The sin in the news last month

Fish lie dead in oil in Bay Jimmy near Port Sulpher, La., June 20. (CNS/Reuters/Sean Gardner)

Earth and Spirit

On July 15 the Vatican updated its norms for dealing with sex abuse of minors by priests. In the same document it says that the “attempted ordination of women” is as grave an offense against the sacrament of Holy Orders as is pedophilia. Both sins are upgraded to “delicta graviora” status.

On July 7, national Christian, Jewish and Muslim church leaders cruised through the oil-fouled Barataria Bay in Louisiana and came away saying that the BP oil gusher looks to them not only like an accident but also a sin.

“From my perspective, it’s an insult to God and a sin against creation,” said the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest and environmentalist from San Francisco. “This is not a spill; it’s a spoilage of God’s creation,” said Jim Wallis.

The concept of sin is as Catholic as holy water or incense.

The catechism says sin is “an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man [sic] and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.’ ”

Request a complimentary sample of our award-winning newspaper.

In 2008, Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican body that oversees confessions and plenary indulgences, after a weeklong Lenten seminar for priests said that priests must take account of “new sins that have appeared on the horizon of humanity as a corollary of the unstoppable process of globalization.”

“You offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting your neighbor’s wife,” Girotti said, “but also by ruining the environment, carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments, or allowing genetic manipulations that alter DNA or compromise embryos.”

What’s more, after 1,500 years, the Vatican has brought the seven deadly sins up to date by adding seven new ones for the age of globalization. The list was published in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. The new deadly sins include polluting, genetic engineering, being obscenely rich, drug-dealing, abortion, pedophilia and causing social injustice.

Although there is no definitive list of mortal sins, many believers accept the broad seven deadly sins or capital vices laid down in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great and popularized in the Middle Ages by Dante in The Inferno: lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and pride.

Christians are exhorted instead to adhere to the seven holy virtues: chastity, abstinence, temperance, diligence, patience, kindness and humility.

These broad category sins were called “deadly” because they were considered to be fatal to spiritual progress. Indeed they truly are terminally venomous when we trade those pursuits that yield rich and deeply satisfying returns for quick gratification, when we abandon the constant illumination of the gentle candle of contemplation, or the self-emptying and fastings that a deeper spirituality requires of us.

Interestingly, pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth probably comprise the majority of motives found on television and in movies, and account for the background attitudes in nearly all of our advertising.

These seven motivating character traits were featured by Karl Menninger in his psychiatric analysis of the American national character, and have even given their collective name to a subtle perfume.

Individuals’ sins, as Girotti said, do have ecological and social resonance.

No doubt most all of the deadly sevens contribute to our overdependence on fossil fuels. Pride and envy reinforce the rugged individualism that keeps us in our own personal vehicles instead of opting for more sensible public transport. Gluttony, lust and greed do their own corrosive motivational work. Add in sloth, and you have the result that we collectively burn 378 million gallons of gasoline a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Office.

The complex cultural pathology that underlies this sin has taken on the appearance of necessity, and that makes it even more deadly.

It also could be said that similar pathology underlies the Vatican’s insistence that an exclusively male priesthood is a necessity as well.

The traditional punishments for the seven deadlies included being broken on the wheel for pride; put in freezing water to deal with envy; being forced to eat rats, toads and snakes to cure gluttony; a smothering in fire and brimstone to temper lust; a toss into a writhing snake pit to counter sloth; and live dismemberment to put an end to anger.

These days we just have to watch the news, or go to church on Sunday.

[Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is]


Looking for comments?

We've suspended comments on for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.