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The Root of the Problem

The other day, I picked up a fascinating collection of essays by V.A. Demant, a renowned Anglo-Catholic moral theologian from the Second World War Era, entitled Christian Polity, and the fruits of this little excursion are already proving rich and varied. This little comment, in particular (in the context of a discussion of the important off a Christian realist understanding of the objective good), helped a crucial set of problems in theological economics click suddenly into place:

"The configuration of a social situation is right or wrong, better or worse, in the sight of God, in a way which is to some extent independent of the virtue of its members. Honour is no less honour for its being practiced by thieves; and social evils are no less evils because there appears no one immediately to blame for them."

In other words, good and evil in social structures can be determined by reference to the objective realities of goodness--does this situation conform to the good, avail towards life, etc., or is it a perversion of the good, tending toward death? Despite the potential pitfalls in speaking of "structural sin," as liberation theologians and others have done with reference to forms of capitalism, this is nevertheless an important and true concept--an unjust social structure can be diagnosed as objectively sinful, before we inquire into the individual actions that might have helped bring it about.

This explains, of course, why the Christian nominalist/voluntarist tradition, almost entirely dominant in the sectors of Christianity that endorse capitalism (including my own background), is so resistant to the notion of structural sin. Sin and evil are simply matters of the will, and a social situation is therefore evil only to the extent that we can diagnose the individual sinful acts of the will in that situation. Individual capitalists may sin, but capitalist structures cannot be criticized as sinful in themselves.


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