Deadly sins

10 Mar

The newspapers are today reporting that the Roman Catholic Church has revised the classic list of ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, to include a few more.
It’s worth thinking about: what are these deadly sins, and what makes them deadly?

And what do we think of this whole business of listing sins anyway?

Here is the report …

From The Age newspaper, itself drawing upon The Times of London:

"The Vatican has overhauled its list of mortal sins, adding
several more to cope with the age of globalisation.

The new sins take aim at those who undermine society in far
reaching ways, including by taking or dealing in drugs, polluting
the environment, and engaging in "manipulative" genetic science,
The Times of London reports.

Also new to the list are paedophilia, abortion, and social
injustices that cause poverty or "the excessive accumulation of
wealth by a few".

They join the long-standing evils of lust, gluttony, avarice,
sloth, anger, envy and pride as mortal sins – the gravest kind,
which threaten the soul with eternal damnation unless absolved
before death through confession or penitence. The church’s revised
position came as the Pope lamented the "decreasing sense of sin" in
today’s "secularised world," and falling rates of Roman Catholics
going to confession, The Times reported.

Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary,
the Vatican body which oversees confessions and plenary
indulgences,  …  said priests must take account of "new sins which had
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," he was quoted by The Times as

"You offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting
your neighbour’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

What interests me is the idea that some sins may be ‘mortal’ or deadly, and others not. What can be the basis of such a distinction? Presumably there was a view that certain immoral actions were more serious than others, and would result in divine condemnation, permanently. One wonders what could be the basis of this distinction.

On the other hand, it is surely a good thing to see some official recognition of social injustice as morally abhorrent, especially of the implication that such injustice leads to poverty. All too easily, the list of ‘deadly sins’ has led to an individualistic and sometimes quite small-minded view of morality. It has encouraged the kind of Christianity which avoids individual sins, yet is blind to the systemic suffering cause by repressive social policies, prejudices and inaction in the face of disease, poor housing, and so on. These are indeed, and literally, deadly sins. To ignore, while pretending that one is without fault because one has not committed any of the ‘old’ deadly sins, is in fact to contribute to injustice.

It is good to consider this new list of deadly sins. But there is a further reality here, I want to suggest.All too easily, we focus on what is wrong, in this instance upon a list of ‘sins’. The church is so easily identified as a moral police force, defining who has done which sin, who is to be condemned. None of this fits with the God of the Gospel of Jesus: he came not to condemn, but to call sinners, people who know they have done wrong, people who know their need for a greater moral strength, to a new way.

There is a gospel story where the critics pick at Jesus because he and his followers are not sufficiently fastidious about a particular ritual law. (Matthew 9. 10 – 13). Jesus is guilty of eating and sharing table friendship with ‘tax collectors and sinners’. Jesus pleads guilty. He will have none of this ‘holier than thou’ attitude. He tells them they need to learn the meaning of the statement that God requires mercy not sacrifice. What God wants is people who are humble, even in their acknowledgment that they are not moral saints. Such people will be merciful to one another, not picking out who has done this sin or that sin (deadly or not!)—just as God does not treat us like this. Since God is merciful, not counting our sins against us, so should we also be merciful. More than that, if we are not like that, it is precisely that judgmental and nit-picking stance which destroys life, and destroys us. It is deadly. It misses out on the goodness of life, which God gives to us all.

There are deadly sins; there are ways which deaden life, even as they try to avoid ‘sins’. Let us be merciful, for He came not for the ‘righteous’, but for sinners.

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