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About Those New Seven Deadly Sins

The Vatican's talk of "social sins" may indicate progress. But before it speaks for social responsibility, the Church has to have to take some itself.
 
 
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So it would appear the Vatican has unveiled a list of seven new sins. Not just any sins. Mortal sins. The kind that, if gone unconfessed, will send you to hell.

Putting aside the "why" for a moment, the list, widely discussed in the media this week, is interesting. Not what you'd expect. Some might go so far as to call it progressive. Sure, it includes abortion (no news there) as well as stem cell research (that scientific scourge). But it also includes such communal and contemporary transgressions as creating pollution and contributing to the ever-widening divide between rich and poor. The logic, apparently, is to apply some basic moral principles to our new age of technological advancement and globalization.

"But I don't need religion to distinguish right and wrong!" you might say -- and I might be among you. Fair enough, but for the over 1 billion baptized Catholics in the world -- at least some of who must still practice -- the influence of the Church is hardly insignificant. Even in its uniquely punitive way, for an institution that only recently came around to rejecting Limbo, some of these new rules must surely be a sign of progress. Even lapsed Catholics can probably agree that there's something refreshing about the notion of taking collective responsibility for things like protecting the environment or addressing the growing societal divide. And, hell, condemning those who "contribute to social injustice" sounds downright liberation theologoligcal. (Not very Roman.) "If yesterday sin had a rather individualistic dimension, today it has a weight, a resonance, that's especially social, rather than individual," said the Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, which "deals with matters of conscience and grants absolution."

So, cool. Even a slow moving dinosaur like the Vatican can get behind a little modern social justice. Especially given some of the Church's other priorities in the past few years -- including tightening its rules for achieving sainthood, and last year, releasing the rather goofy "Ten Commandments" for drivers -- road rage, drunk driving, vehicular rudeness -- this could be considered welcome news to those who call themselves Catholic.

It's easy to kick the Church for its antiquatedness, it's sexual oppression, it's inability to keep its priests away from the altar boys. For all its power, the Catholic Church offers a common cultural punchline. The original Seven Deadly Sins themselves are fascinating oddities. They are utterly vague -- how much avarice is too much? How many people know what avarice is? -- yet the punishments legendarily assigned to each luridly specific. Given to excessive pride? Thou shall be broken on the wheel. Greed? Force-fed rats, toads, and snakes. Envy? A vat of freezing water. And so on.

Curious about what brand of eternal hellfire might be newly imposed on someone for say, littering -- not to mention what an official announcement of a new set of sins might look like -- I visited the Vatican's home on the web, but was disappointed to find no information on the new seven sins. It's not a bad site, truth be told -- there's a press section and everything-- but it's not exactly updated up to the minute -- and nowhere could I find sign of an official decree introducing deadly sins #8-14.

In fact, the Seven Deadlier Sins story seems to be something of a media invention, culled from a March 8th interview with Bishop Girotto in the Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano . The so-called "new" sins appear to fall into a category that practicing Catholics would call "social" sins, and which have existed in some form or other, for years.

In the Catholic weekly America, James Martin explains:

"As an example of how the media sometimes can get a story wrong, or at least confuse things unnecessarily, witness the … entirely sensible interview with Bishop Gianfranco Girotto, an official at the Apostolic Penitentiary, on the subject of social sin. Contrasting an older understanding of sin as more individualistic in nature, Bishop Girotto noted that sin 'today … has an impact and resonance that is above all social, because of the great phenomenon of globalization.' He pointed to a number of 'social sins' (by now a familiar term to Catholics accustomed to hearing it applied to racism, sexism and anti-Semitism). Among those he mentioned were economic injustice, environmental irresponsibility, accumulation of excessive wealth and genetic experimentation with unforeseen consequences."

In fact:

"The Vatican's intent seemed to be less about adding to the traditional "deadly" sins (lust, anger, sloth, pride, avarice, gluttony, envy) than reminding the world that sin has a social dimension, and that participation in institutions that themselves sin is an important point upon which believers needed to reflect."

So that would explain why there was no ceremony, no press conference, no papal press release.

Simply put:

"In other words, if you work for a company that pollutes the environment, you have something more important to consider for Lent than whether or not to give up chocolate."

So there it is. No fire and brimstone. No "Vatican Lists New Sinful Behavior," as the AP so intriguingly reported.

Kind of disappointing, I admit. But it's not hard to see why the press would have taken such a story and run with it. ("'Seven New Deadly Sins' is undeniably sexier than a headline saying, 'Vatican Official Deepens Church's Reflection on Longstanding Tradition of Social Sin,'" admits Martin.)

But there's also major irony here, an absurd contradiction at the root of the Church's new emphasis on social sins. Of its more damaging enduring doctrines, the Catholic Church's stance on birth control has left generations of women -- especially in poor and ravaged countries -- in desperate straits. Human rights organizations for years have implored the Church to sanction birth control. Instead, the Vatican has continued to systematically condemn it. Given the easy availability of birth control (not to mention abortion ) to wealthy women in rich countries -- and the lack of sexual education, family planning resources, or access to abortion in poor Catholic countries, a number of which consider abortion a criminal act -- wouldn't that be considered contributing to the broadening divide between rich and poor? Isn't that a vast and egregious form of social injustice? Wouldn't the Church be guilty of its own mortal sins?

The Pope is coming to America next month. (Call it his Seven Deadlier Sins Tour.) He may have come out against the war in Iraq -- and where, pray tell, is "war" in the list of deadly sins? But if the Vatican can claim to speak for social justice -- a hard sell for many -- it's going to have to come to terms with its cruel doctrines against women, and change them. Catholicism might still be one of the world's dominant religions, but especially in the U.S., it has been on the decline for a reason. In fact, Catholicism has lost more members than any other religion in the country. If the Church is really looking for ways to bring people back to the fold, it might start, not by promoting social responsibility, but by taking some.

 
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