Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Sometimes it’s amusing when the mainstream media tries to grapple with a story involving the church. A recent case in point was the interview that Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, gave to the Vatican newspaper on the social impact of sin in a globalized world.
In the interview titled ""Le Nuove Forme del Peccato Sociale,"" journalist Nicola Gori asked the prelate what he thought are the new sins of the modern era.
Archbishop Girotti responded: ""There are various areas in which today we can see sinful attitudes in relation to individual and social rights.... Above all in the area of bio-ethics, in which we cannot fail to denounce certain violations of the fundamental rights of human nature, by way of experiments, genetic manipulation, the effects of which are difficult to prevent and control.""
""Another area, a social issue, is the issue of drug use, which debilitates the psyche and darkens the intelligence.” He also mentioned social inequality: ""by which the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer, feeding an unsustainable social injustice,"" and the ""area of ecology.""
Among the more ludicrous headlines were: “Vatican introduces more ways to sin,” “Seven More Sins, Thanks to Vatican,” and my personal favourite, “Recycle or go to Hell, warns Vatican.”
Reports that the Vatican has published a new list of the seven deadly sins are simply not true.
Sin is an objective wrong: a violation of God’s law. What is sinful today will be sinful tomorrow, and a deadly sin will remain deadly, whether or not newspaper journalists recognize the moral danger. The traditional list of deadly sins remains intact; nothing has replaced it. Greed, gluttony and lust are as wrong today as they were yesterday or a century ago.
A sin is not a sin simply because an archbishop proclaims it so. Sin, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience...” Reason and truth do not shift in response to political trends, nor do they change at the whim of Vatican officials.
We need to recover a sense of sin and an appreciation that sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a “social sin.”
Personal honesty and the maintenance of a modest standard of personal possessions are somewhat easy matters to face relative to the demands on the Catholic conscience created by a social order not of one’s making. However, living at peace with one’s conscience in the midst of nationwide or global injustice makes individual believers wonder how they can seek liberty and justice for all. As a formula of words it is easy. Advancing it as a social reality is hard.
The fact is that the goals of any modern state for its people - such as literacy, education, nourishment, health care, employment, affordable housing, child care, and care for the elderly - can be accomplished only communally, that is, at the level of society. Even in cultures where the fabric of family or clan has remained strong, there is no other way in the larger society than the communal way.
We have no record in either testament of Sacred Scripture of a morality that is purely individual. It is always social. Its implications for others go concurrently with its implications for the individual who chooses. The Bible is at the same time never committed to the emotions or the will or the two together as the sole locus of decision. There are always reasons of the head for or against a line of conduct On the basis of these reasons one makes a choice. They can be eminently good reasons or just as readily bad ones: the noblest unconcern for the self or the lowest motives of self-interest. Passion, ambition, and covetousness, or conscience, altruism, and duty may enter in. But there are always reasons.
Characteristic of our present age is the confusion in the popular mind over precisely what is right and what is wrong. Our culture is in a state of lamentable uncertainty. Feeling has so overtaken thinking that it is almost a heresy to suppose that one can do hard thinking about a right course of action.
Good moral arguments are few and far between. As a friend of mine says: “When moral claims are put forward they are likely to be soft-headed without the redeeming value of being pure-hearted.”
The public forums for discussion that different audiences attend to - television panels, talk shows and radio call-in programs, newspaper columns - almost never entertain a good argument (in the sense of a logical one) about a correct way of acting. You get shouting matches based on opposite understanding of terms, a constant begging of the question, an appeal to parallel cases, but seldom a demonstrative argument. Any one who holds an ethical position with conviction, particularly if it includes infringement on a person’s untrammelled freedom, is likely to be declared dogmatic or worse.
In the midst of all the woolly-headed banter about what to do and why in order to live a fully human life, maybe we ought to talk more about personal sin and the destructive research on human embryos, the degradation of the environment, the disparity between rich and poor, and drug trafficking.
Wishing you all the best, I remain,
Sincerely yours in Christ,
☩ Frederick Henry