The Catholic University of America

 John Barba Defense

Final Examination of John A. Barba

for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

October 25, 2010 9:00 a.m., Caldwell Room 125




William A. Barbieri, Ph.D.


Moral Agency in the Context of Social Sin:The Perspectives of the Latin American Bishops (CELAM) and John Paul II

One of the seminal developments in Roman Catholic theology since the Second Vatican Council has been an expanding comprehension of the reality of social sin.  The bishops of Latin American identified the systemic poverty around them as a situation of sin@ and called for a preferential option for the poor@ as necessary for both personal and ecclesial conversion.  The teachings of John Paul II took cognizance of the new reality of social sin while still preserving a sense of individual moral agency.  The issue of how best to comprehend moral agency in the context of social sin has persisted, however: the matters of accountability for the perpetuation of social sin and moral responsibility for rectifying the structural manifestations of sin have been difficult to resolve.

The dissertation begins with a historical review of some of the core principles and theological suppositions regarding sin and moral agency as articulated in the Catholic theological tradition.  Two key sets of post-Vatican II sources are investigated in detail: synodal documents of the Latin American bishops (produced at the conclusion of the CELAM conferences at Medellín in 1968 and at Puebla in 1979), and selected writings from the teaching of Pope John Paul II (most especially the texts, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, Sollicitudo rei socialis, and Ut unum sint).

A heuristic framework comprising five questions is established then to reveal how the various texts do in fact explicate moral agency and ethical responsibility in relation to the broad dynamic of social sin.  The magisterial documents are examined in detail in terms of their response to each of the five questions posed.  A synthesis addressing comparability is constructed: in what respects the documents concur with one another, where their positions diverge, and the degree to which the texts are themselves internally consistent in relation to the five heuristic questions.  In light of that synthesis, the dissertation concludes with a short chapter highlighting some additional areas of theological reflection related to the topic of sin which may be of use in future efforts to provide a coherent Catholic accounting of ethical demands in relation to social sin.