The Devolution of Rights Into Structural Sin

The Devolution of Rights Into Structural Sin

the devolution of rights into structural sin
Two African American nuns on Archbishop Joseph Rummel’s residence staff ignore a protester in front of the archbishop’s residence in New Orleans on April 23, 1962. (AP)

The devolution of rights into structural sin.

It’s a mouthtful, I know. Certainly for me the phrase, the “devolution of rights into structural sin”, is a heady one. Until reading a piece by Jeffrey Mirus, I’d never heard of structural sin. And yet only a second or two of thought recalls the events of 9/11/01. Twenty years ago yesterday. There was no question in any heart that this was evil.

No disagreement between races or political parties or persons of the immensity and magnitude of it. Or of the nobility of those who gave their lives trying to save those of strangers.

The difference lay-and lies- in how we respond:

  • The fatuous route of blaming a God we don’t believe in?
  • Engaging in blame and the futility of war?
  • Or the honest and far more fruitful response of looking deeply into our own hearts?
  • Seeing the darkness and our own active participation in evil?

We hear a great deal today about systemic or structural sin, such as systemic racism. And the truth is that we all participate in sin in many more or less institutionalized forms. We take certain modes of action for granted, without examining the network of institutions, beliefs and habits which underlie the results such “systems” produce. What sound Catholic would deny, for example, that contraception and abortion are systemic or structural sins today, as well as personal ones? That is an inescapable problem in life. But we also take advantage of systemic or structural sin to deflect our own personal guilt.

Structural sin is personal sin deflected and justified.

Since Mirus packs his article with several points worth pondering for more than a moment,

I read it a few times. Realizing as I did so that I’d given no thought to systematic or structural sin. At least not in those words or phrases. Now that I think of this concept, it’s become a reality which ripples outward and keeps doing so. Shedding light- at least partially- on what I see happening in our society and our institutions.

All of them.

Nor had I considered the fact that most economic, political and social institutions are unjust in some way. Of course this is so. There is no need to consider that statement for more than a moment. It’s self-evident, isn’t it? And yet, needs to be said and understood.

Presumably this is one explanation for the burgeoning love affair for socialism among our citizenry. And in the world at large.

Wholly overlooking its historic failures.

Lest we be tempted to consider ours as a as the vanguard of manipulative cultures, Mirus takes us back.

Dominant narratives of 1600 years ago.

“Man spins out a whole net of falsities around his spirit by the repeated consecration of his whole self to values that do not exist.

St. Gregory of Nysa wrote this in the mid-third century. The italics are mine because those 1600- year- old words feel so descriptive of our current situation, do they not? And are perversely consoling.

Few of us disagree that poverty, famine, oppression are spectres which haunt humanity. And should be alleviated by individuals and cultures as much as possible. Each one of us feels the guilt of mistakes, cruelties and all the residue of human life. And we share a communal guilt as well. Those who have been blessed with education, successful careers and their accompanying success know we must give back.

The disagreement bewteen Christians and secularists lies in how we do this.

“For Christians, this sense of guilt is deliberately focused on personal sins.

While Christians may not always recognize clearly the particular forms of heartlessness and even violations of “fairness” which are endemic to the cultures of which they are a part, when they do recognize them they typically recognize that they are personally involved in the pattern and must strive to break the pattern in their own spheres of influence through deliberate changes in their own behavior. That’s how Christian guilt works. It is largely the same as with our own more obvious personal sins.

Certain evils that are protected or fostered by the larger patterns of any given culture—in our families, our socializing, our businesses, and our laws and governments—become opportunities for the recognition of our own personal failure to mitigate these evils, first through our own cultivation of missing virtue, and then through whatever influence we can bring to bear on those around us, those with whom we interact, those for whom we vote, and so on.

Yet that is most definitely not how guilt works for secularists, for it is in the nature of secularists to be in denial. Refusing to acknowledge an authentically spiritual horizon—a God who is to be worshipped, a conversion that is to bear personal fruit here and now so that the converted can be welcomed joyfully in heaven—secularists must find a different way of dealing with guilt, which is the human person’s natural response to sin. If a Christian seeks to renew himself to be worthy of the perfect society of love in heaven, the secularist seeks to transform his earthly heaven by eradicating the attitudes and influence of others whom he sees as impeding the progress of a worldly paradise.

Structural Sin is Personal Sin Deflected and Justified

All of which brings me to the exponentially increasing structural sin of abortion.

The startling image at the beginning of this article

depicts a white woman protesting in front of then Archbishop Rummels’ New Orleans residence. The two black Catholic nuns passing by ignore both the woman and her sign. It was 1962 and the Archbishop had decreed that racism- segregation- was incompatible with God’s Law. And with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

I grabbed the photograph from Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordelione’s Washington Post op ed article of last Sunday. Cordelione’s analysis of segregation as a parallel to abortion is nothing short of brilliant. Writing about another Archbishop stationed in another place where consecration to values that do not exist has been glorified, Cordelione creates a context for discussion.

And brings hope to the table in doing so.

Here is how he does it:

The example of New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummel, who courageously confronted the evils of racism, is one that I especially admire. Rummel did not “stay in his lane.” Unlike several other bishops throughout this country’s history, he did not prioritize keeping parishioners and the public happy above advancing racial justice. Instead, he began a long, patient campaign of moral suasion to change the opinions of pro-segregation White Catholics.

In 1948, he admitted two Black students to New Orleans’s Notre Dame Seminary. In 1951, he ordered the removal of “white” and “colored” signs from Catholic churches in the archdiocese. In a 1953 pastoral letter, he ordered an end to segregation throughout the archdiocese of New Orleans, telling White Catholics that, because their “Colored Catholic brethren share … the same spiritual life and destiny,” there could be “no further discrimination or segregation in the pews, at the Communion rail, at the confessional and in parish meetings.”

Our Duty to Challenge Catholic Politicians Who Support

“A long patient campaign of moral suasion…” When considered in the context of segregation and slavery, its history in the south and the awful cost we have no choice but to access the “better angels of our natures.”

Texas gets this right: The state is investing $100 million to help mothers by funding pregnancy centers, adoption agencies and maternity homes and providing free services including counseling, parenting help, diapers, formula and job training to mothers who want to keep their babies.

You cannot be a good Catholic and support expanding a government-approved right to kill innocent human beings. The answer to crisis pregnancies is not violence but love, for both mother and child.

This is hardly inappropriate for a pastor to say. If anything, Catholic political leaders’ response to the situation in Texas highlights the need for us to say it all the louder.

Our Duty to Challenge Catholic Politicians

Let’s keep in mind Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s comments about his horrendous treatment in the Gulag by Russian officials:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

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