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Is it time to revise “The Seven Deadly Sins” for the 21st century?

This afternoon, I concluded my winter lecture series on “The Seven Deadly Sins–A Comparative Study” at St. Ambrose University. This posting is a brief summary of some of the salient points we discussed during our last session.

The Vatican posted the following list of modern sins that characterize our era’s for evil.

(1) genetic modification, (2) human experimentation (3) polluting the environment (4) social injustice (5) causing poverty (6) financial gluttony (7) taking drugs.

A Brief Analysis of the Vatican’s List

It is interesting to note that in the original seven, each of the sins were attitudinal in nature; the  fact that the Vatican switched from an attitudinal model to a behavioral model is pretty interesting–even somewhat Judaic–for Jewish moralists have long viewed sin in behavioral terms. Take coveting for example, for the biblical proscription, “You shall not covet” does not pertain merely to the feeling of coveting, but acting upon the impulse that covets. Two of the best examples is the story of David and Bathsheba and when King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard. In both of these cases, the end result was deadly for the victim whose property was coveted.

Yet, make no mistake, the attitudinal sins championed by some Jewish moralists–especially according to the anonymous author of the Orchot HaTsadikim (ca. 15th century)–believe (like the Christian moralists of his time) that the attitudinal sins are by far more serious because they provide the seeds that give rise to evil behavior.

Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican body which oversees confessions and plenary indulgences, said that “new sins which have 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.” “You offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting your neighbor’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 said. Bishop Girotti said that mortal sins also included taking or dealing in drugs, and social injustice which caused poverty or “the excessive accumulation of wealth by a few.” [1]

A Catholic Critique of the New Deadly Sins

Some Catholic scholars expressed some disappointment with the new list of sins. One pundit writes:

If one believes that these transgressions did not exist in feudal Europe when the power of the Vatican was at its zenith, then one is turning a blind eye to history. Environment pollution and taking drugs are punishable by law therefore need not be left to Divine retribution. To call genetic modification and human experimentation “sins” is myopic. It is a step back to the ages when Galileo was tried for heresy and had his eyes put out. If the new seven deadly sins are baffling, then the reasons for declaring them are even more so. If the Catholic Church wants to stem its dwindling flock, then it has to take a more inclusive approach to diversity rather than brand diversity as heresy. It needs to take a leaf out of Hinduism in this regard.

The original list of the seven deadly sins seems rather self-explanatory: Lust, Anger, Pride, Sloth, Envy, Gluttony, Greed. Most of us know what these sins are and how they impact our lives.

Other Thoughts and Concerns on the New Deadly Sins

With respect to the new list of sins, should people walk around feeling guilty because they happen to be successful and others aren’t? We should not assume that just because people are materially successful, they are also stingy and miserly when it comes to the suffering of others. One does not presuppose the other.

If anything, the Vatican might be unintentionally perpetuating the mythos of class envy.[2] Third World countries  and even some First World nations are no less guilty of this sin as well.

“Polluting the environment,” hardly seems like a sin that the majority of Americans or Europeans suffer from–especially when most of us are pretty mindful about re-cycling our garbage. Western countries are improving the CAFE standards, which ought to a seen as a positive step in the right direction. Is the Vatican suggesting we should charge a carbon footprint tax for the total set of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by an organization, event or product and individual? Maybe the farmers of the world should pay more of this tax because of the methane gas produced by their cows’ flatulence. No, this is not a good choice most of us can identify with.

Genetic modification? This is much too vague to have any concrete meaning. If the Vatican meant “cloning human beings,” then this would be more specific. Then again, how many of us are going to be tempted to clone human beings? Would the Vatican oppose laboratory created meat products? It would sure save a lot of animals’ lives, and this could certainly be a modern example of environmental justice. Human experimentation is another area that really doesn’t impact people’s daily choices either. Stem-cell technology offers so many benefits, and besides, many of us do not believe that life begins with conception–it really begins when the kids graduate college!

Are the “New Seven Deadly Sins” Ethically Challenged?

Sins against children are conspicuously absent  in the Vatican’s latest proscriptions. All of the students of the class thought that this was a glaring omission on the part of the Vatican especially in light of the widespread problem that many of their priests have with pedophilia (of course many rabbis today have a similar problem as we witness today in the Haredi Orthodox communities, where the problem is scarcely being openly discussed).

According to German psychologist Alice Miller, the sins against children are at the root of all evil that exists in the world. Domestic abuse should have been mentioned as well. Of course the trafficking of children and women, child-laborers in factories of the Third-World countries are  a grim reminder that slavery is not just a fossil of antiquity; rather, it is a booming business across the world today in both Third and First World nations. It is one thing to be anti-abortion, but one must not forget about the mistreatment and abusive treatment of children especially after they are born.

Furthermore, the Vatican should have mentioned misogyny–especially given the way women’s rights are being violated throughout the world. It seems that the Vatican is somewhat out of step with many of the issues that really affect people. This matter requires more serious attention–especially given the ubiquity of these sins in our society.

In short, the Vatican had a golden opportunity to make some very powerful statements about the real sins that destroy lives in our society. It seems as though the focus is more on corporate sins than personal sins, which I believe is a mistake.  Perhaps the Vatican will consider a revision of their list. Certainly, the public ought to be a part of the overall discussion.

Alternate Listings

After we discussed Vatican’s new list of deadly sins, our class came up with an alternate list that is more  attitudinal in nature based on the sins we have witnessed in the 20th–21st centuries:

(1) apathy (related to the sin of sloth, but much more deadly since it allows social evil to thrive)

(2) self-righteousness (the mentality that inspires religious acts of violence)

(3) prejudice (this sin affects individuals and societies alike)

(4) misogyny (this an altogether different sin unrelated to the original seven)

(5) violence (especially family violence)

(6) scapegoating (this an altogether different sin unrelated to the original seven; this sin could include shaming)

(7) abuse of power (sexual, political, economic)

After considerable discussion and debate, some of the students came up with an alternative list that is more behavioral as well:

(1) recklessness

(2) crimes against humanity

(3) environmental injustice

(4) child abuse and pedophilia

(5) procrastination

(6) misuse of medical science (some Catholics included abortion as well)

(7) substance abuse

Frankly speaking, I think our class list is superior to the Vatican’s new list of seven deadly sins.

Lastly, according to the author of the Orchot HaTsadikim, we could probably compile an alternative list that is also worth considering:

(1) Hatred

(2) Arrogance

(3) Cruelty

(4) Ingratitude

(5) Envy

(6) Miserliness

(7) Misuse of speech (lying, slander, flattery)

Of course, the three lists we composed deal with both attitudinal and behavioral examples. If you have any opinion as to what sins you would like to include in a new version of the Seven Deadly Sins, please post your comments below. Lastly, for Jewish and Muslim leaders across the religious spectrum, I think it is time we come up with our own list of the Seven Deadly Sins, for no religious community is beyond self-critique and soulful examination.

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Notes:

[1] The Times, March 10, 2008, “Seven new deadly sins: are you guilty?”( http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article3517050.ece).

[2] Philosopher Ayn Rand warns: “Envy is part of this creature’s feeling, but only the superficial, semi-respectable part; it is the tip of an iceberg showing nothing worse than ice, but with the submerged part consisting of a compost of rotting living matter. The envy, in this case, is semi-respectable because it seems to imply a desire for material possessions, which is a human being’s desire. But, deep down, the creature has no such desire: it does not want to be rich, it wants the human being to be poor . . . ” Ayn Rand and Gary Hull ed., The Ayn Rand Reader (New York: Plume, 1999), 117. Another famous quote of Rand reads, “They do not want to own your fortune, they want you to lose it; they do not want to succeed, they want you to fail; they do not want to live, they want you to die; they desire nothing, they hate existence …”(Ibid, 118),



Discussion

  1. Kenneth Rexroth  February 24, 2010

    Rabbi Samuel
    An Interesting summation. However, in researching the “Seven Deadly Sins” I ask other Rabbis about behaviors and / or attitudes that are considered “deadly” in the eyes of God. The Rabbis unilaterally stated that Jewish thinking enumerates “three sins” that will turn you away from God. They are: Idolatry, transgressions against others and sins of an egregious sexual nature. If these Rabbis are correct in their interpretations, should this not have been insinuated into your lecture?

    Relative to your thinking about “class envy” it presupposes that any cause for such divisiveness is unjust. I disagree! The exploitation of most by a few is driven only by greed and this countermands the behavior and attitudinal precepts so thoughtfully addressed in any listings of sins which potentially can be an eternal disconnect from God. This, of course, is just a lay person’s opinion.

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  2. admin  February 24, 2010

    Actually, the three sins that you refer to are the “mortal sins” of Judaism, where one is expected to die a martyr’s death rather than disobey, e.g., idolatry, sexual crimes involving forbidden relations, and murder. Of course this is only one typography. The passage cited in Proverbs lists another way of looking at the chief sins that inspired the Christian re-formulation over 1500 years ago.

    Now should they have been mentioned? A pity you weren’t there to raise the question, but I broached the subject rather lightly.

    The issue of envy I think is different from jealousy, where the person desires the same goods or comforts for oneself that the Other has–not to the Other’s detriment. Envy is different and when I have some more time, I will post some more articles on the nature of envy; it is true, that those who exploit the the masses are more guilty of avarice than envy, although one might make a case that the powerful few might be envious of others’ success and fortunes. The current Russian PM has done precisely that with many of his political foes–he confiscated their properties and wealth.

    BTW, for those of you who don’t know Ken, he is a friend of mine at the QCTC Tennis club. He is a very good tennis player!

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  3. admin  February 24, 2010

    Ken, BTW, what is your opinion of the Pope’s new re-visioning of the Seven Deadly Sins? Do you agree with him? What sins would you include?

    Best,

    M

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  4. Kenneth Rexroth  February 24, 2010

    Rabbi and BTW

    Although I believe the Seven Deadly Sins, as originally defined, addressed core issues enumerated in the Ten Commandments. However, it does occur to me (again as a lay person) that some minor revisions are necessary. Especially as this relates to genocide, sadism and other like minded acts which stand contrary to any rational explanation. Regards to Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican’s most recent thinking about “deadly sins” it seems more related to semantics than being of a substantive matter. Moreover, there seems to be some conflict about Pope Benedict’s acceptance of Bishop Gianfranco Girotti’s delineation or revision of this matter, and there are opinions about this divisive subject on the Internet.

    In an unrelated matter there is an op / ed in the Dispatch (dated 2 24 2010) by John Donald O’shea) about Pope Benedict’s attempts to canonize Pope Pious XII for his aid to the Jews before and during The Holocaust. I am suspect of this Pope and his thinking relative to conferring Sainthood on Pope Pious XII, who was also known as “Hitler’s Pope.”

    BTW. From a lay perspective there is a fine line between some of the Seven Deadly Sins, and it seems that an interrelated nexus purposefully exists for reasons that are yet to be comprehensively defined by those charged with such affairs.

    Thank you Rabbi and BTW

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  5. Mark Lioen  November 21, 2010

    I’m sorry Rabbi Samuel for this late entry, but I found this particular entry very interesting and while I am sympathetic to your comments concerning the Vatican’s new seven deadly sins, the commandments themselves, as a previous comment alludes to, cover individual transgressions rather than collective. Personally, I believe that, unless one is a particularly irresponsible captain of industry or an oriental despot, environmental transgressions by individuals rarely rise to the
    level of a deadly sin. True, if one is a terrorist who pollutes the water supply with deadly chemicals or something like this, it could be interpreted as a “deadly sin”, but most of the actions of individuals can be said to be purely venial, attributable more to callous disregard rather than a malicious intention.

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