The Seven Deadly Sins, New and Improved

No surprise that the Vatican’s update of the seven deadly sins is an incisive indictment of capitalism: this Pope, like the one before him, sees our economic system as spiritually corrosive. The new list isn’t substantively different from the old one, but it puts a fresh face on some all-too-familiar abstractions. So pride is manifest as genetic manipulation and envy is morally-debatable experiments; gluttony means too much money and lust is drug trafficking and consumption; greed leads to inflicting poverty and sloth causes environmental pollution; anger, well, that leads to violating fundamental rights of human nature.

Hedonism, narcissism, rampaging selfishness—sounds integral to the plotlines for a lot of popular entertainment, not to mention staples of the daily news. But rather than wrestle with what sin looks like in 2008 (be it on the campaign trail, the medical beat, the science corner, or the business page), many American news outlets made light of the story or relegated it to blogs. TV news favored the former solution, and newspapers the latter.

All in all, few American news sites carried comprehensive features on the list as did the BBC, the Times Online, and the Sydney Morning Herald, to name a few.

Okay, the Vatican condemning sinful behavior is not a news flash, but the frame it provides—specifically, engaging the contemporary world in a collective reconsideration of systemic and personal sin—is noteworthy. We forgive our peccadilloes all too easily, which is why the Vatican wants a wholesale return to confession.

It’s early in the week, so perhaps we’ll see more on how American Catholics are responding to the new list, and whether it can serve as an impetus to greater self-examination. It also would be interesting to tie this latest missive to the Vatican’s recent pronouncement that gender-neutral language is impermissible for the rite of baptism. (In other words, “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” cannot replace “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”)

The Pope is waging his own culture war, and his sights are set on several American heresies. Whether or not individual Catholics are comfortable espousing a male-gendered Trinity much less copping to the 21st-century versions of mortal sins is the question. But according to market theories of religion, the Vatican may be onto something. Religious groups with stringent demands and strict doctrines differentiating believers from outsiders attract more adherents than those that accommodate to the secular culture. Given the Pew Forum’s recent findings about the precipitous decline in American Catholicism, the Pope may have the message right.