Roman Catholic Church has not redefined Seven Deadly Sins: Archbishop

By Jim Coggins

MAINSTREAM media around the world have announced an apparent change in the Roman Catholic doctrine of sin, publishing news stories under such titles as 'New and improved ways to go to hell' and 'Vatican introduces new deadly sins.' Later commentators suggested the coverage sometimes amounted to "anti-Christian rhetoric" and journalists seizing an opportunity to "ridicule the church."

The controversy began after a Vatican bureaucrat, Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, was asked by a reporter for the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano to define "New Forms of Social Sin." In an article published March 10, Girotti mentioned issues such as embryonic stem cell research, drug abuse, environmental pollution and amassing wealth at the expense of the poor.

Paul Schratz, editor of the BC Catholic, told CC.com such discussions are very common during Lent. It is a time when "many priests are asking their flocks to take an inner look and engage their own sinfulness," he said.

Capital sins

The problem occurred, Schratz said, when the mainstream media took Girotti's comments "on an awkward new tangent" and said the Church was either replacing the Seven Deadly Sins or adding new sins to an already onerous list of moral obligations.

The Seven Deadly Sins -- pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth -- have no official standing in Roman Catholic theology. They were apparently formulated by a fourth-century monk named St. John Cassian and refined by Pope Gregory the Great. The Catholic Catechism mentions these only briefly as "capital sins" which "engender other sins and vices."

Publication of Archbishop Girotti's statements coincided with the March 12 release of a pastoral letter called 'Our Relationship with the Environment: The Need for Conversion' by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Brendan M. O'Brien, Archbishop of Kingston, was one of the four bishops who authored the statement. He told CC.com the statement argues for the need for a conversion, or change of heart, to recognize the "moral implications" of environmental damage. The document calls this a rupture with "our environment, our neighbour and God."

The timing was a coincidence, said O'Brien, as the document had been in the works for a year and is a follow-up to a 2003 document called 'The Christian Ecological Imperative' and a variety of other statements in recent years. The Catholic Church has always had a strong social conscience about such issues, he said.

Archbishop Daniel J. Bohan of Regina, another of the authors, told CC.com the doctrine is not new since it "goes back to the biblical understanding of humanity's responsibility for creation." The issue may be receiving more attention now, he said, because "we are becoming more aware of the damage we have done to the environment."

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Talk about sin

Some of the negative reaction in the press can be attributed to the fact that "our modern society doesn't like to talk about sin," said Bohan. He said the "church has become unpopular" because it continues to confront people with the immorality of their "willfully destructive" behaviour.

Destruction of the environment is essentially based in the "deadly sin" of greed, he added. That is, it is based on the desire to have more regardless of the impact on the poor in our own country, the poor in other countries and future generations. It is a failure to love one's neighbour.

Schratz agreed there is "less of a sense of personal sin" today among both society at large and Catholics in particular. It has been observed, he said, that "the line-up for communion is getting longer and the line-up for confession is getting shorter."

It is important for the church to provide moral teaching, said O'Brien, because people have lost a common understanding of right and wrong. People prefer to decide moral issues for themselves and resent the church or anyone else telling them what they should be doing, he said.

That is characteristic of "the extreme individualism of our society," said Bohan. However, "if everyone decided for themselves what was right and wrong, we would have a very chaotic society. That was the sin of Adam and Eve -- they wanted to decide for themselves what is right and wrong."

Thus, while the imperative to care for creation goes back to Genesis, so does human failure to obey that imperative. "The story in Genesis is a marvellous illustration of the destructiveness of sin," said Bohan. "Everything falls apart when people want to be God."

"I think we've got some major evangelistic work to do," said Schratz, "not just in society but with our own people." In that sense, he said, the controversy may have been helpful because it may have "made a few people look at their own state."

O'Brien suggested the negative reaction to the recent statements on sin may illustrate a serious problem: "We often try to get people to follow the moral teaching before they have a solid relationship with Christ. We need to help people develop a deeper Christian spirituality. Then the moral standards would make more sense."

Related stories:

Man's timeless sins
This week, The National with Peter Mansbridge played up the story of the Vatican proclaiming a new list of deadly sins. The implication was that the old seven -- pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth -- just didn't cut it today, so Rome had invented new sins to lay upon gullible believers. Well, why not? In CBC-land, everything to do with the Church is a fit subject for ridicule. Alas, the real story is more prosaic, if less newsworthy.
Ian Hunter, National Post, March 14

If the list of Deadly Sins keeps growing, soon there will be no room in hell
Social injustice, polluting among latest additions
Shelley Fralic, Vancouver Sun, March 15

March 20/2008