CWN’s Phil Lawler on the stupid coverage of the “new sins list”

From CWN… a look at what the media did about the "news seven sins" 

The Forum: Not "new sins" but an old media blind spot

by Phil Lawler
special to

Mar. 10, 2008 ( – When he finished his interview with L’Osservatore Romano, Archishop Gianfranco Girotti probably thought that his main message had been an appeal to Catholics to use the sacrament of Confession. Little did he know that the English-language news media would play the interview as a newly revised list of sins.

Archbishop Girotti, the regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, spoke to the Vatican newspaper about "new forms of social sin" in our era. He mentioned such transgressions as destructive research on human embryos, degradation of the environment, and drug trafficking. Within hours, dozens of media sources were suggesting that the Vatican had radically revised the Ten Commandments, issuing a list of "new sins."

As usual, a British newspaper leapt to the forefront with the most sensational and misleading coverage. The Daily Telegraph made the preposterous claim that Archbishop Girotti’s list replaced the traditional Catholic understanding of the seven deadly sins:

    It replaces the list originally drawn up by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th Century, which included envy, gluttony, greed, lust, wrath and pride.

Could we have a reality check, please?

When a second-tier Vatican official gives a newspaper interview, he is not proclaiming new Church doctrines. Archbishop Girotti was obviously trying to offer a new, provocative perspective on some enduring truths. The effort backfired– but in a very revealing way.

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.

Sin is an objective wrong: a violation of God’s law. What is sinful today will be sinful tomorrow, and a deadly sin will remain deadly, whether or not Telegraph editors recognize the moral danger. The traditional list of deadly sins remains intact; nothing has replaced it. Greed, gluttony, and lust are as wrong today as they were a day or a year or a century ago. If Archbishop Girotti referred to "new" sins, it is because some of the offenses he named (such as genetic manipulation) were impossible in the past, and others (such as international drug trafficking) are much more prevalent today, in a global society. Insofar as people could have engaged in these activities a century ago, they would have been sinful then as well.

A sin is not a sin because simply an archbishop proclaims it so. Sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us, "is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience…" 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.

The fundamental point of the L’Osservatore Romano interview was that Catholics need to recover a sense of sin, make use of the sacrament of Confession, and receive absolution for their offenses. Sin, the archbishop insisted, is a reality that man cannot escape.

Archbishop Girotti said that the modern world does not understand the nature of sin. With their coverage of the interview, the mass media unintentionally underlined the prelate’s point.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Diane says:

    Chances are, any “new” sins, will already have been covered by the list of 7 sins.

    However, I do think it is good that the Vatican discuss modern behaviors and how they relate back to the 7 sins.

    Setting aside environmental trashing and bioethics for a moment, lets look at cyber-sins. I’ll bet more detraction and calumny take place via mass email than any back porch gossip of yesteryear. Back then a entire village may have learned about someone’s faults.

    Today, it’s out in the world in mere nanoseconds.

    No one much talks about that. Cyber-gossip not a new sin, but an ancient sin cloaked in modernity. The flock would do well to hear from it’s shepherds how deadly that seemingly innocent email, blogpost, or instant message may be.

  2. Diane says:

    Gee, I should think before posting in my post above (now that my anti-spam words remind me)….

    Not “chances are”. Rather it is for certain.

  3. Chironomo says:

    This story, which made it onto “Headline News” yesterday, seemed more of a joke than a serious report. Perhaps they should have had Jeannie Moos do the report, complete with live video footage of her engaging in these new “sins”… and then going to a “priest” for absolution…

    Yes, we all need to consider how technology and the modern world have presented us with new moral challenges, but the idea that we need to have a new list of politically-correct and environmentally sensitive “sins” to replace those older outdated sins that nobody thinks are really sinful anymore (such as adultery, lying, envy, covetousness)is a blatant attack of modernism. Diane is right in saying that all of these new “sins” are certainly covered in the previous concept of sin… the point is to recognize what we do as sinful and ask for forgiveness and mercy.

  4. simeon says:

    Well, I can see why so many people got fooled. Given what’s happened to the rosary, the mass, etc., it seems entirely likely that the Holy See might try to change the seven deadly sins. Just wait for the next pope, we might get “Excessive Carbon Footprint” listed as one of them!

  5. Athanasius says:

    Is there anywhere that we might find the original interview?

  6. Ken says:

    This was a massive public relations failure on the part of the Vatican, sadly, that resulted in the Church looking like a big joke yet again. (I’ve received dozens of e-mails from non-Catholic friends mocking this week’s news. Not helpful.)

    Announcements like this ought to be communicated to press-savy staff before being made public. If, through their eyes, they see that it will appear to be a joke to the world, then for goodness sakes, change the announcement. But these public relations debacles are getting old.

  7. Ken: I think you might not really know what is going on with this.

    This is more a reporting problem than anything else.

  8. Athanasius says:

    This is why I would like to see the original interview, because based on the media report, it would appear that the Cardinal is making bio-ethics something on the same plane as environmental ethics. I’m all for moderate environmentalism, but it is not as grave as the violations against human life.

  9. The 7 deadly sins cover everything. The Media trying to undermine th Church again, go figure.

  10. marcum says:

    So with this, in the spirit of personal interpretation,
    the liberal progressives will advance the cause that if you
    pollute the earth you are committing a deadly sin (image of St. Algore
    illuminates all). I hope the Vatican clarifies this message soon.

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