In an early commentary on Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, my friend Kevin Ahern noted with some dismay the absence of the concept of “structural sin” (sometimes called “social sin”) in the encyclical. What is structural sin? The theologian Kenneth Himes has defined it as “the disvalue . . . embedded in a pattern of social organization and cultural understanding” (“Social Sin and the Role of the Individual,” Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics (1986), 84), when this “disvalue” is interpreted through a theological lens. The absence of this concept is indeed surprising since the encyclical directly addresses patterns of “social organization and cultural understanding”—consumerism, the “technocratic paradigm” (no. 101), etc.—that threaten the very existence of life on earth.
I would like to propose that this absence is not an oversight on Francis’s part, but intentional. This is not, however, because he finds the concept wrongheaded, but rather because it is incomplete. I think it is clear that in Laudato Si’ the concept of “human ecology” takes the place of “social structure”—the sociological concept that “structural sin” presupposes. “Human ecology” is then placed in the broader context of “integral ecology.” When Pope Francis speaks of these ecologies as “lacking in health”, “diminished”, “weakened”, etc., these terms perform the same function as “structural sin” but also remind us of our fundamental connectedness with the natural world—the primary theme of the encyclical—in a way that the latter term cannot.
The concept of “structural sin” emerged from Latin American liberation theology in the 1960s and 1970s as a way to describe the dehumanizing conditions experienced by the continent’s poor. It is significant that the early liberation theologians drew on a structuralist economic analysis of Latin American life, in contrast to the orthodox economic view that social life is an aggregate of individual behavior. Indeed, the function of the theological concept of “structural sin” is to name those death-dealing conditions which cannot be reduced to individual sinfulness, but rather shape the situations in which individuals make decisions. Other theologians came to use “structural sin” or “social sin” to describe other evils such as racism and the subordination of women, and the concept was taken up by official Catholic teaching (notably in John Paul II’s Reconciliatio et Paenitentia and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis). The term became part of the common tongue of Catholic theology.
But precisely because of this familiarity, theologians have by and large neglected to fully consider the development of “social structure” as a term of sociology or its relationship to the paired concept of “agency” (one noteworthy exception is Alex Mikulich, Laurie Cassidy, and Margaret Pfeil’s recent The Scandal of White Complicity in US Hyper-Incarceration: A Nonviolent Spirituality of White Resistance, which engages in a sophisticated analysis of “structure” and “agency” as a way to explain moral complicity). Looking more closely at the development of the concept of “social structure” can help us see what is going on in Laudato Si’.
At its inception modern sociology sought to distance itself from biological explanations of human behavior. For example, Émile Durkheim argued that “the advance of [human] consciousness is inversely proportional to that of instinct” (The Division of Labor in Society (2014), 270), and therefore sociology has little use for biological explanations of how “instinct” conditions human social behavior. Likewise, Talcott Parsons, the towering giant of American sociology, warned that to consider Darwinian explanations of human behavior would mean “it does not matter what ends men [sic] may think they pursue; in fact, the course of history is determined by an impersonal process over which they have no control” (The Structure of Social Action (1937), 113). Parsons was laudably trying to avoid the reductionism of “Social Darwinism,” and later sociologists have similarly criticized sociobiology’s efforts to reduce human behavior to genetics. But they failed to consider the possibility of a non-reductionist explanation of how biology—both our own human biology and the natural environment of which we are a part—conditions human social life without determining it. In turn, this meant that the study of how human social behavior shapes the natural environment was also outside the ambit of social analysis. In other words, although the concept of “social structure” which developed in this sociological matrix was helpful in describing how human behavior is conditioned by the social environment, it systematically excluded consideration of the relationship between that social environment and the natural environment. Dissident voices in the field of sociology began emerging in the late 1960s, and by the 1990s a sub-discipline of environmental sociology had emerged, but the fact that this sub-discipline was itself bitterly divided over the question of whether environmental problems were real independently of human awareness of them illustrates the depth of alienation between the social and the natural.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis laments this very alienation of humankind from the natural world, in both our intellectual understanding and our everyday lives: “Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational” (no. 106). This alienation, according to Francis, involves not only the mistreatment of the natural world, but in a sense the denial of our true being:
When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. (no. 139)
Elsewhere I have written about the groundbreaking ways in which evolutionary biology informs Francis’s anthropology. More importantly for our purposes here, in paragraph 139 he also proposes that the study of biology and ecology must inform our understanding of social life:
It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.
Here he is not simply stating the commonplace that we must be more conscious of how human activity impacts the environment, but rather he is making the far more sophisticated point that we must study the distinct systems that make up the natural and social worlds, as well as the diverse mechanisms that link them into a single, complex reality. I believe this complex reality is what he means by “integral ecology.”
In chapter four on integral ecology, Francis introduces various “ecologies” that, as I mentioned above, serve the same function as the term “social structure” while using a conceptual analogy that reinforces the linkage between the social and natural worlds. He first introduces social/economic ecology and cultural ecology—there is an obvious parallel here with what Himes calls “social organization and cultural understanding.” Here he discusses how we are embedded in a network of economic, legal, and political relations, and also shaped by our cultural heritage. Francis then turns to what he calls the “ecology of everyday life.” He examines how the human environments of everyday life reproduce the larger structures of society, including their inequalities (for example, he notes the vast differences between neighborhoods in a single city, and the lack of connectedness between them (no. 152)). He also points out how relatively small acts can turn an inhuman urban environment into “a network of solidarity and belonging” (nos. 148-49).
Throughout the encyclical Francis speaks of creation in terms of “open and intercommunicating systems” (or a better translation, “open systems that enter into communication, one with another,” no. 79). It should be clear by now that these “open systems” encompass not just the natural world, but the human world as well. The whole of creation is “open to God’s transcendence”; God is both the origin and the fulfillment of the evolving cosmos and through the Spirit encourages the development of novelty and creativity in creation (nos. 79-80). This openness to God is most uniquely expressed in human beings, who experience “a particular call to life and to relationship” with God (no. 81). The unique place of humankind is expressed in Jesus Christ, God made human, who embodies the “fullness of God” that is the “ultimate destiny of the universe.” But God’s love for creation cannot be reduced to humankind’s unique call, which after all is to “lead all creatures back to their Creator” (no. 83).
Humankind’s alienation from God not only corrupted each of us individually, but corrupted social life, and, as Francis is at pains to point out, corrupted our relationship with the natural world. We not only set ourselves apart from the rest of nature, but indeed adopt a confrontational, dominating attitude toward it, despite it being a constituent element of our own being (nos. 66-67). Francis’s outline of the various “ecologies” is meant as a conceptual tool to help us understand how these various linkages have been weakened, putting our “common home” in peril, but also how they can be restored and enlivened.
The absence of the concept of “structural sin” in Laudato Si’ is not something to be lamented, but rather a call to question our presuppositions about our connectedness with the natural world and how those presuppositions shape the social analysis that we as theologians and other concerned Catholics use to interpret our world. Personally I don’t think we need to abandon concepts like “social structure” and “structural sin,” and Francis himself has spoken in terms of “structures” in other contexts, such as his address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia. Rather, we must become more aware of how the history of these terms is itself intertwined with the structural sin of humankind’s alienation from nature, and more deeply study the interconnectedness of the natural and social worlds in our own theological analyses.