Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Is the Vatican tinkering with sin?

In yesterday, April 7th’s The New York Times, Eduardo Porter, the paper’s Editorial Observer, published a brief opinion piece entitled “The Vatican and Globalization: Tinkering with Sin.” [HERE] Out of the starting gate, the author declares that it is “hard to erect rules to last forever.” Well, maybe for members of the human race and The New York Times, but is it “hard” for God? Mr. Porter relies on a remark attributed to an official of the Holy See that globalization and modernity have given rise to sins different from those dating from medieval times; therefore, in Mr. Porter’s view, the world is a changing place in which attention must be given to revamping norms “encoded hundreds of years ago” that guided human behavior in a small-scale agrarian society. Porter cites as evidence pollution of the environment, drug trafficking, genetic manipulation, and causations of social inequity.

I think most would agree that it has only been in recent years that scientists have been able to acknowledge that human genetic manipulation is possible, but we must recall that in the mid-19th century Abbot Gregor Mendel’s hybrid experimentation of plants was taking place. I am not suggesting that Abbot Mendel was engaged in sinful activity, but it is necessary to place Mr. Porter’s allegation in its proper context. But it is necessary to assess whether his assertions about environmental degradation, drug trafficking, and taking actions that promote social inequity are really all that new.

For example, the ancients were quite aware that salting the agricultural earth of an enemy was an effective means of environmental degradation that would have devastating consequences for many years. We are reminded of this when Abimelech razed a city and sowed it with salt, Judges 9:45. This occurrence was about a thousand years before Christ. The idea of environmental degradation is not new. Nor is the trafficking of drugs and other dangerous contraband. Nor is social inequity something since prophets like Amos (8:4-6), Jeremiah (7:5-6; 22:13), Ezekiel (18:7), and Isaiah (1:17; 3:14-15; 10:1-2) preached against it.

A major point of the Porter opinion article seems designed to address the Church’s teachings on sexual mores; hence, he attempts to argue that “new sinful behavior” is “more relevant to many contemporary Catholics than contraception.” He wants his readers to believe that the Church is struggling with the definition of sin in the world of today when he states,

Sin, however, doesn’t take well to tinkering. Many Catholic thinkers reacted strongly against the idea that new sins were needed to complement, or supplement, the classical canon. They accused the press of exaggerating Monsignor Girotti’s [the Holy See’s official quoted by Mr. Porter] words. Their reaction underscored how tough it is for the church to manage a moral code grounded in eternal verities at a time of furious change. The Vatican has long been riven by this tension between dogma and the outside world. Yet it could apply to any religion: it’s hard to rejigger the rules when truth is meant to be fixed forever.

But it is Mr. Porter who is “riven” to the idea that the Church is somehow mired in the past. But is it? I believe that the Church has recognized that throughout human history people have figured out ways of straying off the moral path to God and engineering methods of bringing harm to their neighbor and therefore offending God. He also misunderstands the requirements of the Great Commandment to love God and the neighbor as one’s self when he draws a parallel between discipleship and membership in a club or other social organization by stating that,

The core benefits of religions, unlike other, worldly institutions, often relate to the afterlife. Some social scientists argue, however, that many benefits of church membership are to be had this side of death. The gains are not unlike the advantages of a club of like-minded people. Religions provide rules to live by, solace in times of trouble and a sense of community. Some economic studies suggest that this can promote higher levels of education and income, more marriage and less divorce. Such a club needs strong, believable rules. Like marriage, membership will be more valuable the more committed the other participants are to the common cause. Demanding rules — say celibacy, or avoiding meat during Lent — help enhance the level of commitment.

But he is critical of “strict rules” when he asserts that religions “relax the rules at their own peril”; therefore they have an investment in the status quo. I think Mr. Porter misconstrues the concept of sin and why the Church teaches what it does and why it does when sinful activity is in issue. The Church acknowledges that the exercise of free will has led people throughout the millennia to lead lives that disrespect wise moral norms. While the methods used to commit sin may be new and reflect contemporary human capabilities, sin is not.

Mr. Porter finds it necessary to point out that Catholicism “has lost traction” on these matters because the number of those raised as Catholics in the western world does not correlate with those who now identify themselves as Catholics. Well, Mr. Porter has discovered something about the exercise of free will by humans, but he suggests that the problem is brought on by the tension between weakening versus maintaining “strictures.” But, in fact, it’s not really about “strictures” as it is about people choosing to follow or not the moral norms that have constituted the Church’s teachings for centuries. In this context we might recall the discussion between Abraham and the Angel of God (and God) on the Road to Sodom—God would spare the sinful if even a small fraction of the population were righteous. Mr. Porter is correct in one thing, his final point, that Pope Benedict teaches the truth, the truth of God that has been around for a long time. The need to update sins is not the point, as Mr. Porter would have us believe. Teaching about right and wrong, regardless of the temporal context is—and this is something at which Pope Benedict XVI is skilled. The Vatican is not tinkering with sin. Rather, we humans find new ways of doing old things that we never should do.      RJA sj


Araujo, Robert | Permalink

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