The Global Pandemic Reveals Structures of Sin and Systemic Injustice

One of the main dimensions of Catholic social teaching is the prophetic voice which names social sin and injustice on behalf of God and onto greater flourishing for those who are suffering. This aspect of the social gospel relates to the role of the prophet in Hebrew Scripture whose sacred task was to move God’s people, especially those in leadership, from apathy and injustice to compassion and fidelity to God. The prophets set out to do the work of God – the work of justice and restoration.

Christ continues the work of justice par excellence in the gospels and accomplishes the work of reconciliation and restoration through his paschal mystery. Additionally, Christ uses multiple parables to drive the point home to his followers that they are truly responsible for the plight and good of their neighbor. The Good Samaritan and Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke’s Gospel are a few of Jesus’ stories which come memorably to mind. In Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 25) Christ goes even further to say: “what you did not do for the least of my brothers, you did not do for me.”  This is the only place in the gospels where judgment and salvation are not conditioned on belief or faith – but rather faith in action; faith and attendant good works.

The modern popes – John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis – have consistently advocated for our brothers and sisters who live and suffer on the peripheries of society. The poor and marginalized are often disproportionately affected by natural disasters, market-centric economies, environmental degradation, war, and now, as we see, pandemics. John Paul II frequently denounced a global economy that views the other as an instrument or cog in the machine – an object for production rather than a subject with dignity and rights. To submit to this tyranny of profits over people degrades the human person – who should always be viewed as the center and goal of economic life. This approach also contributes to the degradation of society.

Pope Francis has consistently decried a throwaway culture and a culture of indifference that fails to heed the cries and suffering of our brothers and sisters. Grave harm and acute suffering result from structures of sin and systemic injustice that cry out to the God of justice. These injustices experienced throughout society must be confronted and transformed into a culture of inclusion which promotes human dignity and flourishing. We are a long way from this important goal of social solidarity and flourishing.

The current pandemic has laid bare the devastating effects of layers of injustice that have been promoted or countenanced for far too long. Given our tradition and the gospel teaching of human dignity and charity, Christians have a particular obligation to work for a more humane social order. As we contemplate the aftermath of the pandemic, Pope Francis has exhorted humanity to integrate antibodies of justice, charity and solidarity into our social body. First, we must name and confront the harm that has been wrought by manifest injustice and structures of sin.

For example, in the wake of the pandemic many issues of systemic injustice have been manifested for the world to see. For the purposes of this piece, I will focus primarily on the American context. These injustices have been present on our shores for years – experienced in their full weight and pernicious effects by the poor, minorities, and those without economic or political power. How long can we turn away from our duty to sow seeds of justice – how long can we persist in our inhuman apathy to those who systematically suffer?

Below, are some of the systematic injustices that have been glaringly revealed by the pandemic: the significant disparities of those affected by COVID-19 – significantly higher rates among African Americans and Hispanics in infections and deaths; the lack of universal health care for many Americans, including a disproportionate number of minorities, and the great anxiety and fear that accompanies this privation; the millions of poor and disadvantaged students who are unable to keep up with their school work online due to the lack of computers or internet coverage; the millions of working poor, undocumented, and others who are compelled to continue working in conditions where they do not have the necessary personal protection equipment to keep them safe.

Additionally, the pandemic has revealed the millions of Americans, including a disproportionate number of minorities, who have been living paycheck to paycheck without adequate savings to aid them in a time of crisis. Any society that wishes to develop, flourish or even survive, cannot continue to turn a blind eye to these structures of sin and injustice. Catholic social teaching provides a compelling philosophy and advocacy bulwark against unjust regimes and presents positive principles that promote justice and flourishing. If the modern popes have rightly received high marks for their consistent advocacy for the poor and a more just social order, more than a few American bishops have a decidedly mixed record in this area.

As I conclude, I would like to turn your attention to non-Catholic voices advocating for justice nationally and in Minnesota. Michael Sandel is a centrist political philosopher who, among other things, teaches a course on justice at Harvard. He wrote a compelling op ed in last Sunday’s NY Times on the pandemic and the fractured common good. Leslie Redmond is president of the Minneapolis NAACP and Curtis Paul DeYoung is CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches. Leslie is a former student of mine from St. Thomas School of Law. Redmond and DeYoung co-wrote an important op ed that highlights the continuing racial disparities that abound in Minnesota and the persistent white privilege that often excludes important voices from the table.          

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar