Traditional seven deadlies apply to environmental ethics

By  Ian Hunter, Catholic Register Special
  • March 25, 2008

{mosimage}The bellwether of the Canadian consensus, The National with Peter Mansbridge, recently played up the story of the Vatican allegedly proclaiming a new list of deadly sins. The implication was that the old seven — pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth — just didn’t cut it today, so Rome had invented new sins to lay upon gullible believers.

Well, why not? In CBC-land everything to do with the church is a subject for ridicule. The image of penitents, dressed in black and clutching their rosaries, forming a line outside the confessional awaiting their turn to lament their role in genetic manipulation or environmental degradation is, admittedly, pretty rich. Alas, the real story is more prosaic if less newsworthy.

What really happened was that one Vatican bishop (Gianfranco Girotti of the Apostolic Penitentiary, an office that deals with questions relating to penance and indulgences) was asked by the Vatican newspaper l’Osservatore Romano what should be considered “new sins” of the 21st century. The bishop mentioned several issues like genetic experimentation, bioethics and the environment.

The first news report I heard (not on the CBC) claimed the Pope had abolished the seven deadly sins (although since he didn’t invent them, it was nor clear to me how he could abolish them) and replaced them instead with “sins against the environment.” Had David Suzuki or Al Gore staged a coup at the Vatican, I wondered?

It was St. John Cassian, a fourth-century monk, who composed the first list of “deadly sins”; Cassian actually had eight on his list, including dejection (tristitia), but a century later Pope Gregory the Great, the man who said his own writings were as bran compared to St. Augustine’s wheat, pared the list to seven, all of which he said derived from pride.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1994 under the authority of Pope John Paul ll, says nothing about seven (or any) “deadly” sins; rather, the catechism divides sin by gravity into “mortal” or “venial” sins. Mortal sin is conduct which, by destroying charity, turns one definitively away from God; venial sin is conduct which offends God’s will but allows charity to subsist. The catechism does make passing reference to “capital” sins, “those which engender other sins and vices,” and the list of capital sins is identical to the eight originally propounded by St. John Cassian.

Catholic teaching, of course, includes personal confession and absolution through a priest, who in the act of forgiving sins stands in personam Christi; today it is estimated that fewer than half of the world’s Catholics actually go to Confession.

Malcolm Muggeridge once said that the Ten Commandments were rather like an examination paper — eight only to be attempted. Many of us would like to consider the seven (or eight) deadly sins in the same light.

Lust is the deadly sin which draws the headlines, as now former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer recently discovered, after the allegations linking him to a high-priced prostitution ring. It is also the one which makes the greatest appeal to the imagination. Who would really wish to be a glutton or a sloth? But to be surrounded by a harem, to have women at one’s beck and call — well, Hugh Hefner built a publishing empire by indulging that particular fantasy.

Like the Ten Commandments, the deadly sins are clear and uncompromising. We may not today covet our neighbour’s donkey, but we all know what envy and covetousness are and how debilitating they can be. There’s not much ambiguity in “Thou shalt not steal,” nor wiggle-room in “Thou shalt not kill.”

Perhaps it is the clarity of the commandments and the deadly sins that render them so unpalatable to moderns. Like our investments, we want our morality hedged; we judge our own conduct situationally. We think that Moses should have brought down from Mount Sinai 10 ethical options.

As the big sign outside St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in London (where I used to be a parishioner) says: “Living the Questions”; we are all more comfortable living the questions than living the answers.

No doubt Bishop Girotti’s 21st-century “sins” nod more to political correctness than Scripture. They are less controversial than the old deadly sins; outside the remoter corners of the blogosphere one doesn’t encounter proponents of environmental degradation or racial injustice.

If only the still, small voice within, the voice that knows the seven deadly sins so intimately, could be as quiet.

(Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario in London.)

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