Seven Deadly Social Sins?

Last week, media agencies around the world took an interview with Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti to mean that the Vatican had revised the seven classic deadly sins and added seven new deadly sins to the list.
In particular, they focused on “pollution” as one of the new sins that the archbishop was apparently promulgating for the universal church. Amy Welborn made the helpful point that the media’s interpretation of the interview was not merely a case of perennial anti-Catholic bias, but didn’t hazard a guess as to what might explain it.
I contend that the main thrust behind the media’s argument is that the new sins are social sins rather than personal sins.
It makes sense, from this perspective: If social justice is the primary (or even exclusive) issue, then the most important category of sin is social sin, as opposed to personal sins that violate moral prescripts. In other words, this is an example of media deflection, not dissemination. Following their pattern of thought, social sins — in this new framework — are ultimately sins against society and the common good; from there, it’s a short step to concluding that sins are primarily committed against people in this world, rather than any transcendent deity. This is, of course, exactly the secular worldview, and a way of thinking that dominates contemporary journalism.
What better way to undermine the first two tablets of the Ten Commandments than by adding a third? That way, when the first set of teachings is abandoned, you have something to point to when asked what set of moral norms you do follow.
Furthermore, in skipping ahead to social sin and cutting out personal sin, this new account of the “seven deadly social sins” removes the critical function of personal decisions from the ethical horizon. The traditional moral teaching of the Church has consistently held that sins against the common good and society in general are grave matters, but that same teaching also points out that every social sin is first of all a personal sin of the acting person.
Therefore, the primary antidote to social sin is to nip it in the bud by avoiding personal sin. This important point is missing from the interpretation put forward by the media.
Take, for example, this report from Jennifer Eccleston at CNN:
Although it doesn’t reflect a change in official doctrine, the expansion of sins brought on by technology and science aligns with Pope Benedict XVI’s emphasis on communal rather than individual piety, observers say.
As is often the case, these “observers” remain unnamed. The reporter hears what she wants to and unfairly categorizes the pope’s teaching as emphasizing “communal rather than individual” piety. But an accurate survey of the pope’s teaching reveals a harmony rather than an imbalance between communal and individual responsibility.
Dan Gray, writing for a St. Louis Fox News affiliate, does little better:
The church has announced a new list of “social sins” to go along with the seven deadly sins that have been around for centuries.
The new sins are a more modern concept of sinning created in the past 40 to 50 years.
It is difficult to argue against this spin, because it does represent an incomplete truth: The full gravity of social responsibility received greater attention from papal teaching in the 20th century, prompted in part by new social situations and political theories that directly threatened fundamental human goods.
While it’s true that sins against society can be grave matter, it is not true to claim that these sins have been “created in the past 40 to 50 years.” Annoying as it may be to point out, the Church had this doctrinally figured out well before the 20th century.
But the problem remains: Quotations like the one cited above leave the impression that the Church had been, up to this point, unaware of the possibility of social sin. But if anything, Christianity introduced the idea that even personal sins conflict with the spiritual wellbeing of the mystical body of Christ.
When this connection between individual and social transgression is dismissed, it becomes impossible to identify the ultimate justification for living a moral life. Pollution of the planet, after all, can be wrong not only because it pollutes the common environment of society, but because it dirties the soul of one who chooses such an action. Similarly, drug-dealing is wrong, the Church teaches, not only because it endangers the buyer, but because it poisons the soul of the distributor.
In this manner, the Church logically rules out social sin by setting the bar higher from the start — at the level of personal sin.
Of course, this deeper reality of sin has been ignored by the media pundits, who are now self-righteously congratulating the Church for finally “catching up” with their own enlightened thinking.

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Thomas Peters is the cultural director of the National Organization of Marriage. He blogs at CatholicVote.com as the American Papist.

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