Lent is a time for reflection, conversion, and reconciliation.
John Paul II’s 1984 apostolic exhortation Reconciliation and Penance provides a thoughtful reflection on the relationship between personal and social sin. He wrote:
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 (16).
Human trafficking, drone warfare, and a broken immigration system are just three outstanding examples of social sin, a list that could be multiplied exponentially. What do these social problems have to do with us, individually? The pontiff identified several levels of participation in social sin:
“It is a case,” he wrote,
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 higher order.
He concluded: “The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals” (16).
There are structures and systems, the world over, that lead to broken relationships, the oppression of peoples, that individuals support either directly or indirectly…just as there are individuals and organizations who seek to transform the world by serving as agents of change. For example, Catholic Relief Services combats human trafficking; Pax Christi actively opposes U.S. drone use for military purposes; and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops advocates for comprehensive immigration reform.
Lent is an opportunity to reflect on our participation in sinful social structures, to repent of our participation in the oppression of others, and to become agents of reconciliation and healing in the world.
See: John Paul II, Reconciliation and Penance, 2 December 1984.
Submitted by: N. Rademacher, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Religious Studies