Dear Donagh,

…. Any ideas on corporate responsibility?  I heard a heated argument about it a while back.  One guy was saying we are all responsible for everything that’s done in our name.  And the other guy said this was just guilt-tripping for Catholics, and we are only responsible as individuals for what we do ourselves.  What they agreed on is that if you are guilty nobody but yourself can take your guilt away.  This made me think about what we say at Mass, “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  How could anyone take your sins away?  Wouldn’t that be a cop-out from responsibility?  But later on I thought – if I am responsible for what other people do, they must be responsible for what I do as well.  So either way it seems to be a cop-out.  What do you think?  James B. 


Dear James,

It is always helpful to begin by checking whether you can agree with both sides of an argument.  Everyone has some part of the truth, and we often argue at cross-purposes.      

It would clarify things, I believe, if we distinguished between legal, moral, and spiritual responsibility.  Clearly, no one is legally responsible for what is done in their name if the law doesn’t hold them responsible.  They may well be morally responsible – if they knew that evil was being done in their name and they did nothing about it though they had power to prevent it, or at least to protest against it. 

But spiritually, I think, we are all responsible for everything!  I'll try and say what I mean by that. 

First of all, the word ‘responsible’.  It is a word that can still paralyse us from school-days – “Who’s responsible for that broken window?”  Aside from its connotations, the word ‘responsible’ means answerable or accountable.  To say I am responsible is to say I am expected to make a response to what has taken place.  A response to whom?  No, not to the police, or to a lawyer or a judge (spiritual responsibility, as I said, is different from these other kinds). 

Responsible to whom then?  Responsible to the human race, we might say.  “I am a human being,” said the Latin poet Terence, “and nothing human is alien to me.”  In other words I cannot stand apart and say that what other human beings do and suffer has nothing to do with me.  Terence lived in the 2nd century BC.  Christians would go further and say we are responsible to God.  We all have the one Father and so we are all of us brothers and sisters, and we are one another’s keepers.  Cain refused to be his brother’s keeper and became “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Gen 4).  When I disown my brothers and sisters I become spiritually homeless. 

This is not ‘Catholic guilt’, it is solidarity with the human race.  Like marriage, but more fundamentally even than marriage, it is for better or worse.  The best and the worst are our inheritance.  “What race deserves honour? The human race. What race deserves contempt? The human race” (Ecclesiasticus 10:19).  How necessary to admit both and keep both in view!  The first saves us from despair, the second from presumption.  Wars are fought again and again because we start by dehumanising the enemy, refusing to see any kinship with them; so we have to fight them again in the next generation.  History repeats itself, we say, as if it were something other than ourselves.  No, we repeat ourselves because we don’t learn anything; ignorance and blindness lead us around in circles.  It seems there is no hope for us if we don’t reach out for solidarity with one another. 

What does it mean to say that Jesus “takes away the sins of the world?”  It might appear to be some kind of external arrangement, like writing off a bad debt that we had incurred, so that we didn’t have to do anything – except to remember to say thanks.  But no, it is not something external to us; it is not about being let off the hook.  It is about Christ’s solidarity with us.  He queued up shoulder to shoulder with sinners for John’s baptism of repentance.  St Paul would even say that he became sin for us (2 Cor 5:21).   Solidarity works both ways: we in turn become what he is: “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as he was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). 

Solidarity is not a cop-out, it is a cop-in (if there is such a word).  It involves us totally.  In Christian tradition this is expressed by St Paul’s teaching that we are the Body of Christ.  (If you use the ‘search’ button on the front page of this website you will find several articles on this topic.)  “The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you’” (1 Cor 12:21).  This is the basis of corporate responsibility.  If we can break the association with broken windows, it appears in a new light – as one of the most beautiful of all Christian teachings. 


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