The Sins of Our Fathers

I believe that we are responsible for crimes and sins committed by those who went before us, and also for those done on our behalf by those in authority.

I know this is contrary to our modern ideas of justice, rooted in an individualistic worldview. But that worldview is incomplete.

I am not merely myself, I am also a member of various societies: my family, my school or workplace, my town, my country, and the Church. And each of these societies has a life of its own, living and acting as one, and so, is capable of both obeying and disobeying God. And as far as I remain a member of these societies, I participate in both its merit and guilt.


This doesn’t mean that I take on all of the guilt of every individual in society. But I do bear the guilt of society acting as a whole, and every association I belong to, even if I wasn’t even alive when its crimes were committed.

What am I to do? How can I be saved from these sins? How can we be saved from them? I must simply repent. Then in me, my society will be repenting, and being brought to repentance member by member. We must repent, do penance, and pray for the salvation of our families, communities, nations and Church, just as we must for ourselves.

I especially think of our national sins, of wars, colonialism, slavery, exploitation, abortion, etc., and of the sins committed by leaders in the Church, especially in the sex abuse scandal. And I believe that actually, this will be crucial to re-evangelising our society.

Thank you for reading, and God bless you!

P.S. I think it would be especially good in this regard, if on the anniversary of national crimes and sins, we took it as a day of fasting and penance, especially those crimes we are persevering in. For example, the 27th of October and 27th of April for the UK’s abortion act (royal assent and commencement, respectively), and the 20th of March for Iraq war. It would be great if the national bishops conferences could promote this too.

P.P.S. I watched a documentary a while ago about the descendants of prominent Nazis, titled ‘Hitler’s Children’, I think. It showed how they were haunted, even decades later, by the guilt of their parents’ and grandparents’ crimes, with many doing penance by working to prevent such atrocities ever being repeated, and one woman moving to the desert and having herself sterilised. It seems to me, that communal and hereditary guilt is a simple psychological fact, that it would be foolish to deny or dismiss.

God bless you!


  1. Go and read Jeremiah 31:27-34! We each of us have a personal relationship with God. Although structural sin is all but impossible to avoid (how to buy trainers, knowing that the workers along the supply chain were treated justly?) I cannot be held responsible for the sins of parents or teachers, unless I was aware and in a position to do something. Sexual abuse, which you mention, takes place away from public gaze, when all is said and done.

    We cannot hold the children and grandchildren responsible for their forebears’ sins: God forgives all sin, as Jeremiah points out, not blaming the children.

    True, we are not to profit by others’ sin. But if, say, I find out that a drink I was given had been stolen, I may not be able to make direct reparation, but maybe offer something to the SVP in return.

    Eric Gill’s sexual life was atrocious beyond most people’s imagining, despite his image as a good Christian artist. Do i avoid using his typefaces, which are beautiful and functional, because he was a sinner, or do I use them, hoping, in somewhat old-fashioned theology, that each time I put the good he did before the Lord, there is some alleviation of his guilt?

    First and last, it is God who forgives, but if one person views Gill with forgiveness, perhaps that can help victims of abuse at the hands of others to come nearer to forgiving their abusers and reclaiming their lives.

    Yes, working to prevent such crimes as occurred in Europe in the 1930s and 40s is a rational response to learning about them, whoever your parents were. But feeling guilty for your fathers’ sins is a soul-crippling response, not called for in Biblical or Church teaching.


    1. Thank you, I have just read it. I don’t mean that we will be punished or condemned for others’ songs, but that we can sin and have guilt as a society, and if we don’t repent for or of our society, we take part in its guilt.
      I agree we have a personal relationship, but I don’t think that means it’s a purely individual relationship. If our parents or leaders can act on our behalf, I believe they can sin on our behalf too.
      I didn’t mean sexual abuse itself, which is generally an individual acting as an individual, but it’s cover up by those in authority, for the sake of those they have authority over. In this case, it is done in our name, and we are implicated together. It isn’t my sin or my guilt, but it is ours.

      I don’t believe we should hold them responsible, unless they are unrepentant, just as we don’t hold today’s Germans responsible for the atrocities of the Nazis, because they have turned from them.

      I think I’d agree with you entirely about this Eric Gill. That seems like the best response.

      But my point with Hitler’s children, was that they do feel guilt, whether or not it’s soul crippling, and there was nothing to suggest it had religious origins. It’s in our nature, and I don’t imagine telling them it’s not their fault would very much help them, but telling them that there is mercy and forgiveness if they repent, would. For example, a son of a concentration camp commandant visited the camp with the son of a survivor of that camp, and both seemed to find great healing and redemption in this.
      In Exodus 20:5, and 34:6-7, at least some call is made for what I’m saying. And we see throughout the Bible, nations and peoples punished as a whole, with many Israelites being born in exile, and holy men repenting for their whole nation.

      God bless!


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