Catholic social teaching employs the phrase, “structures of sin,” to describe those social structures that are rooted in human sin–structures that give concrete expression to, and are formed to enable and further, personal sin. See, for example, this from Pope John Paul II (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 36):
If the present situation can be attributed to difficulties of various kinds, it is not out of place to speak of “structures of sin,” which. . . are rooted in personal sin and thus always linked to the 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. “Sin” and “structures of sin” are categories which are seldom applied to the situation of the contemporary world. However, one cannot easily gain a profound understanding of the reality that confronts us unless we give a name to the root of the evils which afflict us.
I think we can use this concept to understand what went wrong with the religious order, The Legion of Christ. It was created by Fr. Marcial Maciel, who formed some of its practices to ensure that he could continue to cover up his own evil. The Vatican statement dated May 1 is blunt. Maciel was an evil man, and the structures that he created to facilitate his sin must be changed.
The apostolic visit has been able to ascertain that the behavior of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado has had serious consequences for the life and structure of the Legion, such as to require a process of in-depth revision.
The very serious and objectively immoral behavior of Father Maciel, as incontrovertible evidence has confirmed, sometimes resulted in actual crimes, and manifests a life devoid of scruples and of genuine religious sentiment. The great majority of Legionaries were unaware of this life, above all because of the system of relationships built by Father Maciel, who had skillfully managed to build up alibis, to gain the trust, the confidence and the silence of those around him, and to strengthen his role as a charismatic founder.
Not infrequently, the lamentable discrediting and dismissal of whoever doubted his behavior was upright, as well as the misguided conviction of those who did not want to harm the good that the Legion was doing, created around him a defense mechanism that made him untouchable for a long time, making it very difficult to know his real life.
So the question facing the Vatican is how to support those in the order who were faithful and sincere–that is, how to reform it and reorganize it so as to no longer facilitate sin.
I suggest the situation of the Legionaries can be considered a parable of the Reformation. The Reformers of the 16th century looked at the evil of men like Leo X, Julius II, and other popes and said their personal sin influenced and helped to create the structures of the medieval church that inhibited the preaching of the Gospel. The medieval papacy as an institution, the corruption of votive masses that were bought and sold, the taxes and armies and everything else that was contrary to the spirit of Christ–all of this was a projection of human sin. This is why they called the papacy the “man of sin.” The sin of evil men was embodied in what later Catholic theology could call “structures of sin.” Thus, the Reformers said, it isn’t enough merely to get holier men in position–the positions and the trappings and the entire way of business had to change. The Catholic church at the time didn’t–it rejected the criticisms of the Reformation, and enshrined those criticisms in the Council of Trent and the defensive posture of the Counter-Reformation. Vatican 2 came along and engaged some reform–but not the structural reform that the Reformation said was necessary. As a result, the Catholic church was structurally in a position to make the sexual abuse crisis, in all of its manifestations, possible: it enshrined as God-given a theology of the priesthood and of hierarchy and of obedience in which laity served the clergy and the clergy were immune from criticism. The Catholic church thinks reforming the Legion, and removing evil priests, will solve the problem. It won’t–because the organization as a whole needs reform. It needs to preach, and be reformed by, the gospel of justification by faith alone.