“Structures of sin” infecting religious life today

This “mental attitude” or “mental structure” is one of the most common forms of the “structures of sin” infecting religious life in India today.

By Desmond de Sousa

Recently, when working on the issue of trafficking of girls for domestic work between Orissa and Goa, I asked one community of sisters in Goa whether they had any contacts with sisters of their own Congregation whom I had met in Orissa.

Their response surprised me, “They belong to a different Province,” as if they were saying, “They belong to a different planet!!”

This “mental attitude” or “mental structure” is one of the most common forms of the “structures of sin” infecting religious life in India today.

In fact, this virus affects not only the Church in India, but to a large extent, even the Church in Asia today.

The problem can be articulated like this. The geographical boundaries of parishes and dioceses, or communities and Provinces in the case of religious, are meant for more effective administration as units in the Roman Catholic Church.

They have unfortunately become insurmountable mental barriers in the minds of its members, who have partitioned the one pastoral mission of the Church into disparate local units of parishes and religious communities.

This is to the detriment of the more vibrant and theologically more correct global operating units of dioceses and Provinces (for religious) which actually represent the local Church. So can our present rigid parish or community (for religious) boundaries be considered “structures of sin”?

Sin and "the structures of sin" are the "root of the evil" which afflicts us. Pope John Paul II used a powerful image, already used by Pope Paul VI, in illustrating the “structures of sin.” Indicating the division between rich and poor countries on the international level, he observes the need, “to recognize each peoples’ equal right ‘to be seated at the table of the common banquet’, instead of lying outside the door like Lazarus, while ‘the dogs come and lick his sores.

Does he identify the glaring disconnect between the rich and the poor today as one of the “structures of sin”? It would seem so.

He goes on to urge that Christians must view the deep divisions in the world, between developed and underdeveloped nations and groups within nations, as "the structures of sin", which "are rooted in personal sin and thus always linked to 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 behavior." (Reconciliation and Penance, n.16 -18 )

The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church represents a good example of the distinction and the inseparability between personal sin and the structures of sin.

Sexual abuse is almost always perpetrated by people who are in positions of power and authority, people whom the child or vulnerable adult trusts. Carefully selecting candidates for the priesthood and child safety procedures will help, but there is a deeper structural problem that has to be a changed.

At the root of the problem is a climate of ‘stiff clericalism and authoritarianism’ that creates a ‘culture of control’ due to the “Christendom” or pyramid of power and authority, which characterizes the present operating model of the Church.

The paradox is that often, the very people who administer such a destructive system are often personally humble and devout. So it would seem the focus needs to be not just on their personal sins of covering up the abuse, but as much on structural ones that make the protection of the institution more important than the protection of vulnerable children and adolescents.

Maybe one needs to go even to the extent of asking whether the Church’s internal architecture today (undoubtedly it can be changed tomorrow) has become the kind of “structure of sin” that Pope John Paul II warned about. This means the Catholic Church herself may be vulnerable at the moment, not only to the personal sins of its members, but also to the ‘structures of sin’ in its internal architecture and operating model.

Updating Religious Life in India today

Vatican II was an attempt to ‘update the Catholic Church’ so that she could dialogue more effectively with the modern world. This modern world was shaped by the monumental scientific and technological advances introduced by the industrial revolution. One outstanding characteristic of the modern world was the machine.

The machine was the ‘fundamental image’, the ‘foundational lens’ through which to view and understand reality itself. Each part of the machine is separate and replaceable.

Consciously or unconsciously, the separateness and replace-ability of the machine affected our very consciousness, our way of thinking in the world and in the Church.

But 50 years later, the ‘fundamental image’ or ‘foundational lens’ through which we view reality is no longer a machine but a spider’s web. Interconnectedness and interdependence has superseded separateness and replace-ability in our world today.

The famous phrase, “When the President of the United States sneezes, people all over the world catch a cold,” captures the present day reality of interconnectedness and interdependence.

The mental and social structures of religious life have to be updated and crystallized to become operational in a “global village” today.

The communities in a Province have to operate like a network of cells in a body – giving life to one another by their interconnectedness and interdependence. Similarly, the religious Congregation’s Provinces of a country, a continent and even the entire planet have to grow, just like the nations of the world today, towards greater interdependence and solidarity, not just with one another, but also with the struggling poor of the world.

The saying, “Everyone’s responsibility is no one’s responsibility,” of the past has to be turned on its head into “Think globally, act locally” and its corollary, “Think locally, act globally.”

Interdependence, interconnectedness, prophetic solidarity must become the daily mantra of religious life today. This means even different congregations of religious within a local area, State, country, continent have to ‘tear the veil of the temple’ of the “sacredness” of their specific identity, their own projects, their own finances, to pool together their human and financial resources in a common mission effort. Not to update religious life today towards a more integrated, global mission, is to doom religious life to be outdated for tomorrow.

The vocations we attract and the leadership that emerges will be suitable for the past but irrelevant for the future. Religious life as the ‘heart-beat’ of the Church will become comatose rather than vibrant.

Two of the richest men in the world – Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – have pooled together their humongous resources into one common project rather than compete against each other or set up parallel organizations as the conduit for their funds.

This is a “sign of the times.” These “secular” people become an inspiration to “religious” people on how to pool together human and financial resources for a common mission of solidarity with the struggling poor of the world and to heal the planet.

When religious in India today remain blinkered in their age old ways of doing things, so that their voluntary poverty prevents them from being in solidarity with the millions who are in forced poverty, do they not reinforce the structures of sin by the stubbornness of their personal sin?

When religious fearfully treasure their withered chastity rather than lavish their responsible ‘freedom to love’ on ‘the wretched of the earth,’ do they not reinforce the structures of sin in religious life with their own personal sin? When religious seek the security of imposed or placid blind obedience by their unwillingness to dare to focus on the fundamental truth of Planet Earth today ‘groaning for liberation,’ do they not reinforce with their personal sin, the structures of sin in religious life today?

The ominous warning of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr to those who contribute to making religious life irrelevant to the challenges of interconnectedness, interdependence and prophetic solidarity today, are loud and clear. “In the unfolding riddle of human life and history, there is such a thing as being TOO LATE.”

Redemptorist Father Desmond de Souza formerly served as the executive secretary of the Office of Evangelization in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference. He was closely associated with the Churches in Asia from 1980 to 2000. He is now based in Goa.

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