As an example of how the media sometimes can get a story wrong, or at least confuse things unnecessarily, witness the story from the March 8 issue of L’Osservatore Romano, which included an 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. The media’s reporting, however, transmogrified this into something different. "Seven New Deadly Sins," wrote the Times Online, mistaking the main point of the interview, which was that these new social sins were in fact different in nature for those more individualist "deadly sins," which focused more on regulating a variety of human passions. "Vatican Lists New Sinful Behavior," wrote the Associated Press, as if accumulating excessive wealth hadn’t been already condemned by the church for centuries, and, before that by--well, Jesus for one. My guess is that some in the media bobbled this story for two reasons, neither of them malicious. First, a general unfamiliarity with the contemporary Catholic tradition of social sin, even though under Pope John Paul II something like "anti-Semitism" was often referred to in those terms. And, second, the fact that a headline that reads "Seven New Deadly Sins" is undeniably sexier than a headline saying, "Vatican Official Deepens Church’s Reflection on Longstanding Tradition of Social Sin." 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. 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. Update: Here’s NPR’s take on the situation, along with some commentary by your blogger: "NPR" James Martin, SJ

Comments

Anonymous | 6/8/2011 - 2:47am
Thanks for your post
Anonymous | 3/12/2008 - 11:00am
In response to Dave's comment, I wonder if a distinction can be drawn between great wealth fairly earned and held in a kind of stewardship (which might include the Gates Foundation) and great wealth in essence stolen (by exploiting consumers, cheating competitors, etc.) and used in a purely selfish way. Rich people who endow hospitals, schools, libraries, and homeless shelters are arguably serving as stewards of their wealth. People who buy expensive jewelry for their dogs are arguably 'excessive.' I would not presume to judge individual cases, but I think there are legitimate differences among the wealthy.
Anonymous | 3/12/2008 - 10:36am
As a Catholic, I am apalled by some of the churches teachings. Amassing extreme wealth is a sin? Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey must be going to hell then. Hmm, isn't the Catholic churh one of the wealthiest institutions in the world? The Church has amassed massive wealth. Hypocrital.
Anonymous | 3/11/2008 - 9:51pm
Fr. Martin, I can understand you example of the executive as far as that goes, but what about the executive's secretary? She too participates in the company because her salary comes from earnings that result from polluting the environment, engaging in unfair hiring practices, or not paying a fair wage. Yet she may have no control over any of these actions. What about the hourly worker who pollutes the environment as a result of his work? What about the corporate employee who benefits as a result of a salesperson lying to or bribing a client? None of these people had any intent to sin, but they all 'participated' in organizations in which others sinned. Are they all morally culpable? While we certainly have some obligation when we witness questionable behavior first hand we also cannot be held responsible for the actions of the thousands of other people in our organizations. To even talk about 'institutions that sin,' paints the situation with too broad a brush.
Anonymous | 3/12/2008 - 9:22am
To Mr. Bangert: Those are all excellent questions. I'm not a moral theologian, but I would suggest that our degree of culpability rests, in part, on how cognizant we are of the effects of our actions. That is, if the secretary fully understands that she is contributing to a grossly unethical corporation, then I would suppose that she has some soul-searching to do. Part of her paycheck, after all, is coming from the fruits of the 'bad tree.'
Anonymous | 3/11/2008 - 8:03pm
Father Martin wrote: 'Among those he mentioned were economic injustice, environmental irresponsibility, accumulation of excessive wealth and genetic experimentation with unforeseen consequences.' The media's excited utterances aside, it seems to me that most of these *new* sins aren't really new, although definitely newsworthy. Using Fr. Martin's examples: As Catholic Christians, we are called to fight poverty and to fight for justice (economic injustice); in Genesis, mankind is given stewardship of the earth, and Jesus' parables and the apostolic teachings provide guidance on the nature and importance of stewardship; the 'accumulation of excessive wealth' is close cousin to avarice (greed), which has long been on The List of Big Ones (mortal sins). With the exception of 'genetic experimentation,' I don't really see any *new* sins appearing on the list released by the Vatican. I don't recall when drug abuse made its appearance on the list of 'sins' but I remember being taught (and I'm of Baltimore Catechism age!) that we are created by God, and to abuse God's creation is to degrade the creation and the Creator. It seems that the list of 'social' sins is basically an updated version of venial sins with an enhanced global perspective. Thank you, Father Martin, for your clear and common-sense response to the media's overreaction. Debbie
Anonymous | 3/11/2008 - 7:49pm
This is an ideology that I admire from the Catholic Church of my youth. I think it is of enormous importance that we consider the implications of our actions, and those include supporting organizations that commit 'sins' against human rights, the environment, the innocent. Interestingly, this is precisely the reason that I no longer participate in or support the Catholic Church. In that respect, I suppose, the Church can consider this 'lapsed' Catholic a successful product of her upbringing.
Anonymous | 3/11/2008 - 5:16pm
Our local newscasters in Dallas/Fort Worth referred to the new sins as 'mortal' sins. I had to explain to my wife the difference between mortal and venial sins because she thought I was crazy when I yelled back at the TV and said the new sins aren't mortal sins.
Anonymous | 3/11/2008 - 2:48pm
To Mr. Watson: Yes, indeed. It is in that 'participation' that we can sin. That is, if you are a corporate executive who is participating (by earning profits) in a company that is polluting the environment, engaging in unfair hiring practices, or not paying a fair wage, then this is something to consider seriously when you think about your own sinfulness. And you're also right about this not being one of the traditional seven 'deadly' sins (though you could ascribe it to greed, which is one). My point was that the media had wrongly conflated the traditional 'deadly' sins with the new addition of 'social sin.' But to push the point even further, perhaps these new sins are, in their own unique way, 'deadly.'
Anonymous | 3/12/2008 - 1:52am
Like Kate, all reflective Catholics must recognize and admit the failings of the Church when measured against its own teachings. Yet despite the shame, I cannot abandon the ship I believe holds the greatest treasures (of faith) and which is guided by the fully billowed sails of the Spirit. The errant steering of imperfect captains does not compromise the integrity and soundness of the ship itself or the true path on which it is set. The fact that its (moral) course is publicly pronounced, with clarifications as needed, is a witness to its trust in that abiding Wind and an ever extended invitation for all to climb aboard.
Anonymous | 3/11/2008 - 3:10pm
I think one could ascribe almost any corporate action with negative consequences to one of the original deadlies, which underlines your point concerning 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.'
Anonymous | 3/11/2008 - 1:12pm
Fr. Martin, You stated that: '...participation in institutions that themselves sin is an important point upon which believers needed to reflect.' Because sin, venial or mortal, requires some sort of willing act, institutions cannot sin. Unless, of course, you mean that it is participation in an evil act, which is surely something upon which to reflect. But, why would that involve a deadly sin? Not that corporations going to hell is not an interesting thought experiment...
Anonymous | 3/20/2008 - 6:06am
Kevin Mulcahy's comment typifies the muddleheaded equivocation that passes for analysis these days in some circles. He begins by wondering if a distinction can be drawn; then abrogates the means to do just that in his last sentence by suspending judgment (the mental tool required to make distinctions). He claims that some earners of wealth have his blessing while others "arguably" use their wealth in an "excessive" way? The question to ask Kevin and all the other moral posers out there who think they're in a better position to determine what other people do with their own money is this: Whose business is it of yours? And, if you actually want to make a case for interference, how long do you think it will take (your lifetime, your children's lifetimes?) before your chickens come home to roost?
Anonymous | 3/13/2008 - 7:09pm
Wasn't it our current Pope who gave Gucci shoes to a homeless shelter? And decided to have a calendar made of himself -- twelve pictures of just him? When this Pope is more in touch with real life and not quite so impressed with himself, I'll listen to him. Too bad he couldn't say something grand about how much God loves us, because that has been sorely lacking in the teachings of The Church. All of my life The Roman Catholic Church (I am Catholic -- not a very 'good' one obviously) has been about "Just wait until your father gets home, you bad kid!" I still miss Pope John, XXIII. By the way, Fr. Martin, I read your interview in The Social Edge e-mag. Great interview. I'm going to read your books.