QUAERITUR: Participation in the sins of other people

Yesterday I posted about the entry at the blog of the USCCB about the benefits of confession.  In that post the subject of “structural sin” came up.  “Structural sin” is something liberals use to mask the reality of personal responsibility for sins committed by individuals.  All “structural sin” has its roots in the commission of personal sins.

However, sin affects more than the sinner.  It affects everyone.  We are all in this together.  When one member of the Body of Christ sins, we all suffer.  Some people are more directly affected, but all of us are weakened.  Therefore, when we seek reconciliation with God, we must also be reconciled with the whole of the Church, and not just with the person or persons we may have immediately harmed.  So, there is a “social” dimension to sin.

There is also a “social” dimension, as it were in how we can sin. We can sin not only be our own direct actions, but indirectly through participation in the sins directly committed by others.

How does one participate in the sin of another person?  We sin through another person’s actions by …

  1. counsel
  2. command
  3. consent
  4. provocation
  5. praise or flattery
  6. concealment
  7. partaking
  8. silence
  9. the defense of the ill done

1. Counsel: If you tell or advise another person to do something sinful, so that they do it, you have sinned by participation in that person’s sin.

2. Command: If you have authority over another, and you forced that person to commit something which is sinful, while that person might have mitigated guilt, you don’t.

3. Consent: If you are asked if you think a sin is good thing to do, and have some power over the situation, and if you permit or approve or yield to the commission of the sin, you’ve sinned.

4. Provocation: You badger or drive or dare a person to do something such that he does it.

5. Praise of flattery:
Pretty clear.  This is another way of prompting a person.

6. Concealment: A person commits a sin and then you help that person conceal the evidence or the action.

7. Partaking: Another person is the principal person involved, but you are right there helping the actual sinful deed.  For example, a person helping a doctor commit an abortion, a politician helping an aggressive governor or president or speaker of the house drive through recognition of contrary-to-nature “marriage” by providing a vote.

8. Silence: There is an old adage that “silent implies consent”.  If a person with great authority or moral authority is in a position to stop a sin from happening, and yet stays silent and doesn’t get involved, then that may constitute participation in the sin committed.  This is trickier to figure out, but it isn’t rocket science.  There may be attendant mitigating circumstances, such as the probable invasion of Vatican City, the capture of the Roman Pontiff and destruction of the Church in many places.  In the meanwhile one could work quietly.  One cannot, however, do nothing.  Another point must be considered: the rules governing fraternal correction.  It may not be your place to correct another person, depending on the circumstances.

9. Defense: Pretty clear.  You defend or justify or give an apology in favor of the sin committed.  This is not the same as what a defense lawyer does in the case of a person who is guilty.

It is good to review this list once in a while with a view to your own examination of conscience.

We all wind up in morally ambiguous or difficult situations in which we are challenged to chose between goods or between greater and lesser evils.   So that we don’t wind up like Buridan’s Ass, we make choices.  We have to keep track of ourselves and are interactions with others so that a) we do not endanger our souls by participation in their sins and b) we do not endanger other people’s souls by involving them in our sins.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. A good list Father and an important issue.

    One thing that was (sort of) left out is a common sin routinely engaged in and that is voting for politicians who are pro-abortion (in their actions, regardless of what they say). Abortion is an intrinsic evil and when the voter has a choice between a pro-abortion and pro-life candidate, it is sinful to vote for the pro-abortion one regardless of everything else.

    #7 partaking might cover this, but many people reading it probably would not see it applying to them and their vote. Yet, their complicity is required for this tragedy to continue.

  2. Re Counsel. I don’t understand why this is more participation in someone else’s sin and not simply a sin we ourselves commit. After all, would my sin be any less if the person I had counseled to sin had a change of heart and forebore carrying out the sin?

  3. Excellent, Fr. Z…and timely too!

  4. CatholicinCA says:

    I’m also interested in the voting for a pro-abortion candidate as constituting a sin. People bring up material cooperation vs. formal cooperation. Would anyone know of a good resource to get more information on this? I know of a number of well meaning Catholics who believe that they’re not doing anything wrong by voting for a pro-abortion candidate–that issues such as immigration and the environment are sufficient reasons to vote for these candidates.

  5. cwhitty says:

    Why would a Catholic ever want to be a politician? Sin abounds

  6. Glen M says:

    Participating in another’s sin by Silence troubles me. What about the parent who knows his adult children do not make their Sunday Obligation? What about the pastor that has 1,ooo people at Mass on Sunday, but only five or six to Confession on Saturday? I’ve been told we always need to practice prudence when counseling others, but at what point do we need to speak up in order to avoid being connected to their sin?

  7. Brad says:

    At the particular judgment when we see and comprehend all we’ve done and haven’t done, the enormous web of degree followed by arcing degree, even the best of us are going to be devastated. It will be only Christ’s charity that will save us from condemning ourselves and exiling ourselves while griped by pure despair and horror.

  8. RichardT says:

    “9. Defense: … You defend or justify or give an apology in favor of the sin committed.”

    Why does that make me think of a certain catholic magazine?

  9. Cecilianus says:

    Silence is a tricky one to figure out. There’s a fine line between being neglectfully silent and simply minding your own business.

  10. catnamedvernon says:

    This brings to mind remarriage and divorce situations among my coworkers. I have frequently witnessed other catholics having no qualms with celebrating “former” catholics’ weddings (outside the church) and remarriages. I have tried my best to avoid all of the above sin situations (and to let these coworkers know why I am not supporting them- as hard as it is sometimes when others are congradulating them). However, I am sure they get mixed messages when other catholics don’t question their decisions.

  11. My son was raised Catholic, and has since fallen away from the Faith. He wishes to marry another lapsed Catholic outside the Church. Objectively, my attendance implies cooperation in the act. That said, I most definitely made clear to my son how I felt about this, and the seriousness of his offense. Further, my refusal to attend will cost me any relationship with my son — my ONLY offspring — whom I nearly lost to drugs, alcohol, and attempted suicide when he was younger. His mother left me over twenty years ago (thanks, but I sleep pretty well these days in spite of it), and I have no family in this part of the country, no one to look after me in my later years.

    I intend to discuss this with a priest, a GOOD priest. If it sounds as if I’m not looking for advice from anyone here, you’re right, I’m not. But it is worth pointing out the difficulties associated with our children’s decisions over our objections.

  12. JKnott says:

    @ Brad
    You said that so perfectly. I feel the same way also..

  13. MichaelJ says:

    Many years ago, sad to say, I put my Mother in a similar situation. I’d like to think that I have since started back on the correct path, but I digress.
    Anyway, while I understand that you are not seeking advice, I would think that you could solve your dilemma the same way my Mother did. She attended the wedding, but did not participate (i.e. would not be in the “wedding party”). This was the advice given her by her Priest anyway.

  14. Brendan McGrath says:

    Fr. Z, you wrote, “‘Structural sin’ is something liberals use to mask the reality of personal responsibility for sins committed by individuals.” I realize this may be slightly tongue-in-cheek, but is it really true to characterize it in such a negative way? You go on to say, “All ‘structural sin’ has its roots in the commission of personal sins.” Wouldn’t “liberals” agree with that too? Are there any who would deny it?

    Basically I’m just genuinely curious — could someone explain why more “conservative” Catholics often object to the idea of structural sin? At least as I’ve had it presented to me, I’ve never thought that if it was structural, it wasn’t my responsibility — e.g., I’ve always understood that I, too, share the guilt for things like poverty, homelessness, etc.

  15. Dr. Eric says:

    Thanks for the reminder, Fr. Z. I think I need to examine my conscience to make sure I’m not doing any of these.

  16. MichaelJ:

    Uh, well, for you I’ll make an exception. I will probably suggest to my son that, inasmuch as he and his intended have lived on their own for awhile, that they process down the aisle by themselves. Maybe have a best man and maid of honor, but other than that …

  17. Elizabeth D says:

    Before I returned to the Church several years ago, the candidates I wanted to vote for were pro choice (pro abortion) and now I am forbidden to vote for them for any reason– and I have come to agree with the reasoning behind that (ie, it would be a remote participation in murder). But I have continued to feel uncomfortable with this sense of being obliged to be a one issue voter and don’t feel a desire to vote for anyone, nor do I even pay any attention to politics anymore. Is it a sin to abstain from voting, if so why?

  18. NobisQuoQue says:

    Thank you for this, Fr. Z. I run into situations where people talk about things they’ve done in the past — like getting drunk. By silence or laughter, can one give consent to someone’s past sins? I don’t know if that makes sense — and I have a tendency to be scrupulous — but I worry about “approving” of someone’s past sins.

  19. sparks1093 says:

    How do we handle #9 in light of what St Bernard of Clairvaux tells us: “Even though you see something very bad about your neighbor, don’t jump immediately to conclusions, but rather make excuses for him interiorly. Excuse his intention, if you canncon excuse his action. Think that he may have acted out of ignorance, or by surprise, or accidentally. If the thing is so blatant that it cannot be denied, even so, believe it to be so, and say inwardly: the temptation must have been very strong”.

  20. norancor says:

    How positively antiquarian of you to pull out an old fashion Baltimore Catechism! How dare you be so Socratic, simple and straightforward! I have seen, and have made, simple prayer books and examination of conscience pamphlets in the past, as handouts, and simply listing common ways to sin really helps to keep our lives in perspective.

    To give a response to Brendan (not meaning to step on Father), the use of the phrase “structural sin” was introduced as part of the general shift from personal sin to communal sin in the 1970s and 1980s. I have personally experienced it in a number of suburban, progressive parishes. The focus is on the community, lots of we’s and very little I’s, structural sins, social action, and the like. When I have been involved in private discussions (mostly earlier in my life in Young Adult Ministry and RCIA) structural sin seemed always to be part and parcel of the way to avoid focusing on your own sins and think more of community participation and a communal focus. This usually came from the same priests, nuns and lay leaders that fail to uphold a large portion of basic Catholic moral problems like contraception, divorce and remarriage, traditional piety like the Rosary, devotions, the Saints, Adoration, failing to raise children in the faith properly, lax faith, lax prayer, decent from Church teachings and the authority of the Pope, sometimes the Bishop, and even the pastor, thinking that the parish council or “small group prayer” was the most important and authoritative part of your life. Many times, too, “structural sin” has been used as a euphemism for the aims and goals of the feminist, GLBT, and leftist progressive movements.

    There is also the more theoretical problem that most “structural sins” are hard to overcome on a personal or parish level, and have great number of underlying issues like mental illness and drug addiction in homelessness, racism and classism having a strong regional and socioeconomic dimension, the balance between radical redistribution in socialism vs. unfettered monopoly and abuse in capitalism, the causes and remediation of global warming and environmental degradation, etc. You can Think Globally, Act Locally, but that’s sometimes hard to integrate with traditional Catholic catechetics.

    If it is taught properly in the context of Catholic social teaching (mainly from Leo XIII, Pius XII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict) and gives due diligence to personal sin and Catholic practice and piety, I have no issue with structural sin as a topic. I know from personal experience, though, that if you press the subject on putting structural sin in its proper context and emphasizing the full range of sin and Catholic responsibility, you get pretty stiff resistance from its advocates, if not actual hostility.

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