In 1971, the Synod of Bishops issued Justitia in Mundo, an important but neglected document on justice in the world, which speaks of the ‘unjust systems and structures’ that oppress people and hinder their rightful development, of the ‘objective obstacles which social structures place in the way of conversion of hearts’, and of the ‘systematic barriers and vicious circles’ that perpetuate injustice (Justitia in Mundo 5 & 16). Here Justitia in Mundo affirms the existence of structural injustice and identifies some of its manifestations. To describe injustice as structural is to say that it can be embedded within the frameworks of our cultures and societies. In other words, the way societies are designed and structured, the attitudes and beliefs upon which they are founded and sustained, the institutions through which they function, and the behaviours, practices and traditions that they foster may be unjust, inhumane and discriminatory.
Pope John Paul II refers to unjust social structures as ‘structures of sin’, because they are ‘the fruit of many sins’, products of ‘the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove’. Once socially embedded, structural injustices ‘grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people's behaviour’ (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 37 & 36). John Paul recognises that while sinful attitudes and behaviour harm others, they can also harm the social fabric by deforming the values, mechanisms and organisations that shape our societies, institutionalising injustice. When sin is cemented into the very beliefs and workings of society, giving rise to structural injustice, it is sometimes referred to as ‘social sin’. Entrenched prejudices, immoral practices and inhumane policies can infect entire populations and national blocs and endure for decades or longer because communities are poisoned by or inured to sin’s pernicious influence and successive generations are historically conditioned to reproduce them.
Cultural practices such as child marriage and female genital cutting, political ideologies such as white supremacy, and social policies that exclude women or minorities from certain professions or institutions are all examples of structural injustice. So too are racism, tribalism, the caste system, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sectarianism, sexism, patriarchy, the class system, global poverty, and state-wide corruption.Individuals can become victims of multiple injustices that combine in damaging ways to reinforce patterns of inequality. For instance, those denied schooling on account of their ethnicity, or gender, are economically as well as educationally disadvantaged and are therefore more likely to have poorer health outcomes and diminished political influence.
Responsibility for these social evils lies not only with the people who institutionalise the injustice, but with those who sustain and refuse to challenge it. As John Paul states:
It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world and also of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of higher order. (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 16)
Structural injustice is woven into the fabric of all societies, and is often deep-rooted and widespread. Its unjust character may go unnoticed or be regarded as socially acceptable, making this type of injustice difficult to overcome. Yet the vast scale or endemic character of structural injustice does not absolve individuals of their responsibility to oppose and eradicate it. Culpability for social evils such as global poverty lies not with anonymous entities such as the economy or capitalism, but with the choices and behaviour of people like us.
Rectifying the harmful effects of structural injustice can involve challenging the status quo and speaking truth to power. This requires courage and a sustained and concerted effort by multiple actors to campaign for social change. Despite the enormity of this task, world events show that social evil can be defeated. The slave trade was brought to an end. Opposition to apartheid led to its demise. The revolutions of 1989 delivered democracy to the Eastern bloc through peaceful means. The Church played a role in all these social and political transformations. Similarly, successful campaigning by Catholic development agencies, in concert with other non-governmental organisations (NGOs), led to the establishment of the fair trade movement and to the cancellation by some governments of crippling debts owed by developing nations.
The Church is not always in the vanguard of social change, however. Some aspects of the Church’s social teaching take centuries to mature. Today, the Church opposes all forms of slavery. In the past, slave-owning popes ignored or silenced voices within the Church calling for an end to the trade in humans. It is possible that we too may be blind to social injustice in our midst. Prevailing cultural norms are no sure guide to moral truth. For this reason, Christians are attentive to the signs of the times. In this way, the Church’s teaching on social issues can – ideally - take shape in response to the Church’s learning on social issues. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church reminds us of the contingent character and responsive nature of Catholic social teaching: ‘it must not be forgotten that the passing of time and the changing of social circumstances will require a constant updating of the reflections on the various issues raised here, in order to interpret the new signs of the times’(Compendium 9). It goes on to describe the Church’s social teaching as ‘a “work site” where the work is always in progress, where perennial truth penetrates and permeates new circumstances, indicating paths of justice and peace’ (Compendium 86).