Social sin and collective guilt. Legitimate, or not?

Pope Francis has recently spoken about collective guilt, or against it, saying things like “No people is criminal, and no religion is terrorist.”

Now this sounds right, as I am aware that Catholic doctrine teaches that all sin and guilt is “personal.”

So far so good. My question, then, is how we explain the Old Testament when God wipes out cities, or punishes tribes or families, whether within the “nation of Israel” or external to that group?

Do we reconcile this by acknowledging that Israel was a special case? Or is it that this was God acting directly, and so His judgment is legitimate, whereas our judgment that this or that people or religion is criminal would be imperfect and illegitimate?

Thanks for any sources you can provide for this question.

You cannot impute collective guilt ransom14.

Pope Francis is absolutely right about that.

But there is another aspect of sin that CAN give rise to “social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness.” This is termed “Structures of sin” and stem from EFFECTS of personal sins or a sort of nuclear fallout due to other people’s sins.

Think of a woman who was victimized on a date.

She dumps the guy, it’s NOT her fault, etc. . . . .but she still suffers anguish etc. due to someone else’s sin (in this case the someone else is the guy who abused her).

She moves on in her life and marries a nice guy and they have a family.

Now years later she loses her temper inappropriately because her (now) teenage daughter is just thinking about going out with a guy Mom doesn’t like.

Mom is right in “blackballing” the guy and even telling her daughter to “lose him” but Mom intemperately starts hollering in an abusive manner because she has in the back of her mind, her OWN victimization.

Proverbial “nuclear fallout” from that guy’s sin all these years later.

That’s just one hypothetical example of hundreds I could think of.

Teaching (by example) your own kid to cheat. Then is the kid grows up, owns a huge business like Microsoft (but this is NOT Microsoft but merely a hypothetical).

HOW do you think this kid who is NOW the CEO of the company might (due to his dad’s bad example years earlier) treat his employees and customers?

CCC 1869 Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a "social sin."144

Hope this helps.

God bless.


I’ll offer this:

Dei Verbum, Vatican II

“…the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 32:

“In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.

In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current. ‘For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.’”

And p. 33:

“One can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual….”

Literal vs.


Allegorical—significance/relationship to Christ
Moral—lead us to act justly
Anagogical—what is the eternal significance?

So you read in the OT about God destroying whole tribes, etc. etc. Is the message here “Yes, communal guilt is real” or is it something along the lines of “the God of Israel is powerful.” Do you take it literally as a command to assign communal blame? Or do you look for the broader message–take it spiritually (for example, “We shouldn’t act like those bad people” or “God punishes evil”) and ignore the details? If you take the Bible literally and believe every detail is revelation, then how do you explain all the differences in the Resurrection story, where every Gospel has completely different details? This is where Bart Ehrman would say the differences show the Bible is unreliable. Garry Wills would say (I’m quoting!) “So what?”

My question, then, is how we explain the Old Testament when God wipes out cities, or punishes tribes or families, whether within the “nation of Israel” or external to that group?

Israel lacked the grace to rise above sin.

They sinned deeply at times hindering their call to be a light to the nations.

As sin abounded, further isolation from the world was necessary, especially isolation from some of their neighbors.

The Israelites did not have the grace means to overcome “social sin” then. They had some graces but not what the world has available today from the work of Christ. The Israelites would have gotten sucked into the sin of some of their neighbors.

Now it is different.

The world has special grace assiciated with the work of Christ.

So all the OT gets in a sense, fulfilled.

We have the grace to deal with the proverbial “Amalekites” of today’s world.

Thank you for confirming what Francis has said, which is what I already thought was true, but had seen someone object that “God did this or that to groups in the Old Testament” and was curious if the Church had dealt with that objection specifically (since it has dealt with pretty much every objection there ever was).

So thank you both for your responses! And I welcome any further material from any other sources that speak directly to this.

When I come to a spiritual question, or any question for that matter, I ask myself, where am I coming from, where is my question coming from. If honest with oneself, there has to be a thought (a spiritual code with in each of us that needs to be defined so that we can live with ourselves) maybe not clearly understood within the the questioner that opposes the new thought in some manner other wise we would accept what we hear unquestioned. Now as with children this thought is very ethereal and most of what they hear they don’t understand enough to question any way but as we get older this spiritual code begins to take shape (as we learn to live life) and depending on the value placed in this thought, this spiritual code, it helps as a guide as we navigate in and through life. So I ask you, are you coming from a child’s curiosity or from a position of clarity, at least up to this point?
For example God, my God loves unconditionally and yet the teachers constantly speak and write of God’s wants, a contradiction but if you were to ask a spiritual scholar they would write paragraphs after paragraphs expounding on the beauty and goodness of our God’s wants but because it loves unconditionally it gives us free will, all this because they want to take attention away for the word that provoked the question in the first place, UNCONDITIONAL" They can’t balance the equation so they use the legal tactic of burying one in paper work.

Thanks all. Still hoping to see some sources where the Church deals directly with this question, although it’s possible that, having stated that collective guilt is not valid, it has never felt the need to go further in explanation.

What I suspect, having given this some more thought, is that there may not be any situations to explain. The Old Testament examples that I heard cited as examples of “collective guilt” and punishment may not actually be that. For example, in the destruction of Sodom it is said that all are guilty. So we don’t have any doubt about whether or not any “innocents” were punished as a result of their guilty neighbors. They were all guilty.

Thus, the question is a non-issue. But if anyone else has more thoughts, I’d love to hear.

In some instances, the Bible makes it clear that most if not all of the people of Israel turned against God multiple times.

Today with the teaching of the New Testament we understand God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness and that we are not responsible for what others do as long as we do not scandalize them somehow. But that’s not collective guilt.

Collective guilt in the post-modern Western sense refers to this nonsense of people being responsible because of ancestry or identity politics.

And I welcome any further material from any other sources that speak directly to this.

(Formatting mine . . . )

Hard Sayings: A Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties

by Trent Horn

Have you ever read something in the Bible and just scratched your head, or been challenged by a skeptic to explain a seemingly scandalous verse? You re not alone.

The Bible contains more than a few hard sayings (John 6:60): ancient idioms, apparent contradictions, myth-like events and figures, and passages that seem to be embarrassingly out of step with modern culture or science.

Trent Horn can help.

In Hard Sayings, Trent looks at dozens of the most confounding passages in Scripture and offers clear, reasonable, and Catholic keys to unlocking their true meaning.

Like you, I haven’t found much from the Church on this subject, so I only have my thoughts. Since God knows everything, he could easily see that all the children, while maybe innocent now, would ultimately follow in the footsteps of their parents and ancestors. Knowing this future, God’s order to destroy them would just be speeding up what would have already happened.

Another possibility is that God saw a greater good in allowing innocents to be killed. Perhaps he knew these events would teach the Israelites something that God considered more important. God knew that Jesus would descend to the dead and return with the ones that should be in heaven. Ultimately, those innocents went where they should. They just had to be patient. Because God is eternal, his plans can take thousands of years or longer. Only seeing a part of the picture, it’s hard for us to see the good in God’s plans. It’s similar to how we can have bad times in our lives, where it seems like God isn’t answering our prayers. Only when we get to the good times can we see how God answered our prayers and the wisdom in his plans.

You guys really blow my mind, you so easily want to believe that God, our God, the one Jesus teaches us think of as our father, would kill, it so ridiculous, its like reducing God to the guy up the street. Your understanding and awareness of the God you write about is reflected in your words and doesn’t sound very much like a god at all. Its no wonder peace is so rare.

Thanks Jared2914! I appreciate the thoughts.

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