Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Inventing Sin

Inventing Sin

Vatican bishop points to modern social sins


Vatican City, Mar 11, 2008 / 02:02 am (CNA).- A Vatican official has listed a set of “social sins” to draw attention to sinful acts that have social ramifications in an interview with the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano.

Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, the regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vatican, examined today’s social sins in an interview published Sunday. "While sin used to concern mostly the individual, today it has mainly a social resonance, due to the phenomenon of globalization," said Bishop Girotti.

“You offend God not only by stealing, taking the Lord's name in vain or coveting your neighbor's wife, but also by wrecking the environment, carrying out morally debatable experiments that manipulate DNA or harm embryos,” said Bishop Girotti, according to L’Osservatore.

The seven social sins are:

1. "Bioethical” violations such as birth control
2. "Morally dubious" experiments such as stem cell research
3. Drug abuse
4. Polluting the environment
5. Contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
6. Excessive wealth
7. Creating poverty

Kent Comments:

Collective thinking about sin is just as wrong-headed as collective thinking about other matters - in fact, it might even be a sin! That last part was just for fun. But there are some important things to be learned from the Bishop’s mistakes here.

First, sin is inextricably tied up with the actions of individuals. This connection is nothing new. While sin begins in our attitudes and inner being, it is expressed in actions. Doing that which God has forbidden, or failing to do what God has commanded, is sin. The Ten Commandments are a fair summary of what this entails in practice.

But, of course, the Big Ten must be applied. The Bishop’s “seven social sins” are in fact attempts to apply the commandments of the Bible. While the attempt is noble, and correct in some respects, it fails at key points.

I won’t debate number one here because it stems from a long-standing debate about reproduction.

“Morally dubious” experiments are morally problematic, when they are problematic, because they violate the commandment not to murder. But murder always goes back to the actions of individuals.

Abuse of self, through drugs or any other means, is a violation of the Christian idea that we must, as the Apostle Paul says, honor God with our bodies. Abuse of any kind is incompatible with honor.

Polluting the environment is a problem when it violates the command not to steal. This sort of thing must be done by individuals. Even if groups of people are polluting, the group consists of individuals who commit the act. But the Bishop has a problem here with being overly vague.

If I put something into the environment that harms other people or their property, then I have sinned. But unless that harm is very obvious, it needs to be proven. Otherwise, wild claims by ill-motivated people can become means to, in essence, enslaving others.

For example, there is a mindless hysteria today about carbon dioxide. But carbon dioxide is part of the cycle of life and it has not been proven to cause any harm to human beings as the tiny part of our atmosphere that it is. In fact, the pseudo-science that claims harm to the climate from carbon dioxide - a claim lacking any hard proof - is probably an attempt to interfere with the property of individuals. This would make it a violation of the commandment against theft, and thus a sin itself!

“Contributing to widening divide between rich and poor” is something that most people do not have the power to do. It is something that many governments do, by policies that reduce people’s freedom to be productive. But when we speak of “governments” we are still talking about the actions of individuals: the officials who make such policies, and those who help put them in office. The cure for this problem is for governments to get out of the way. This leads to the somewhat unexpected conclusion that the more active government official is more likely to be a sinful one!

It sounds strange to modern ears which are often conditioned by incipient socialism, but the commandments of the God of the Bible nowhere condemn wealth. There are condemnations of improper uses of wealth, but that is a different matter. Generosity is good, but the wealthy can be more generous.

It would be interesting to see the Bishop put a number with “excessive wealth.” In modern economies, the wealthiest of the wealthy usually cannot help having their wealth benefit others. If the wealth is held as stocks, it is being invested in the creation of jobs and goods for others. If it is held as debt instruments, it is being loaned to people for their use. If it is spent - even on “luxuries” - it creates businesses and jobs in the areas where it is spent.

Finally, we come to “creating poverty.” In the minds of those infected with liberation theology, this is a constant phobia. But in an exchange economy, no action that respects the “you shall not steal” commandment will create poverty. In the most general terms, I can give away what I own, or I can retain it. If I retain it, I can exchange it with others willing to make the trade. If two people agree to make a trade, the only reason they do so is because they both believe they will be better off after the trade than they were before it. So willing trades make both parties wealthier.

So the “social sins” are not social, and they are not all truly sins.

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