By Hilary White

  March 11, 2008 ( – Some of the most prominent English language newspapers in the world – the Times and the Daily Telegraph in London; the Globe and Mail in Canada; the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia; as well as Reuters news agency and ABC News and NPR in the US – have run this week with the story that the “Vatican” has “re-written” the traditional seven deadly sins and offered a “replacement” list. But Catholic journalists and media watch groups have said it is a blatant case of media distortion and the creation of a massive teapot tempest. 

  Within hours of an interview with a Vatican official appearing in L’Osservatore Romano, the news wires were flooded with hundreds of reports. “Vatican updates seven deadly sins”, ABC News offered; from Reuters we have “Vatican lists ‘new sins’, including pollution”; the Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “Vatican updates seven deadly sins”.

  Out (say the news outlets) are lust, greed, gluttony and sloth; in are environmental degradation, “social injustice” and being too wealthy.

  But according to Catholic media experts, the headlines have distorted beyond recognition the original L’Osservatore Romano interview with Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, an official of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican office that oversees the delicate and difficult matters of confession of sins. 

  Catholic author and journalist Phil Lawler said the “media need a reality check”.

“When a second-tier Vatican official gives a newspaper interview, he is not proclaiming new Church doctrines” Lawler said.

  Presenting the comments in the context of a speech by Pope Benedict calling for Catholics to return to the sacrament of confession, Girotti was portrayed as offering a “new list” of sins that would “replace” the traditional theological formulation.

  In reality, Archbishop Girotti was giving some private comments on the application of Catholic teaching to modern conditions. The archbishop gave examples of what he called “new forms of social sin,” including genetic manipulation of human embryos and drug trafficking.

  Girotti also listed “social inequality” and “social injustice” as a “corollary of the unstoppable process of globalization”.

  Girotti, erroneously identified in the media as the “head” of the tribunal, told the interviewer, “If yesterday sin had a rather individualistic dimension, today it has a value, a resonance beyond the individual, above all social, because of the great phenomenon of globalization. In effect, the attention to sin presents itself more urgently today than yesterday, because its consequences are wider and more destructive.”

  Writing for Catholic World News, Lawler said the media’s frenzied reaction has not only distorted what the archbishop said, but the concept of sin as it is understood by Catholics.
“An ordinary reader, basing his opinion only on the inane Telegraph coverage, might conclude that a ‘sin,’ in the Catholic understanding, is nothing more than a violation of rules set down by a group of men in Rome. If these rules are entirely arbitrary, then Vatican officials can change them at will; some sins will cease to exist and other ‘new sins’ will replace them. But that notion of sin is ludicrous.”

  Lawler continued, “A sin is not a sin because simply an archbishop proclaims it so…The precepts of ‘reason, truth, and right conscience’ do not shift in response to political trends, nor do they change at the whim of Vatican officials.”

  Also known as the capital vices or cardinal sins, the “seven deadlies” are a theological classification of vices first formulated by St. Gregory the Great in the 6th Century AD. In the original Latin they are Luxuria (extravagance, later lust), Gula (gluttony), Avaritia (greed), Acedia (sloth), Ira (wrath), Invidia (envy), and Superbia (pride). They are countered by their opposite virtues: chastity, abstinence, temperance, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

  Many Catholic thinkers and writers have strongly criticised the concept of “social sin” popularized by the leftist “progressive” wing of the Church since the beginning of the social revolution of the 1960’s. Trendy among dissenting Marxist-inspired “liberation” theologians, the notion of social or “corporate” sin such as “social injustice” or “systemic inequality” has been largely discredited.

  The Church continues to hold that sin is an act by an individual contrary to the will of God, that can be absolved after the sinner makes a valid confession. Critics have said that the idea of “social sin” such as “environmental degradation” is one for which no one individual can be held to account and that therefore becomes largely meaningless for the greater majority.

  Read an English translation of the original L’Osservatore Romano interview:
  (Adobe required)