation. In fact, I heard a student on the news say that she walked by a mural every day at school that said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." She said that after the shooting, she realized she needed to live that out.
I cannot think of a better example of the second level of social sin than the video that has gone viral of a gun owner destroying his personal AR-15 rifle. "I'll be honest, it's a lot of fun to shoot," says Scott Pappalardo in the video. He names what he gets from gun ownership, his own selfish value, but then he balances it with the common good. "I'd gladly give up this gun if it would save the life of just one child," he recalls telling his wife after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. Resisting social sin is not easy, but in 2018, after Parkland, he decided to destroy his gun publicly and tell his story. Resistance takes many forms.
Finally, there is the widest level of social sin — our complicity and silent acquiescence. This, my friends, is where we are all connected, somehow, somewhere, either by our action or inaction.
I wonder, how many people, in the advent of the #MeToo movement, have second-guessed a moment where they stayed silent? Recognizing that inaction as a problem can be a first step to resistance.
However, it is not enough to simply name our regret or feel guilty. Rather, we need to lament the ways we contribute to social sin, and then we must commit to acting differently.
All our individual commitments, over time and space, add up and eventually, we hope, counteract the culture of indifference in which social sin thrives.
Ultimately, whether we go with the flow of social sin or choose to resist the supposed impossibility of changing the world, it is our choice. And all that is at stake is the health of our human and Earth community.
[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]