There was a certain bracing beauty about the original seven deadly sins--pride, gluttony, melancholy (which was dropped in the 17th century in favor of sloth), lust, greed, envy and anger--which among them could account for virtually all the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind. Anger gives rise to violence; gluttony to waste; pride to every manner of tragedy and hurt. They were judged sufficient for the past 15 centuries, ever since they were cataloged by Pope Gregory the Great, with an assist from Thomas Aquinas and Dante.
But not anymore. "We are losing the notion of sin," Pope Benedict XVI warns, as attendance at confession plummets. The culture celebrates what once it sanctioned: parents encourage pride as essential to self-esteem; a group of self-rising French chefs has petitioned the Vatican that being a gourmand is no sin. Envy is the engine of tabloid culture. Lust is an advertising strategy; anger, the righteous province of the aggrieved. Most days I'd give anything for some sloth. It was the moral philosopher Mae West who observed that "to err is human, but it feels divine." (She also advised, "When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I never tried before.")
So one can understand the impulse of the Vatican to stress a broader range of sins for the modern age. Gianfranco Girotti, the No. 2 Catholic official in charge of confessions and penitence, told the Vatican's newspaper, "You offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting your neighbor's wife" but also by polluting, cloning, taking drugs, promoting social injustice or becoming obscenely rich. Where the standard sins are individual failings, in a global culture sin is social. "Attention to sin is a more urgent task today," Girotti said, "precisely because its consequences are more abundant and more destructive."
The bishop suggested that the realm of biotechnology was especially dangerous, which reflects church teaching that destroying an embryo equates with murder. But the original mortal sins had as much to do with attitudes as with acts. Greed might lead to theft, lust to adultery, but the sin began in the heart. Yet modern research does not seem wicked to many suffering patients or the doctors who hope to cure them; the church's sin is their salvation. Likewise the accumulation of excessive wealth: leave aside the historical irony of this charge issuing from the Vatican. What do we make of Bill Gates, the Great Acquisitor, who, as a philanthropist, is now arguably the greatest individual force for good around the world? Does it not seem as if he has grasped the eternal somewhere along the way?
Then there is the question of punishment. In Dante's purgatory, the punishment for envy was to have your eyes sewn shut with iron wire. But these were personal punishments for individual crimes. When societies sin--dismissing the poor, despoiling the planet--who, exactly, should pay, and how? I am responsible for the lies I tell or the fries I crave and have a duty to give to the poor. But what about social injustice? How do I dissect the sources to find the sin? I try not to litter, but I have to drive. Am I a sinner on days I fail to carpool?
This is the most confounding part of the notion of social sin. Sin, unlike crime or folly, is a spiritual notion: for Muslim or Jew or Christian, sin is the saboteur that keeps us from grace, separates us from God. The new list is about what separates us from one another; it makes abstract the failings that once were intimate and in the process may make sin smaller, not bigger or more relevant. Private faith already speaks to public duty, as Mohandas Gandhi suggested with his version of the seven deadly sins: "Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, commerce without morality and worship without sacrifice." The responsibility rests with the individual, but that includes the duty to take care of others as well as your own soul.
(*) Nancy Gibbs, Time, March 24, 2008