Sense and Nonsense: Personal Sin and Social Sin

All sin consists in willing a disorder into some existing good. Only individual persons can sin. Institutions, be they economic, ecclesial, familial, voluntary, academic, or civil, as such, cannot sin. They are not persons who bear reality in the world. Institutions are patterns or ways of acting toward ourselves or others. As such, persons do all the acting either according to or against the rules or laws of the institution in question or of nature itself. There is no social sin without personal sin. The notion of a “social sin” without personal sin comes from Rousseau. From Aristotle, we know that disorders of soul seek disorders of institutional structure.

Thus, if we are going to reorder anything, we must begin in our own souls. If we sin, that is, if we do sporadically or habitually any of the acts forbidden in the commandments, we either will continue in our ways, eventually to maintain that we do nothing wrong, or we will recognize the disorder, repent, and change our lives. The Gospel begins right in the midst of things to tell us first to repent. Until we admit that we have something to repent, we cannot receive the Gospel. And when we do repent, what we do is acknowledge the rightness of the commandments. We admit the existence of an order of reality, not made by us, that applies personally to us.

Two of my nieces gave me a copy of Walter Hooper’s C. S. Lewis: A Companion & Guide for Christmas. This is the summary of what The Screwtape Letters are about:

Screwtape, an elderly devil in Hell’s civil service, [writes] to a younger devil, Wormwood, on the art of temptation. Wormwood has been put in charge of a young man—the ‘Patient’—whose soul he is trying to secure. . . . The events in the life of the ‘Patient’ are not meant to be of great interest: the main interest is meant to be the immortal consequences of seemingly small and insignificant choices in the everyday life of Everyman.

Although what most obviously disorders civilization are the big sins, they always begin in small sins. Such is the drama of parenthood, of the confessional, of the life story of each intellectual disorder.

Though we rarely are taught how to look for temptation or how it might be possible, the great intellectual and ecclesial disorders—the calling of evil by another name so that we can do it and reorganize society first to tolerate it, then to approve it, then to enjoin it—all begin with disorders in our souls. Classical Christianity is interesting because it takes the small sins of every life seriously. The Church knows the chaos caused by the big sins. The greatest of minds and saints frankly worried about what appear to us to be small temptations to pride, vanity, pleasure, power. The sins of the unimportant are taken most seriously because they too have immediate consequences and long-term effects, even in obscure places.

“Social sin” is always, if it is sin at all, personal sin. No doubt evil can spread through organizations. In fact, the location of evil today might well be primarily manifested in impersonal bureaucracies and organizations wherein no one is “responsible.” But behind these organized relationships, if they manifest evil, we will always find men and women with wills, with souls, who are choosing badly. It is not and cannot be otherwise. St. Thomas is perhaps infamous for reminding us that it is sometimes necessary to tolerate certain institutions as the lesser evil, the evil of which—the personal sins—goes on even in the toleration. Edmund Burke, by contrast, is famous for warning us not to think that by some sudden rearrangement of politics, economy, or family, we will quickly cure all our ills.

Our youth today are almost invariably taught that they must change the world, not their souls. So they change the world and it becomes worse. Aristotle had warned us that before we change anything, we should realize that we can always change it for the worse even if we are trying to make it better. Some things work, some do not. Intention is not enough. Neither is compassion enough. What is first, and always must be first, is personally not to choose what is evil—the Socratic principle. But if we do choose what is evil, the worst thing we can do is to call it good. If we call it what it is, we can repent. If we call it a good, we will change the world and gradually, step by step, eliminate any support of what is right that ought to come from institutions.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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