5.3.3 ‘Structures of sin’ in business life

Back to 5.3.2

Unit 5 Contents

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The last screen presented an objection to the vision of a ‘solidary market economy’ – that it is hopelessly unrealistic – and two arguments in response to it.

But are these two arguments enough?

Amanda left university with an excellent degree in languages and got a prestigious job with one of the large City of London consulting firms.  The first two years were very demanding training, after which she was one of a large team providing business consultancy services for a wide range of clients.  The pressure to perform was great, and the company’s overriding commitment to its own profit maximization was apparent in almost all its practices.  She had anticipated the pressure, as she was not at all naïve.  She certainly didn’t lack the toughness for such a business environment.  One thing which surprised her was the extent to which the culture within the company was as competitive among staff as the external environment facing the company as a whole.  Staff were in every way competing against one another, “dog eat dog” as she put it, and there were, in effect, clear financial incentives for doing that.  Overall she found the whole business context one in which there was an institutional requirement to act in a wholly self-interested way all the time – individually against colleagues and collectively against the company’s rivals, with no holds barred.  Amanda was also a thoughtful Christian.  Her commitment was real and she practised her faith in a quiet way.  Over a total of five years with the company, she gradually reached the simple conclusion that it was not possible to be a Christian in that company – the practices of shared working life were incompatible with love of neighbour.  So she left.

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Reflection

That’s a true story, with some details changed.  On the basis of that brief outline of it, do you think she was right to leave?  Did she have a choice?  Could she have changed anything?

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The third argument in response to the objection of unrealism brings in what CST calls ‘structural sin’.  We can get at what this means by way of that story.  Amanda encountered a company whose shared practices, driven by the overriding goal of maximum profit, prevented her or anyone else there from doing business as CST holds business must be done.  As a sole individual, or even if she had been able to get together a group of like-minded colleagues, she or they would have lacked the power needed to challenge effectively the culture of a very large company headed by people who had subjected themselves to that world.  Nevertheless, even in the act of leaving, possibly she could have attempted to do so, although this might have had significant personal cost.

The company’s practices in effect formed a barrier that excluded Amanda from employment because of her Christian faith.  They also treated all involved, employees and clients, as instruments to the end of maximizing financial return, which means without human dignity.  We can say that the whole company was structured on the basis of what CST holds is a sinful way of doing business.  Pursuit of the wrong overriding end, namely the maximization of financial return, had distorted everything it did. Probably some of its competitors were pretty similar, so that Amanda was up against, not just one bit of her own company or one company, but a much wider culture.

CST speaks of ‘social sin’ and also of ‘structures of sin’.  As you will see in readings set in a moment, ‘social sin’ is simply sin by some people against others, whether individuals or groups.  It is “every sin committed against the justice due in relations between individuals, between the individual and the community, and also between the community and the individual” (Compendium, #118).

Going beyond this, ‘structures of sin’ are what are produced when multiple social sins form sinful shared practices, such as at Amanda’s company.  They become customary and so are institutionalized.  This process establishes what then face people as structures which block right action and sustain wrong action.  Pope John Paul II wrote this:

[S]tructures of sin…  are rooted in personal sin, … [in] the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove. And thus they grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people’s behaviour (Solicitudo Rei Socialis, #36)

He went on to say that there are two kinds of sinful structure that “are very typical”.  These are,

the all-consuming desire for profit, and… the thirst for power, with the intention of imposing one’s will upon others. In order to characterize better each of these attitudes, one can add the expression: “at any price”. (Solicitudo Rei Socialis, #37)

Amanda refused to sustain the structural sin she faced and so left. If she had sought to change it, probably she would have achieved little.  Or maybe she would have sowed a seed – others might have picked up on an action of protest.  John Paul’s point that structural sin is “rooted in personal sin” has been criticized by some for ‘taking the sting’ out of the idea, as though it implies that such structures are not quite real.  But that point simply establishes that people are responsible for the way things are and together we can resist and change them, even if this might be at great personal cost.

The forms of ‘structural sin’ are many and diverse.  Here are some examples to keep in mind as you do the short readings from the Compendium and from Solicitudo Rei Socialis below:

  • a business or public sector culture in which bribery is routine and expected
  • the practice of a state agency in which meeting targets trumps the aim of serving people
  • payment by multi-national companies of mere subsistence wages to workers making retail products
  • rules of international trade that mean poor countries can export raw materials but not processed goods to affluent countries.

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Reflection

Why do you think this idea of ‘structures of sin’ forms the basis for a third argument in response to the objection that CST’s economic vision is unrealistic?

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Now do the following two short readings.  The first one is the section in the Compendium on “the tragedy of sin”.  Only the last two paragraphs are about ‘social sin’ and ‘structural sin’ specifically.  This section comes after that on humans as “in the image of God” which you will have read if you have done Unit 3 (3.3.7).

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Reading (3pp)

Compendium, ##115-119 (Chap 3, part II b)

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The next reading is the source of the quotations from Pope John Paul given above.  The excerpt begins with a reference to the context of the Cold War in which this encyclical was written, in 1987, “a world which is divided into blocs, sustained by rigid ideologies”.  The Pope saw this conflict in terms of structures of sin.

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Reading (4pp)

Solicitudo Rei Socialis, ##36-38 

The link takes you to #35, so scroll down to #36.

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That reference to the Cold War helps us to see clearly why this teaching about ‘structures of sin’ gives a powerful further argument in response to the objection that CST’s economic vision is unrealistic.  CST recognizes plainly that there are deeply established practices and structures that stand in the way of making that vision a reality.  But it also insists that – as exemplified in the ending of even the global Cold War division just two years after that encyclical – people can change those injustices.

People can shift economic structures away from subjection to an ‘all-consuming desire for profit’ and towards a ‘solidary market economy’.  No doubt this can take place even from the smallest seeds.

As will be obvious, this subject of ‘structures of sin’ is a really important one.  You can also study it in VPlater Module B, especially in connection with international development.

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End of 5.3.3

Go to 5.3.4 Before and after the financial crisis

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