"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, April 10, 2008

New sins and other fictions

Strictly speaking, there aren't any new kinds of sin, at least not of the "deadly" sort. There are only various ways, some newer than others, of manifesting the "seven capital vices" or "deadly sins" in action. A "sin" is simply a kind of action that manifests at least one of those capital vices. The possibilities afforded by technology alone expand apace; and for those entertained by evils as imaginary as they are egregious, there's always the 1995 movie Seven. What I find more entertaining than the movie, though, is the hash so many people keep making of an interview last month with Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti of the Apostolic Penitentiary (!). His words were as highly publicized as they were misunderstood, and were highly publicized largely because they were misunderstood. When it comes to the Church, fiction sells well when packaged as fact—just as theory, such as The DaVinci Code, sells well when packaged as fiction. They'll sell whatever makes the Church look silly or sinister—preferably both, for those with the wit to manage it.

I was first alerted to the hash last month by reading this article from the Torygraph, which was so confused that nobody who really knows moral theology could take it seriously. The notion that new sins, mostly against our planet's ecology, could somehow replace or even augment the seven deadly sins is just the sort of freshman error that Ethics 101 corrects, or could correct if students were tested on it. I doubt such a silly thought, let alone the words, had even occurred to Archbishop Girotti. In fairness, I brushed the story off because, of course, one cannot expect any better from the secular British press when it comes to Catholicism. Yet now we've got this piece of OpEd tripe from the New York Times.

Its author is Eduardo Porter, a Mexican economics journalist who now belongs to the Good Grey Lady's editorial board. I suppose it's too much to expect the American newspaper of record to get somebody with a substantive background in Catholic theology to write about this topic, but maybe that's only because they couldn't find any such person willing enough to embarrass themselves. But there is a passage in Porter's piece that merits close attention, if only because it contains the giveaway about what's really going on:

Norms encoded hundreds of years ago to guide human behavior in a small-scale agrarian society could not account for a globalized postindustrial information economy. Polluting the environment, drug trafficking, performing genetic manipulations or causing social inequities, new sinful behaviors mentioned by Msgr. Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the Vatican Penitentiary, are arguably more relevant to many contemporary Catholics than contraception.

As Professor Scott Carson observes:

Ah, yes, of course, contraception. What a surprise to find that the sin of contraception is so very old fashioned as to be no longer relevant to modern Catholics. I don't suppose the prevalence of, say, lust, in contemporary culture could have anything to do with the contemporary Catholic (and, well, let's face it, everyone else's, too) attitude towards the teaching on contraception. It also comes as no surprise that the "new" mortal sins amount to a typical listing of leftist Shibboleths (which is not to deny that some of them probably really are sins, at least when engaged in by individuals).

What Scott says is true, but I don't think he's quite got the problem nailed here. It's worse than he suggests in his post, though I suspect he would agree with what I shall now say.

People like Porter, who is presumably from a Catholic background, are given to depicting the Church as struggling with irresolvable tensions between ancient dogma and modern truths. There are several reasons for that, not all of which motivate all the Porters. But one reason this particular song-and-dance sells is not hard to grasp. If the Church is really engaged in such a hopeless struggle, then of course those ancient teachings of hers which are also unpopular not only can but should treated by Catholics as bygone relics with no spiritual relevance for today. That holds especially in the moral sphere, and in the moral sphere it holds especially with regard to sex. Hence Porter's reference to contraception. If the Church's well-known but poorly understood teaching on that topic is just a bygone relic, then Catholics can plausibly claim the right as Catholics to sexual activity intentionally shorn of its primary biological purpose, thus sparing themselves the likelihood of great trouble and expense. After all, it's just too hard to have a jolly good sex life if you take Catholic sexual morality straight up. So we needn't and don't.

But Porter is a bit more sophisticated than that. Quoting a fellow economist, he holds that “[r]eligions are in the unusual situation in which it pays to make gratuitously costly demands. When they weaken their demands they make on members, they undermine their credibility.” So then the question becomes how the Church can strengthen her moral credibility in an era when her old teachings about sex are widely ignored and often ridiculed even by Catholics. And the answer is now ready to hand: create a list of new sins to feel guilty about and repent of! Hence Msgr. Girotti's pronouncements. Or so goes the theory.

But the theory doesn't hold up. The idea behind Catholic moral teaching, whether old or new, is not to enhance the Church's marketing appeal by making "gratuitously costly demands." If that were the idea, then the old gratuitously costly demands would do just as well as the new ones; indeed, in some quarters the old ones are doing quite nicely. Nor is the idea to increase market share by making new demands that reflect "leftist shibboleths" (to use Scott's phrase) and are thus, presumably, less likely to be ignored. If you think about it even for a moment, it becomes obvious that the people most likely to buy leftist shibboleths are least likely to be motivated to become (or remain) Catholic by virtue of the Church's adopting them. If your world-view is formed primarily by the secular left and only secondarily by the Church, you're not going to find anything in a fashionably leftist Church that you haven't already got elsewhere.

My hunch is that the Eduardo Porters of the world know that perfectly well.
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