Is Corruption a Sin?

During Lent, most parishes arrange communal penance services, with collective examination of conscience, followed by the individual confession of all one’s mortal sins and the giving of absolution. Priests gather from surrounding parishes, making it possible for many people to make their confession during the service and do so having a choice of confessors. This enables one to approach the Easter sacraments with a clear conscience, free of sin and with the life of grace renewed.

In all the examinations of conscience I’ve read or heard, I’ve yet to discover corruption on the list of sins. Yet the papers and other media speak often of corruption in business, in politics and government, in the church, in education. What is meant and is it a sin?

I think a ready definition of corruption would be the turning away of an individual or an institution from its declared purpose or mission. If the turning away is deliberate, then it is sinful. Corruption is a form of betrayal or dishonesty, and maybe that’s why it’s not listed as a sin in its own right. Still, anger at corruption, so frequently expressed these days, is an indication that we believe corruption to be morally wrong.

Anger can, of course, be just. One of the Gospel passages read during Lent has Jesus in anger expelling the moneychangers from the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus says that the moneychangers have turned a house of prayer into a den of thieves. In other words, the moneychangers’ actions have turned the temple from its stated purpose: worship of God. (Mk 11: 15-17).

We can see that a government office holder who turns power and money given him for the common good to his own interest betrays his office. We know that a priest who substitutes his own teaching for that of the Church or who morally corrupts someone who trusts him does more than sin personally; he betrays the church. We know that a reporter who omits or misrepresents facts in order to tell a story that isn’t true is disloyal to his or her profession. We recognize wrongdoing in the actions of a financer or banker who makes off with a client’s funds and destroys the lives of those who believed the economic system was honestly conducted.

When corrupt practices are uncovered, people are justly angry; but the anger can fall short of the target. It is easy to point the finger of accusation at someone and imagine that the problem of corruption is purged if the individual and his or her co-conspirators are removed and punished. We can feel good, as if we were not ourselves involved. Yet the stories of corruption are back next month, or next year; we’ve all grown up with them.

The church speaks of social sin, of whole institutions gone wrong. When the law destroys and doesn’t protect, the law itself is corrupted. When the media report in order to maintain conflict, the world of communications betrays its purpose. When banks systematically defraud their own customers and weaken the bonds that keep us together as a society, the system itself has gone wrong. When a politician places his own or group interests above the common good, the political order oppresses.

Almost 12 years ago, on the day I was installed as archbishop of Chicago, a man whom I had known since we were both very small boys said: “You may think that what just happened has something to do with Jesus or the Gospel, but it doesn’t. Being archbishop of Chicago is all about finances, real estate and political clout.” He was neither joking nor being totally cynical, and I understood what was being said. In Chicago we often assume that nothing is what it seems to be or declares itself to be, and the church itself is part of the system. A statement like that, however, says less about the church than it says about the assumptions that habitually govern our thinking. It says something about a corrupt culture. When people take it for granted and even take morbid satisfaction in believing that, to accomplish almost anything at all in life, they have to play a game that destroys their own integrity and that of our institutions, corruption touches us all.

Many people are angry these days, and anger is listed among the capital sins because it is destructive of ourselves and of others. Anger wells up quickly and in sometimes frightening ways. Many are simply tired of swimming in a sea of lies; and others exploit that anger itself, deepening the problem. If anger is directed, however, at the deliberate corruption of the institutions we depend upon to protect us and govern us, to safeguard our assets, to do justice, to inform us truthfully, to make us holy, then our anger might be turned to good use. Sinful ways of thinking and acting, personally habitual and socially deeply ingrained, should be destroyed, people and institutions encouraged to change their ways, and sins, both personal and social, forgiven.

That’s a very big program, and we’re already half way through Lent. If we can at least begin to realize how we are often complicit in corruption, and if we can recognize it as sinful and cease simply taking it for granted that that’s the way things are and must be, then we can pray with more sincerity for the light and grace that bring us conversion and new life.

That’s my prayer for you these days of Lent, and I hope it’s your prayer for me.

Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago

Francis Cardinal George, OMI


Cardinal Francis George is the Archbishop of Chicago.

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  • Joe DeVet

    Three cheers for Cardinal George! Once again, he is clear, principled, and straightforward, giving us a form of guidance that is “news we can use.” If I follow his exhortation, it will be “change we can believe in.”

    If there were such a thing as a Cardinal George Fan Club, I would join. But such a club would itself be a corruption of his office. Sigh!

  • elkabrikir

    Part I of Cardinal George’s article is spot on. However, political and economic systems can’t sin. They can’t receive absolution through confession.

    Systems and institutions are never punished and thrive. Sinners within them cloak themselves in layers of bureucracy and policies and underlings who are complicit in the “institutional corruption”. Nobody need examine their conscience, because nobody, individually, is truly responsible. Institutions can’t sin because they aren’t people. We as the victims of corruption find ourselves in a catch-22 of “smoke and mirrors”.

    Here are two real life personal examples about a victims’ inability to place blame and effect change for restitution and protection of the next consumer.

    1.) Chase bank charged a $50.00 finance charge in error on my last VISA statement. “How did this happen?”, I asked. “Did somebody just go in and say, “Hey! Let’s see if we can slip in a charge!”. Was a computer misprogrammed? (My balance was paid in full and on time.) “Errors” just don’t happen. So what DID happen? I’ll never know and nobody will ever be held accountable. I’m just lucky that I caught this “error” (and the THREE other ones Chase has made in 5 months) Who goes to confession for trying to steal from me? Is it the customer service rep with whom I spoke? Is it the CEO? Is it the trashman? Who?

    2.) My husband purchased me a car DVD receiver. It was several hundred dollars and blew out after 2 months. It was replaced under warrenty and we paid–again–to have it reinstalled. During the installation of the 2nd receiver, the tech said, “This thing’s going to blow again…’s cheap!” CHEAP!!!!! We paid $400.00 for it (I never would have–it’s a man thing). It did blow again after 2.5 month of use! Who’s responsible for producing a shoddy product and marketing and selling it? Is it VALOR who produced? Who at VALOR: the designer, the assembler, the customer service person lying to me on the phone about how this never EVER happened to anybody else. Is it Crutchfield who continues to market it? Is it my husband who thought several hours of research would suffice for a $400.00 purchase? Nobody will be held accountable. Everybody is protected. Not a sinner to be found. I’m driving around with a darkened clock and silent speakers —which actually makes me happy because I hate the demands of time and 11 kids are loud enough!

    Cardinal George is correct: “If we can at least begin to realize how we are often complicit in corruption, and if we can recognize it as sinful and cease simply taking it for granted that that’s the way things are and must be, then we can pray with more sincerity for the light and grace that bring us conversion and new life.”

    So, Cardinal George, perhaps all of us could benefit from your guidance on how to examine our souls within the context of operating within a corrupt organization. Does the buck ever stop? And, when will we stop parsing hairs about gradations of culpability and refuse to participate at any level? I’m awaiting Part II

    BTW if you work at Chase, who’s to blame: the Man on the Moon?