Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The End of Individual Responsibility?

I guess speed is of the essence in journalism: I mentioned yesterday that a student reporter for the Ohio University student newspaper was working on a story about the "updated" list of mortal sins proposed by Msgr. Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the Vatican Penitentiary, but the New York Times beat her to it, publishing an OpEd piece on the proposal even while she was canvassing my colleagues in Classics and World Religions for their take on the matter.

According to Eduardo Porter, author of the Times piece, the theme in this is a movement away from individualistic sorts of sins of the kind that might typify an agrarian society to more, shall we say, "corporate" sins of the sort that are often claimed to afflict the society of the 21st century. Now, the famous list of mortal sins (pride, envy, lust, etc.) could easily be cashed out in such a way that so-called "corporate" sins fall under their various rubrics (indeed, that sort of categorization is the very stuff of medieval moral theorizing), but I got the distinct impression that there was more to this movement than mere taxonomy:
Norms encoded hundreds of years ago to guide human behavior in a small-scale agrarian society could not account for a globalized postindustrial information economy. Polluting the environment, drug trafficking, performing genetic manipulations or causing social inequities, new sinful behaviors mentioned by Msgr. Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the Vatican Penitentiary, are arguably more relevant to many contemporary Catholics than contraception.
Ah, yes, of course, contraception. What a surprise to find that the sin of contraception is so very old fashioned as to be no longer relevant to modern Catholics. I don't suppose the prevalence of, say, lust, in contemporary culture could have anything to do with the contemporary Catholic (and, well, let's face it, everyone else's, too) attitude towards the teaching on contraception. It also comes as no surprise that the "new" mortal sins amount to a typical listing of leftist Shibboleths (which is not to deny that some of them probably really are sins, at least when engaged in by individuals).

The rest of Porter's analysis is, on the one hand, certainly correct (religions are like "clubs" in which membership is defined by adherence to certain "rules" of membership; the Vatican is particularly strict in its definition and interpretation of the "rules", etc.) but, on the other hand, hopelessly banal. To be informed that "it could be tricky to update sins in a way that could de-emphasize individual trespasses and shift the focus to social crimes bearing a collective guilt" adds nothing to what everybody already knows and, if anything, is an understatement. Some might go so far as to say that it is literally impossible to shift the focus away from the individual when it comes to determining the nature of sin.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Weren't these "cardinal" sins, in the sense that other sins "hinged" on them? Seems to me the hinges haven't changed.

Of course knowledge of the Catholic traditions of the concept of law, nevermind sin, would be helpful for a reporter, but where would they get that? in a classics department?

But then who looks to the NYT for an accurate description of evolving Catholic thought, right? Still, it would be nice to see it treated well and accurately, instead of the scarcrows and canards we get at present.

Alexander R Pruss said...

What strikes me is that the "new" sins are crucially different from the seven capital sins in that the seven are, precisely, capital: they are the ones from which particular sins flow. The sins listed by Msgr. Girotti all flow from the seven capital sins:

accumulating obscene wealth - greed, envy, pride
polluting the environment - greed, sloth
genetic engineering - envy, greed, pride (depending on case)
drug dealing - greed
abortion - lust, sloth, greed, envy, pride, wrath (depending on the exact motivations)
pedophilia - lust
causing social injustice - greed, envy, pride

So one can see the new list as illustrations of ways that sin damages society.

After having made this list, I was struck by the fact that all but one of the items flowed in part from greed. This suggests that greed's centrality is something to be reckoned with (after all, we are told on the highest authority that silverloving is the root of all evil).

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

Mr. Pruss -
That's because what they're reporting as "new sins" would actually be better described as "theological expert musing on what forms the same ol' sins will take in the modern world."

Same way that watching a pr0n movie is sinful in that it's lust, but it wasn't possible for it to take that form before video...

(on a side note, you wouldn't BELIEVE how many folks I've had try to use this as a club against The Church for "making up new sins")

Apollodorus said...

Interestingly enough, the morning that I first saw the 'new sins' reported on cnn.com, the initial headline mentioned "new sins," but was changed within hours to "sinful behaviors." So at least somebody seems to have taken the point.

That anyone would find the Vatican's attempt to clarify how its sometimes highly abstract moral teachings apply to the problems of the 21st century a cause for criticism is mind-boggling when one recalls how often the Church is attacked for being 'behind the times' and all that. I suppose it's just another case of the phenomenon the Chesterton remarked on: whatever the Church does, it will be criticized by the same people for failing to do the opposite.

Apollodorus said...

Interestingly enough, the morning that I first saw the 'new sins' reported on cnn.com, the initial headline mentioned "new sins," but was changed within hours to "sinful behaviors." So at least somebody seems to have taken the point.

That anyone would find the Vatican's attempt to clarify how its sometimes highly abstract moral teachings apply to the problems of the 21st century a cause for criticism is mind-boggling when one recalls how often the Church is attacked for being 'behind the times' and all that. I suppose it's just another case of the phenomenon the Chesterton remarked on: whatever the Church does, it will be criticized by the same people for failing to do the opposite.