This is my attempt to envision an examination of conscience that more explicitly deals with the intersection between interpersonal and structural-social sin.  NOTE: The absence of certain “traditional” sins, like masturbation, for example, is not in itself a statement about the sinfulness of those “traditional” sins. In other words, I do not primarily intend this to be a rejection of standard examinations of conscience as I do a supplement to them.  I am also assuming a United Statesian context.  Also, let me confess from the start that I am guilty of the vast majority of these…

If you are in the military, have you educated yourself about church teaching on war?  Have you ever followed an order you knew to be unjust?[1] Have you ever fought in or contributed to the fighting of an unjust war?[2]

For all people: have you ever supported or failed to speak out against your country’s participation in an unjust war, such as the Iraq War?[3] Do you place loyalty to the nation above loyalty to the life and message of Jesus Christ?

If you are a business owner, executive, or manager, have you ever paid any of your workers less than a living wage?[4] Do you see your business as a way to amass wealth and make a profit or do you see it as a way to serve the common good, with a preferential concern for the flourishing of the poor?[5]

For all people: do you support the rights of unions to organize and strike?[6] Do you actively work to create a society in which all people have access to meaningful and dignified work?[7] Do you uncritically embrace the ideology of liberal capitalism[8]? Do you value the right to own private property above the right of the poor to flourish?  Do you think that owning private property entitles you to do with it whatever you want or do you use property for the sake of the common good?[9]

Are you usurious?[10] Do you forgive others’ debts[11] and trespasses[12]?  Do live with a Jubilee spirit?[13] Do you serve Mammon or God?[14]

Do you live a life of wealth and privilege[15], while others go without?  Recognizing that the earth was created for the sustenance and well-being of all[16], do you share your excess wealth with the poor? Do you receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist while failing to receive and be a home to the body of Christ in the persons of the poor?[17] Do you take Jesus’ teachings on wealth seriously or do you try to explain them away or spiritualize them?[18]

Are you among the blessed described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Plain or are you among the cursed?[19] Do you feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, and shelter the homeless?[20]

Do you participate in structural sin and/or fail to be in solidarity with the oppressed?[21]

If you are a man, have you ever thought yourself to be “better than” a woman?  Do you make an idol of your own masculinity by thinking or speaking of God as more masculine than feminine?  Do you make or laugh at sexist jokes?  Do you participate in a culture in which sexual abuse and sexual conquest are encouraged? Have you ever attempted or actually succeeding in any sort of sexual contact with a woman without having first received her explicit consent? Have you ever attempted to put a woman “in her place?”

For all people: keeping in mind the example of Jesus’ encounter with the woman with the flow of blood[22], do you seek to create a world in which women are not marginalized, thought to be dirty or made to bear in their bodies a disproportionate share of the weight of sin and suffering?

Keeping in mind Jesus’ intervention on behalf of the woman about to be stoned, do you, like Jesus, recognize that women too often bear the burden, both in shame and in suffering, for our society’s sexual sins?[23]

If you are a woman, do you acquiesce to sexist and misogynistic social conventions?

For all people: excepting very grave reasons, do you vote for political candidates who support policies that promote economic inequality?

Excepting very grave reasons, do you vote for political candidates who wage unjust wars?

If you are a white person, do you actively work to overcome your own racist thoughts?  Have you actively sought to educate yourself on the history and ongoing reality of white supremacy in the United States?

Do you live in a predominantly white neighborhood?  Do you or your children attend predominantly white schools?  Do you feel more comfortable in predominantly white social settings?

Do you support institutional and political measures that will achieve racial justice and finally end white supremacy?  Have you failed to support the efforts of people of color to achieve racial justice?  Do you support reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, the war on drugs, the creation of the racialized ghetto, and the ongoing denial of racial justice?

Have you or any of your ancestors benefited from racially discriminatory and white-privileging governmental policies and laws? Have you taken responsibility for the way that you have been privileged by your whiteness?  Are you willing to relinquish your white privilege for the sake of the common good?[24]

For all people: do you work to oppose and dismantle white supremacy, resisting its seductions and false promises?

Do you live in a society in which a disproportionate number of people placed in prisons are poor and/or people of color?

Do you live in a nation that justifies its use of torture and imprisonment without trial and due process?

Do you visit the imprisoned and work for prison reform so that your nation’s penal system will more fully respect the dignity of the human person and more truly be a mechanism of justice and social healing rather than a source of injustice itself?

Do you seek to restore land rights and cultural and political sovereignty to indigenous peoples?  Do you seek to prevent indigenous peoples from suffering further loss of land, culture, and life? Do you live on land that was stolen from indigenous peoples without trying to in some rectify that injustice?[25]

Have you ever participated in violent speech or violent action directed towards gays, lesbians, or transgendered persons?  Have you ever failed to speak out against such violence?

Have you ever failed to foster an environment in which all persons are welcome and in which the needs of all are met and in which the gifts and talents of all are celebrated?

Do you respect the well-being, integrity, and “goodness” of all God’s creation?  To the extent that you are financially able, do you eat animal products that are cruelty-free?  Do you bring an attitude of intentionality and awareness to your society’s food system, cognizant of the way it degrades the land, pollutes the environment, and oppresses farm workers?

Do you support the dignity of immigrants?  Do you strive to make your church, your community, your nation, even your home, and a place of welcome for those who have come from somewhere else?[26] What is more real to you—the unity of Christians as the body of Christ or the national borders that presume to divide the body of Christ?  Do you stand up for the rights of migrant farm workers, especially the right to organize and receive just remuneration for their work?[27]

To whom have you failed to be neighbor?  Whom have you left in a ditch on the side of the road?[28] Whom have you failed to bother to love?[29]

Have you committed yourself to the preferential option for the poor?[30]

Have you failed to practice enemy love?[31] Do you “turn the other cheek?[32]

In your town or community, is environmental degradation (for example, pollution) concentrated in poor communities of color?  Do you bear your fair share of pollution?  Have you ever supported efforts to place toxic waste dumps or polluting industries in impoverished neighborhoods or countries?[33]

Do you support and/or profit from industries and businesses that actively destroy the environment, such as the timber, mining, and oil and gas industries?  Are you looking out for the good not just of all people in all nations, but also for the good of all generations[34]?  Do you consume resources and relate to the environment in such a way that future generations will be able to flourish?[35]

Have you ever turned your back on the call to discipleship because it would have cost you more than you were willing to pay?  Have you ever sought “cheap grace?”  Have you ever failed to foster an eschatological mindset, following prey to the false utopias of nostalgia or futurism?

Do you dine with the tax collectors and sinners of our time, or do you invite only your “friends, relatives, and wealthy neighbors” to your table?[36] Do you let yourself be touched by the lepers of our day?

Are you an active participant in and servant of the church—not simply sitting in the pews, listening, but seek instead to take responsibility for your church and help it stay true to the gospel?  Do you take your identity as one of the people of God seriously?

Do you see God in the way that Mary, the mother of Jesus, does?  Like Mary, do you say “yes” to the God who “disperses the arrogant of mind and heart, [who] throws down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly;” a God who fills the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty; a God who “has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendents forever?[37]

Have you ever committed the sin of anti-Semitism?

Do you welcome those who, like Mary, are unwed, teenaged mothers? Do you make “room” for them in your communities?

Do you, like Joseph, seek to be an “Egypt” to infants and young children[38], protecting them from the “Herods[39]” of malnutrition caused by unjust distribution of wealth, famine caused by war and ecological destruction, and the fate of being collateral damage in another nation or people’s war.

Recalling Jesus’ welcome attitude towards children who were not biologically related to him[40], as well as our own adoption by Christ at baptism, do you strive to be a parent for all children, not just those who are related to you biologically?  Recalling Jesus’ creating a family based not on biology but on discipleship[41], do you seek, as much as possible, to extend your sphere of parental influence as wide as possible, whether through adoption, foster care, mentoring, or coaching?  Have you ever made an idol out of the nuclear family?[42]

[1] Catechism, 2313

[2] Catechism, 822, 2243

[3] John Paul II “Message to the Third International Meeting of Military Ordinaries” 11 March 1994.

[4] Quadregesimo Anno, 22, 220; Guadium Et Spes, 67; Laborem Exercens, 19.

[5] Centesimus Annus, 43; Mater Et Magistra, 53

[6] Laborems Exercens, 20; Guadium et Spes, 68

[7] Laborems Exercens, 6

[8] Solicitudo Rei Socialis; Martin Luther King, Jr.

[9] Guadium et Spes, 69; Solicitudo Rei Socialis, 42; Centesimus Annus, 41.

[10] Catechism, 2269; In his February 4, 2004 “Catechesis at a General Audience,” JPII called usury, “a scourge that is also a reality in our time and that has a strangehold on many peoples’ lives.”

[11] Matt 6.12

[12] Matt 6.9-12

[13] Exodus 21.2-6; Deuteronomy 15.1-6

[14] Matt 6.24

[15] Clement of Alexandria, “Will the Rich Man Be Saved?” Mark 10.21; Mark 10.25

[16] Laborem Exercens, 19

[17] St. John Chrysostom; Matthew 25

[18] Luke 4.18; Luke 6.20-26; Luke 12.33; Mark 10.21; Mark 10.25; Mark 6:8; Luke 16.9; Luke 12.13-21, 13.22-31; Mark 12.17; Mark 11.15; Matt 6.12; Matt 6.24

[19] Luke 6.20-26

[20] Matthew 25

[21] Solicitudo Rei Socialis, 11-22

[22] Matt 9.20-22; Mark 5.25-34; Luke 8.43-48

[23] John 8.1-11

[24] Mater et Magistra, 53

[25] JPII Address to the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon, Manaus, July 10, 1980; JPII, Address to the Indigenous Peoples of Australia, Novemeber 29, 1986; JPII Address to Native Americans, September 14, 1987.

[26] Leviticus 19.34; Genesis 19; Romans 12:13;

[27] Cesar Chavez

[28] Luke 10.25-37

[29] Keenan, James. Moral Wisdom: Lessons and Texts From the Catholic Tradition. Pg. 62.

[30] Puebla, Medellin

[31] Matt 5:44

[32] Matt 5.39

[33] Gaudium et Spes, 69; Populorum Progresio, 22.

[34] “Our Responsibility to the Seventh Generation: Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Development.”

[35] Centesimus Annus, 37; Octogesimo Anno, 21; Solicitudo Rei Socialus, 26, 34; Populorum Progresio, 17.

[36] Luke 14

[37] Luke 1.46-55

[38] Matt 2.13-23

[39] Matt 2.16-18

[40] Matt 19.14

[41] Matt 12.48-49

[42] Luke 14.26

42 thoughts

    1. First, I think you have to work to dismantle the structures and social conditions which produce white privilege.
      Second, you have to be willing to, as much as possible, put yourself in situations in which your white privilege will not protect you from the hardships and sufferings that many people of color go through–although you must also recognize that your white privilege will always be with you.

      And I think each of these things are accomplished by practicing racial solidarity.

      Above all, I think it is something we must work out in community and I think that white people should listen to what people of color want and need from us and go from there. In other words, we will be followers/joiners, rather than leaders in the struggle to achieve racial justice.

      1. or to put it another way, are you willing to create a society in which your whiteness will not privilege you? Are you willing to lose the comfort and status and safety and sense of pyschological superiority and wealth that currently accompanies being white?

    1. I think a pretty easy way to start “relinquishing white privilege” would be to work with another population. Partake in prison ministry or teach a migrant population. You’ll learn pretty quickly what white privilege is and, if you care for your community, you’ll find that pouring yourself into them already begins the relinquishing. We also have to worry about the massive structural advantages afforded the “white world”, but it needs to begin interpersonally.

  1. This is an admirable attempt at articulating some of the many ways in which one might find oneself complicit in structural sin. Let me register some areas of concern.
    First off, I’m puzzled by a section “for white people.” There are many kinds of structural injustice in the U.S. associated with race and ethnicity; in some of these, some white people are complicit, in others they are not.
    I’m less puzzled by the section for men; I think it’s needed and salutary.
    Second, the bit about voting is very strange. It’s very strange just to mention economic inequality and unjust wars. Surely these are not the ONLY issues that are important to Catholics qua Catholics when voting? And surely the complete exclusion of various life issues (particularly abortion) is questionable? There might be some legitimate disagreement about how, for example, the abortion issue should constrain Catholics’ voting decisions, but I do not think there is any doubt that this issue (among others) is an important matter to weigh when voting.

    These might not be disagreements in principle so much as disagreement about emphasis.

    1. anonymous,
      if you read the beginning of my post, i wasn’t saying these were the only sins, only that this is a supplemental list. so this list isn’t implying that people shouldn’t also think about abortion when they are voting.

      secondly, you shouldn’t be puzzled by the section for white people. white people, all of us, share in white privilege just as white people are the primary architects, perpetuators, and investors in white supremacy. I also included a section in which it is the duty of all people, regardless of race, to resist white supremacy.

  2. Katie, thanks for the response. I understand that you mean it to be supplemental, so I’m going to assume we don’t have a disagreement in that area.

    I do object, though, to the suggestion that somehow ‘white privilege’ is the only salient structural sin involving race. It is one among many, though maybe it’s the worst of all in some sense.

    1. i could be wrong but I feel like you are beating around the bush. if you think there is another form of structural sin regarding race, please specify it. it is hard for me to respond to you when i don’t know exactly what you are getting at and i don’t want to jump to conclusions.

  3. That is an excellent and infinitely challenging post! It is definitely worth bearing in mind and reminding ourselves of the way in which we are born into structures that seem so natural to us, but which, as you point out, actually support sinful ways of relating to one another. Indeed, the more natural they seem, the more sinful they are likely to be, since the danger of becoming an idol is greater (e.g. the nuclear family).
    I would add that this kind of examination must only be carried out explicitly through prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to guide one through the morass of one’s involvement in such sinful relating. Otherwise the danger exists of getting caught up in one’s own ability to judge right from wrong, leading to despair at our inability to escape structures that we (probably) only implicitly perpetuate. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the truth of these structural sins (their depravity) will be revealed only as much and insofar as Christ is revealed to us as being what he is: lovely.

    1. of course! what you say about the holy spirit would I hope be true of all examinations of conscience as our inability to escape “personal” sins, like lying, being selfish etc seems to be just as great

  4. This is a good stab at a social teaching examen of conscience.

    But why “go easy” on women? As if they are only capable of “acquiescing.” This perpetuates the impression that women are passive and innocent. In my experience, both of my own actions and those of other women, this is far from true. Women can be active participants in racism, homophobia, and a number of other social sins. Social sin is not the mere product of white males.

    Also, on the issue of voting, it isn’t at all obvious to me that politicians can make or break political equality. Unless there’s an economic downturn, the rich do stay rich, and the poor generally stay poor with most people in the middle class. Higher or lower taxes on the rich, or other economic policies, do not necessarily or immediately affect the poor. This is a nice way (I fully support you) of subverting the politics of the anti-choice movement, but it can be improved a bit.

    1. Hi Jennifer!
      First of all, thanks for reading and for commenting.

      I should clarify, when I said “for women,” I wasn’t implying that they are not also very culpable in racism, homophobia, and injustice in general (far from it! check out a previous WIT post on white feminists and racism What I intended to cover with that “women’s only” sin was the way in which women participate in the perpetuation of sexism. So, there, I was just dealing with sexism. I did not at all mean to imply that women are less racist, or ecologically destructive than men. But what you say about “perpetuating the impression that women are passive and innocent” is duly noted. very duly noted and greatly appreciated. I did not intend for “acquiscing to sexist social conventions” to be a way of “going easy on women” — in my own experience, going “against the grain” of sexism is very difficult and takes a fair amount of courage, but I take your point and agree that I what I wrote could be interpreted in the way you rightly caution against.

      How would you phrase women’s participation in the perpetuation of sexism and misogyny in a way that more accurately and unambiguously honors and recognizes our agency and moral responsibility? (I ask this sincerely rather than sarcastically–I am really interested in hearing your input on this one!)

      As to your second point, I totally agree that “it isn’t at all obvious that politicians can make or break political equality.” My inclusion of the parts about voting was not meant to imply that voting is the only way in which christians are responsible for economic justice at the structural level and called to preferential love for the poor, but only that it is one duty among many. This is why I included sections on the beatitudes, matthew 25, and actions like being in solidarity with the poor, supporting political movements striving for racial justice, etc. In fact, I think that “voting,” especially given the sad fact that the behavior of politicians/the government is increasingly driven not by the will of the people as expressed through elections, but by the wealth of corporations, is actually not the greatest source of our political power. Does that make sense?

      1. and again, I would love to hear you describe what I missed or could have articulated better!

      2. I don’t mean to labour this point because I actually agree with your list in its entirety as being excellently sufficient.

        But, do you think it’s worth noting that women participate in anti-masculine sexism also? Jokes about men being dim-witted brutes, unable to care for children/families, too aggressive, drunks, never-at-home etc… These kinds of jokes do much to reinforce negative classifications of men, albeit that negative classification of women has generally been more damaging to individuals historically.

      3. do i think that individual women can mistreat individual men? of course. but I would not classify it as a structural-social sin that we should give urgent priority to. It is not on the scale of nor as pervasive or damaging as sexism directed towards women. in fact, i’m not even sure you can call the mistreatment of individual men by individual women “sexism” as it is not a part of a societal pattern of inequality and control.

        i would caution against such thinking because in saying, “hey, women hurt men, too” it can function (not saying this is your intention) as a way to trivialize sexism and misogyny by making it seem like both sexes are equally bad–we don’t need to really worry about sexism and misogyny because women aren’t perfect either. Do you get what I’m saying? Men have a disproportionate share of power and control and inflict a disproportionate share of violence on women (compared to what women inflict on men). This is the problem.

        Also, while some women may make jokes about men being dim-witted brutes, don’t forget the myth of feminine feeble-mindedness has been much more historically prevalent and done much more damage to women. See the writings of Aquinas and pretty much every christian thinker until very recently. I don’t think any man has ever been discouraged from learning to read or write or attend school because anyone thinks that men aren’t “intelligent.”

        And, while no man should be wrongly accused of being “too aggressive,” the facts sadly show that men often are “too aggressive” in their dealings with women.’s-experience/

        if you gathered together with four or five of your male friends and shared honestly your experience of being violated, demeaned, and degraded by women, would your list look anything like this?

      4. i guess what i’m trying to say is that in our society, masculinity aka male-ness is an identity of power and privilege in a way that femininity aka woman-ness is not. I would classify individual women’s bad actions towards men more on the level of personal sins rather than structural sins. So I don’t see women’s maltreatment of men flowing from social convention and social structural (aka patriarchy) in the way that men’s mistreatment of women does. Men’s mistreatment of women is much more likely to be a confluence of “personal” and “structural” sin. Think of the difference between a woman calling a man a “jerk” and a man calling a woman a “bitch” or a “whore.” The man is not just insulting her as an individual but he is demonizing her as a woman and carrying forward gendered power dynamics.

      5. “if you gathered together with four or five of your male friends and shared honestly your experience of being violated, demeaned, and degraded by women, would your list look anything like this?”

        cheers for clarifying – I’m totally with you. The scale and structurally uniformity of anti-female sexism is in another range to it’s vice-versa relation.

  5. But “structural sin” is an incoherent concept: sins are committed by volitional creatures, not inanimate “processes” or “institutions.

    1. it’s not the structure that is sinning but people that are sinning through their participation in structures. our participation in structural injustice is very much volitional. so you have misunderstood the meaning of structural and social sin.

      could you please point out a concrete sin mentioned on my list that does NOT involve the human will in some way? I think you will find that they are all things we choose or fail to choose.

    2. because i feel like you just saw the title of my post, decided you knew what i was going to say, and then didn’t even read what i actually wrote

    3. To add to what Katie said, as I understand it, the notion of “social” or “structural” sin is precisely that no one has committed a single “wrong” act. Instead, we collectively bear responsibility for enabling structures that are sinful regardless of how great everyone’s intentions might be. Although the neglect of many individuals results in social sin, the reversal of this problem involves analysis of the broader situation that has been created and not just individual repentance within one’s own personal world. Alternatively, we could stick our heads in the sand, I suppose; but that doesn’t seem to fit with with Lent is all about.

      I’m not sure what theological views you hold, “anon,” but the notion of social/structural sin is fairly well-grounded in Catholic social teaching, and it is found in Scripture as well: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world” (Ephesians 6:12). That was a clear emphasis of the ministry of Jesus, as well – casting out demons and causing kingdoms to rise and fall.

  6. Katie,

    Thanks for this Lenten reflection.
    If only this were a reflection parishes used in Lenten prayer services… If I was a pastor, I would have one day in Holy Week to reflect on how we participate in structures that are not so unlike the ones that actively led to the Cross.

    But of course the challenge is to find a way not to overwhelm people with guilt and helplessness. It is easy for old rich white men to talk about abortion, but more difficult to talk about social sin (even if abortion is often a symptom of social sin). We are challenged to reflect not only on our sin and guilt but to also offer people a path to Easter and Pentecost; to show that grace, like sin, is not only working personally, but it is also working socially. Without sounding cliche after the last election there is hope for change, hope for conversion…

  7. I’m not sure how one would articulate it better. This is something that would be great to use at a parish level. If there were a way to revise or clarify a few things so that people would not be confused or question too much during some parish lenten service.

    On the issue of who sins more, men or women, I agree with your point on structural sin and sexism.

    The post on the ways that members of this blog have been violated and hurt by men was powerful.
    I almost want to dare you to create a similar post, this time examining the ways that the writers for this blog have wronged other women or men, thus contributing to structural sin and sexism (if at all). That would provide a courageous example.

    1. Jennifer, if you want to see a post about how I have wronged other women or men, thus contributing to structural sin, please see the post you are commenting on. As I say at the beginning, I am routinely guilty of many of the sins listed there.

      And I personally have never stuck my hand down a man’s pants without his permission, heckled a man on the street, asked a man I don’t know to perform oral sex on me, threatened to kill or hit a man, I have never used my superior physical strength to intimidate a man or get him to do what I want against his will, I have never raped a man, I have never told a man that he shouldn’t study theology (or become an artist or dancer or stay at home parent) because he is a man, I have never stalked a man, and I have never beat up a man. (all of these were examples of things the women of WIT have suffered at the hands of men)

      Jennifer, why don’t you model for us and compose a list of ways that you have contributed to structural sin and sexism against men? That would certainly be courageous.

  8. Props. Thanks for the brave words. As a beneficiary of white privilege, male privilege, and straight privilege, I hardly think I have any business speaking on issues of other races’ obligations in redemptive action (as anonymous seems to suggest). You’re right on the mark here, from a dominant Western vantage, which is where I assume you’re coming from. In terms of women speaking on women’s sins, I have no voice, but as a marginalized group, there are… as they say: bigger fish to fry? And systemic misogyny is perhaps the greatest, most formidable, consistent, broadly destructive sin in our world. Asking men to repent of chauvinism doesn’t undermine individual sins women may be guilty of. We can’t allow the bigger work to stop because of token examples that somehow “disprove” there’s a problem. There’s a problem. I’ve been a part of it. Working at repentance. Keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s