Monday, 10 March 2008

Sins of the Press

"Failing to recycle plastic bags could find you spending eternity in Hell" warned the Telegraph this morning, pointing to a revised list of seven "deadly sins" drawn up by a Vatican insider. Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, a "close ally of the Pope", told the statelet's official newspaper that the old, familiar list had too individualistic a flavour "The sins of today have a social resonance as well as an individual one," he said. So instead of pride, anger, gluttony and everyone's favourite sin, lust, we now have to avoid genetic modification, carrying out experiments on humans, polluting the environment, causing social injustice, causing poverty, becoming obscenely wealthy and taking drugs.

It's a very strange list. Most of the items on it aren't individual sins at all. It's quite easy to avoid being responsible for genetic modification, after all, unless you happen to work at the Roslin Institute. The old sins were about personal excess. Instead, we get a rag-bag of fashionable platitudes, left wing simple-mindedness and anti-science bigotry. It is intellectually vacuous to a quite staggering degree.

Take "becoming obscenely wealthy". Now, it's true that Jesus Christ thought it was easier for a camel, and all that. But the Bible also teaches that it's the "love of money", not money itself, that is at the root of all evil. Becoming obscenely wealthy is only sinful (from a theological point of view) if you spend the money on sinful things. Or keep it all to yourself. The church would be better off encouraging people who are obscenely wealthy to give their money to good causes. And where, come to think of it, would the Roman Catholic Church be today were it not for generations of obscenely wealthy people who were persuaded (perhaps through threat of hellfire) to give it to them?

"Avarice" was as much a moral concept as a material one. Hoarding money was simply an expression of an underlying corruption of the spirit, a poisoning of the well of human sympathy that comes from investing one's emotion in material objects. You don't have to be a Catholic, or even remotely religious, to grasp the danger of that.

"Social injustice", on the other hand, is a phenomenon with highly complex causes. No-one individual can be said to "cause" it; and while it's perfectly right for the church to urge people to work towards its elimination, that has nothing whatever to do with "sin".

I wonder what's really going on with this list. It's hard to imagine as traditionally minded a figure as Pope Ratzinger promoting the sort of headline-grabbing initiative more usually associated with the Church of England. And from the reports I've seen, Girotti was merely talking in general terms about sinful behaviour, rather than drawing up an official list. In fact, he was answering questions posed by an interviewer in L'Osservatore Romano, so the likelihood is that he was making it up as he went along. But, with the usual media hype, we're led to believe that the Vatican "announced" that, henceforce (as the Telegraph headline put it) "Recycle or go to Hell!".

I wouldn't just single out the Telegraph, although they seem to have been first out of the blocks. The BBC went even further overboard with their theologically illiterate and quite frankly ludicrous report:

The Vatican has brought up to date the traditional seven deadly sins by adding seven modern mortal sins it claims are becoming prevalent in what it calls an era of "unstoppable globalisation".

Those newly risking eternal punishment include drug pushers, the obscenely wealthy, and scientists who manipulate human genes. So "thou shalt not carry out morally dubious scientific experiments" or "thou shalt not pollute the earth" might one day be added to the Ten Commandments.

Added to the Ten Commandments? How would they manage that, I wonder?

There are, I think, two tendencies in play, here. First, there's the strange brain fever that inevitably infects journalists when anything to do with the Roman Catholic Church comes on the radar. All the old clichés are trotted out, above all the view of the Vatican as a mysterious top-down bureaucracy constantly "announcing" new sins and religious dogmas. Not understanding the theological complexities (and why should they?) but sensing a sexy story the journos go for hyperbole. Does anybody think that not recycling plastic bags is a fast-track to an eternity of damnation? Well, perhaps they do at the Daily Mail.

Second, (and this is where Girotti gets his archiepiscopal knickers in a twist) there's the very real difficulty of making medieval concepts of "sin" mean anything in a modern secularised society. Spiritual sins, which used to be the preserve of the church, have been transformed into transgressions of a wholly material nature. Pollution is a sin against the environment. Over-indulgence in food and drink is condemned for its health implications - and draws the censure of Nanny State. But a lingering odium theologicum adheres to these offences. Quasi-religious language is used, not always self-consciously, to describe them. They induce guilt.

Religious leaders are just as liable to fall prey to this tendency to confuse the spiritual with the worldly. More so, if anything: because they are after all the experts on "sin". When social and economic questions are being discussed in theological language, the churches want a piece of the action. So they invent new "sins", and new concepts of "sin" and imagine that they will thereby appear "relevant". All they do in the process, of course, is give the media another excuse to make them look ridiculous. As the late Kurt Vonnegut used to say, so it goes.