Issue Date: March 21, 2008
Old sins revisited
For older Catholics who remember tallying up their sins like amateur golfers on the 18th green while waiting their turn in the confessional, news of an expanded list of capital sins could be disconcerting. Maybe it wasnt enough to just avoid the Big Seven (if you know all seven, you are probably an older Catholic).
For younger Catholics who have never weighed out the difference in moral grams between lust and a passing impure thought, recent Vatican statements about major social sins such as pollution and accumulating too much money may register both interest and approval. Our church is paying attention to global inequities, being relevant about real global wrongs. Many young people have traveled and have witnessed the impact of First World consumption on Third World countries and asked, Who is responsible for such suffering? They have seen the face of social sin and felt the sting of our collective responsibility for it.
If there is value in the latest Vatican alert, besides the prospect of drumming up more confessions, it may be the overdue recognition of the churchs longstanding tradition on social justice as constitutive, not optional, to the Gospels and to ordinary Catholic faith. Like the poor, many of the sins on the latest list have always been with us, especially the gap between rich and poor. But it has always been simpler to consider sin as a private matter. It kept people busy parsing their personal failings and, until recently, kept confession lines long. Meanwhile, broader patterns of social evil like racism, sexism and poverty thrived. It was possible to be a faithful communicant on Sunday and a slum landlord on Monday.
Without judging anyones personal guilt, we ought to call drug trafficking, chemical dumping, unethical science and corporate greed as sinful as they are criminal. And to the extent that we have shared in the benefits of these offenses to the common good, we ought to acknowledge ourselves as sinners. Our collective repentance is a matter of life and death to millions who live on the other end of the economic continuum. Getting beyond self to a collective urgency about systemic destruction and exploitation of other people must be the mission of the church and the fruit of a mature Christian conscience. The Vatican has restated an old challenge in a new and timely way.
National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2008
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