Monday, April 7, 2008

The media misrepresent Catholic teaching on sin? Impossible!

An editorial in today's New York Times called "The Vatican and Globalization: Tinkering With Sin" by Eduardo Porter is just the latest in a long line of ridiculous misinterpretations by the media of an interview with Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, Regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, which was published nearly a month ago in the newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. In the interview, Bishop Girotti emphasized the fact that globalization and technology have opened up the possibility of new sins with widespread social consequences. Here's an excerpt:

"There are various areas today in which we adopt sinful behavior, as with individual and social rights. This is especially so in the field of bioethics where we cannot deny the existence of violations of fundamental rights of human nature -- this occurs by way of experiments and genetic modifications, whose results we cannot easily predict or control. Another area, which indeed pertains to the social spectrum, is that of drug use, which weakens our minds and reduces our intelligence. As a result, many young people are left out of Church circles. Here's another one: social and economic inequality, in the sense that the rich always seem to get richer, and the poor, poorer. This [phenomenon] feeds off an unsustainable form of social injustice and is related to environmental issues -- which currently have much relevant interest."

Now, there was nothing in Bishop Girotti's remarks that indicated a fundamental shift in the Catholic understanding of sin, but nearly every major news outlet took his remarks and ran with them. Unfortunately, they almost universally ran into a nightmare of misinterpretations, misattributions, misrepresentations of Catholic teaching, and outright fabrication. A flood of "news" stories informed the public that "the Vatican" had "updated" the traditional list of the seven deadly sins, which were frequently conflated with mortal sin (they're not the same thing). The first sentence in an article in the Telegraph epitomizes the lot: "Failing to recycle plastic bags could find you spending eternity in Hell, the Vatican said after drawing up a list of seven deadly sins for our times."

Of course, Bishop Girotti does not speak for the Vatican, and no list was ever drawn up. Bishop Girotti gave no indication that his remarks were intended to supplant or augment the traditional list of seven deadly sins, nor did he suggest that the sins he mentioned constituted an exhaustive list of the moral pitfalls of our times.

The Telegraph piece, and media coverage of Bishop Girotti's remarks in general, reflects a profound ignorance, willful or otherwise, about the Catholic Church's teaching on mortal sin and hell. Pope Gregory the Great's traditional list of seven deadly sins -- lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride -- is not a complete account of all possible sins. Nor are the seven sins listed always mortal sins in and of themselves. Rather, the seven deadly sins represent certain perverse dispositions of the heart out of which many other sins flow.

To sin, generally speaking, means to deliberately do something that is contrary to the will of God. For an official definition, let's turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

"Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as 'an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.'" (CCC 1849)

The Church distinguishes between venial sins and mortal sins:

"Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture, became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience.

"Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it." (CCC 1854-1855)

So mortal sin is worse than venial sin. Now, it takes three things to make a sin mortal:

"For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must be together met: 'Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.'" (CCC 1857)

By committing a mortal sin, we deliberately cut ourselves off from the love of God, and Catholics guilty of mortal sin must turn to the sacrament of reconciliation (also called "confession" or "penance") in order to be restored to the state of grace:

"Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God." (CCC 1861)

Okay, enough of the primer on sin. Let's return to the New York Times piece. To be fair, it isn't nearly as outlandish as much of the other coverage of Bishop Girotti's interview, and it does make some interesting points. But it's wrong all over in what it implies about Church teaching. Here's the opening paragraph:

"It's hard to erect rules to last forever. The recent suggestion by a bishop from the Vatican's office of sin and penance that globalization and modernity gave rise to sins different from those dating from medieval times seemed to many like an acknowledgment that the world is, indeed, changing."

As if that were some kind of scandal, that the Vatican was finally admitting that the world is changing. The whole point of the bishop's remarks was that the world is changing. The Church has never denied that. But the fact that the world is changing doesn't mean that the Church's understanding of sin is now outdated. It's no discredit to the Church or to Pope Gregory the Great that he didn't foresee drug trafficking or bioethics violations in the sixth century -- the Church's understanding of sin is broader than some list. And Gregory's seven deadly sins, by the way, are still going strong. Look around: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride are as prevalent and problematic as ever. Indeed, they are still at the root of the "new" sins that Bishop Girotti discussed.

Later on, the piece says this:

"The Vatican has long been riven by this tension between dogma and the outside world. Yet it could apply to any religion: it's hard to rejigger the rules when truth is meant to be fixed forever."

I have a hard time believing that Eduardo Porter, whoever he is, really misunderstands this situation so profoundly, so I have to assume he's just being disingenuous for the sake of rhetoric. Even if Bishop Girotti had been speaking for the Catholic Church, his remarks would not have indicated any "rejiggering" of the rules -- he was merely describing new realities. He wouldn't even have been able to call these modern phenomena "sins" without appealing to the lasting principles which undergird the Church's understanding of sin, in this age and every other.

And by the way, Mr. Porter, the truth isn't meant to be fixed forever. It is fixed forever.


Tim said...

you should write a letter to the times

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Festes said...

I am a catholic also and the new sins listed by the church are a joke.I have a blog about sin at Would love to read any comments you have about it.Go have a look see...

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