Is it time to revise “The Seven Deadly Sins” for the 21st century?

This afternoon, I concluded my winter lecture series on “The Seven Deadly Sins–A Comparative Study” at St. Ambrose University. This posting is a brief summary of some of the salient points we discussed during our last session.

The Vatican posted the following list of modern sins that characterize our era’s for evil.

(1) genetic modification, (2) human experimentation (3) polluting the environment (4) social injustice (5) causing poverty (6) financial gluttony (7) taking drugs.

A Brief Analysis of the Vatican’s List

It is interesting to note that in the original seven, each of the sins were attitudinal in nature; the  fact that the Vatican switched from an attitudinal model to a behavioral model is pretty interesting–even somewhat Judaic–for Jewish moralists have long viewed sin in behavioral terms. Take coveting for example, for the biblical proscription, “You shall not covet” does not pertain merely to the feeling of coveting, but acting upon the impulse that covets. Two of the best examples is the story of David and Bathsheba and when King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard. In both of these cases, the end result was deadly for the victim whose property was coveted.

Yet, make no mistake, the attitudinal sins championed by some Jewish moralists–especially according to the anonymous author of the Orchot HaTsadikim (ca. 15th century)–believe (like the Christian moralists of his time) that the attitudinal sins are by far more serious because they provide the seeds that give rise to evil behavior.

Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican body which oversees confessions and plenary indulgences, said that “new sins which have appeared on the horizon of humanity as a corollary of the unstoppable process of globalisation.” Whereas sin in the past was thought of as being an individual matter, it now had “social resonance.” “You offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting your neighbor’s wife, but also by ruining the environment, carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments, or allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA or compromise embryos,” he said. Bishop Girotti said that mortal sins also included taking or dealing in drugs, and social injustice which caused poverty or “the excessive accumulation of wealth by a few.” [1]

A Catholic Critique of the New Deadly Sins

Some Catholic scholars expressed some disappointment with the new list of sins. One pundit writes:

If one believes that these transgressions did not exist in feudal Europe when the power of the Vatican was at its zenith, then one is turning a blind eye to history. Environment pollution and taking drugs are punishable by law therefore need not be left to Divine retribution. To call genetic modification and human experimentation “sins” is myopic. It is a step back to the ages when Galileo was tried for heresy and had his eyes put out. If the new seven deadly sins are baffling, then the reasons for declaring them are even more so. If the Catholic Church wants to stem its dwindling flock, then it has to take a more inclusive approach to diversity rather than brand diversity as heresy. It needs to take a leaf out of Hinduism in this regard. Continue reading “Is it time to revise “The Seven Deadly Sins” for the 21st century?”