Here’s a story that broke in the past couple days:
Steven Greydanus offered a summary over on the Book of Face:
As with the brazenly casual slow-motion murder of George Floyd captured on bystander video, what’s so appalling about this story is not just what the Joliet Police Department is doing, but the fact that they’re deliberately taking these actions knowing the scrutiny they’re under.
Two months ago USA Today launched a series, “Behind the Blue Wall,” on how retaliation and intimidation are used to punish whistleblower officers who speak out against misconduct in their departments.
Featured in the story was a whistleblower cop, 27-year veteran Sgt. Javier Esqueda, who in July 2020 leaked video to a reporter capturing officers mistreating a handcuffed Black man named Eric Lurry who was in medical distress due to a drug overdose.
Hours before Lurry’s death, a team of cops slapped him, shoved a baton in his mouth, and restricted his airway. A sergeant called him a “bitch.” One officer turned off the sound on the recording. He received the harshest punishment of anyone involved: a six-day suspension. All officers were cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
Since the story ran in USA Today, the Joliet Police Department has come under investigation by the Illinois Attorney General’s office. Chief Dawn Malec was fired. But that didn’t stop the Joliet Police Officer’s Association from voting 35–1 to expel Sgt. Esqueda, or department officials from charging him with four counts of official misconduct. He now faces up to 20 years in prison. This isn’t a few bad apples. It’s an institutional culture that is hell-bent on protecting bad apples at all costs and crushing anyone who breaks the code of silence.
This is a classic example of what Catholic Social Teaching calls a “structure of sin”. I discuss this in The Church’s Best-Kept Secret: A Primer on Catholic Social Teaching:
Structures of Sin
The mention of the “dark side” of Solidarity brings us to another idea that we must touch on: Structures of Sin. The Compendium (119) describes them this way:
These are rooted in personal sin and, therefore, are always connected to concrete acts of the individuals who commit them, consolidate them and make it difficult to remove them. It is thus that they grow stronger, spread and become sources of other sins, conditioning human conduct. These are obstacles and conditioning that go well beyond the actions and brief life span of the individual and interfere also in the process of the development of peoples, the delay and slow pace of which must be judged in this light. The actions and attitudes opposed to the will of God and the good of neighbour, as well as the structures arising from such behaviour, appear to fall into two categories today: “on the one hand, the all-consuming desire for profit, and on the other, 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.’”
In short, sin begins in the heart, but it does not stay there. It gets expressed in what we do. So the things we make reflect, among other things, the sins that live in our hearts. This isn’t true merely of artists who make pornography or manufacturers who make shoddy products. It suffuses everything we make, and especially the gigantic, globe-spanning political, social, and economic systems we create to dominate the world.
A Biblical Example of a Structure of Sin
To give an example of what is meant by a Structure of Sin, see Acts 19:23-41. When Paul went to Ephesus to preach the gospel he did not simply threaten a religious system that worshipped Diana, the Moon Goddess. He threatened an entire socio-economic and political system organized around her temple, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Consequently, it was not just a gaggle of random members of the cult of Diana that attacked him. It was a mob organized and spurred on by the silversmiths of Ephesus, who made their living selling Diana trinkets to pilgrims. The gospel threatened (and in good time would eventually dismantle) a religio-economic-socio-political Structure of Sin in Ephesus that stood opposed to the Kingdom of God.
Now we—to the degree we all sin—are all idolaters just like the Ephesians, since sin is the disordered attempt to get our deepest happiness from something other than God. Our Big Four in the pantheon of idols are (and always have been) Money, Pleasure, Power and Honor. And, just as the Ephesian silversmiths did, we too create political and economic systems to support our idols.
This results in the creation of idolatrous political and economic systems that fight against those trapped within them, especially against those who are genuinely trying to do the right thing—just as the political and economic structures in Ephesus fought against Paul. So, for instance, we see just such a conflict in the early United States when the Founding Fathers who fought (sincerely enough) for the proposition “all men are created equal” nonetheless were trapped in the Structure of Sin known as a “slave economy” and could not find a way to get rid of it. Result: Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and said of slavery, “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever,” never freed his own slaves.
The system of slavery helped enslave Jefferson to what his own conscience told him was the grave sin of owning slaves. This does not absolve Jefferson of his sin. After all, others of his time did free their slaves. But it remains the case that Structures of Sin can both blind and bind us from seeing and acting on evil that later generations (and sometimes even we ourselves) rightly regard with repugnance. They exert enormous pressure on people to acquiesce to sin while providing them with countless excuses, often against the cries of their own conscience, to do so.
Similar situations apply today concerning a host of human institutions. A person who works, for example, for a corporation where an increase in profits is the only measure of success, will be pressured and even compelled by fear of losing his job to act in certain ways that may not be in accord with the gospel. Institutions provide structures that guide decision-making and set up systems of rewards and sanctions. The question is whether these systems reward the good or do the opposite. That is why the Tradition insists that, in addition to confronting our personal sins, Structures of Sin must be battled as well, since they exert pressure on us to not repent our personal sins—and they often blind us from even seeing that the Structure of Sin exists. This is a dynamic that applies in all institutions and must be confronted in all institutions–even the Church, as the clerical sexual abuse scandal abundantly illustrates.
The Gospel Calls Us to Challenge Structures of Sin
The gospel has done this many times in history from ending murderous games in the Roman Colosseum, to the abolition of slavery, to reforming unjust labor laws, to enacting the Civil Rights Act. Such a process nearly always occurs with agonizing slowness, since it takes human beings centuries to grope toward pulling down such structures, especially given that huge amounts of money, power, and the sheer dead weight of human habit oppose such change. Still, dismantling Structures of Sin can be done and the leaven of the gospel has repeatedly been kneaded into societies in order to do it.
When that has happened, the gospel has usually changed these Structures of Sin by means of a combination of moral suasion and the help of the state. So, for instance, the barbaric Games in Rome ended when Christian monks confronted the cheering mobs with their own consciences by entering the arena—where for centuries people had been forced to kill each other or be mauled by wild beasts— shouting, “For God’s sake, forebear!” The brutality was outlawed by the increasingly Christianized state because citizens’ consciences could no longer endure it. For the same reason, crucifixion was banished by that same state because it could no longer bear to inflict on other human beings what it had once inflicted on the Son of God.
In the 19th century, the great English Evangelical William Wilberforce likewise made the slave trade morally unbearable to the English conscience and, with the help of the state, abolished it. In the United States, Christian abolitionists likewise made slavery intolerable to the consciences of many Americans before the state abolished it by force of law. A century later, the Civil Rights movement continued the unfinished work of the Civil War abolitionists through the moral appeal of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who again worked against the Structure of Sin called “Jim Crow” both via citizen protests and with the state to pass the Civil Rights Act.
Again, this does not mean the state itself cannot be a Structure of Sin. It obviously can. But it is also the case that the state can be an instrument for healing Structures of Sin—and that on many occasions such healing would have been impossible without the help of the state since it alone has sufficient power to back reform with the force of law.
So, for instance, take the examples of abusive priests and brutal police. Instead of either denying the problem or issuing a blanket condemnation of priests and police, the wise approach is to face the fact that predators go where prey is, whether on the African savannah or in human institutions. Those predators attracted to violence will seek out professions where it is permitted, such as police, security, and the military—because that is where the prey they seek are to be found. Likewise, sexual predators will naturally gravitate to institutions that put them in contact with the prey they seek, whether in schools, day cares—or the priesthood. Institutions seeking candidates to fill those necessary roles must confront that fact and create mechanisms for both screening such predators from entry and (since no such mechanism is perfect) for expelling and punishing them when they manifest.
It is crucial to understand that all institutions, like all machines, do not do what we want them to do: they do what we design them to do. If we design institutions to do this work of screening and removing predators, we will have far fewer predators. If we do nothing, we invite into those institutions predators who will turn those institutions into machines that will protect and even create more predators.
The point is this: Structures of Sin make it hard to be good and often punish us for trying while blinding us from even being able to see the good. Healthy institutions, in contrast, make it much easier to do the right thing and even reward us for trying. Structures of Sin are usually reformed—or, where necessary, dismantled—through good actions by each person, together with good statecraft and just laws so that, by the grace of God, his Kingdom can come and his will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
Reforming Structures of Sin Involves Both Personal and Communal Effort
The Compendium (193) is clear about what is required to change Structures of Sin:
They must be purified and transformed into structures of solidarity through the creation or appropriate modification of laws, market regulations, and juridical systems [emphasis mine].
In short, non-state efforts to effect change (e.g., boycotts of corporations who support abortion or use child slaves, or mass marches against police brutality) are wonderful, but very often it is necessary to change legal, political, social and economic structures by the force of law as well. Here, not just the citizen but the state bears a responsibility.
This does not relieve individuals of responsibility for Solidarity or the Common Good. Indeed, attempts to effect change merely by force of law without winning the consciences of most of the citizenry can often be doomed, as Prohibition demonstrated. Therefore, since the state neither can nor should do a great deal of moral formation, the responsibility falls squarely on our shoulders as good citizens, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, workers, employers to make it our personal and hands-on business to love our neighbors by teaching them. This is particularly true under a system of government where citizens elect representatives who create the laws. After rendering his taxes unto Caesar, Jesus (who was so poor he had nowhere to lay his head) still found plenty of opportunities to go about doing good. We should do the same.
For Christians, this unbreakable bond between our private thoughts and our public acts is what St. James is getting at when he says, “[F]aith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).