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Not "new sins" but an old media blind spot March 11, 2008

When he finished his interview with L'Osservatore Romano, Archishop Gianfranco Girotti probably thought that his main message had been an appeal to Catholics to use the sacrament of Confession. Little did he know that the English-language news media would play the interview as a newly revised list of sins.

Archbishop Girotti, the regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, spoke to the Vatican newspaper about "new forms of social sin" in our era. He mentioned such transgressions as destructive research on human embryos, degradation of the environment, and drug trafficking. Within hours, dozens of media sources were suggesting that the Vatican had radically revised the Ten Commandments, issuing a list of "new sins."

As usual, a British newspaper leapt to the forefront with the most sensational and misleading coverage. The Daily Telegraph made the preposterous claim that Archbishop Girotti's list replaced the traditional Catholic understanding of the seven deadly sins:

It replaces the list originally drawn up by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th Century, which included envy, gluttony, greed, lust, wrath and pride.

Could we have a reality check, please?

When a second-tier Vatican official gives a newspaper interview, he is not proclaiming new Church doctrines. Archbishop Girotti was obviously trying to offer a new, provocative perspective on some enduring truths. The effort backfired-- but in a very revealing way.

An ordinary reader, basing his opinion only on the inane Telegraph coverage, might conclude that a "sin," in the Catholic understanding, is nothing more than a violation of rules set down by a group of men in Rome. If these rules are entirely arbitrary, then Vatican officials can change them at will; some sins will cease to exist and other "new sins" will replace them. But that notion of sin is ludicrous.

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 Telegraph editors 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 a day or a year or a century ago. If Archbishop Girotti referred to "new" sins, it is because some of the offenses he named (such as genetic manipulation) were impossible in the past, and others (such as international drug trafficking) are much more prevalent today, in a global society. Insofar as people could have engaged in these activities a century ago, they would have been sinful then as well.

A sin is not a sin because simply an archbishop proclaims it so. Sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us, "is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience…" The precepts of "reason, truth, and right conscience" do not shift in response to political trends, nor do they change at the whim of Vatican officials.

The fundamental point of the L'Osservatore Romano interview was that Catholics need to recover a sense of sin, make use of the sacrament of Confession, and receive absolution for their offenses. Sin, the archbishop insisted, is a reality that man cannot escape.

Archbishop Girotti said that the modern world does not understand the nature of sin. With their coverage of the interview, the mass media unintentionally underlined the prelate's point.

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