Analytic Theology

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The Vatican’s New Concept of Sin

March 15th, 2008 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

DAVID KRONEMYER: The Los Angeles Times recently carried an article by Tracy Wilkinson, “Thou shalt honor thy Mother Earth” (Mar. 14, 2008). Ms. Wilkinson describes a new pronouncement from the Vatican. Evidently, the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary has created a new class of sin. It comprises a class of activities, such as destroying the environment; gene manipulation; drug abuse; abortion; and becoming too wealthy.

Ms. Wilkinson quotes Msgr. Gianfranco Girotti, a senior Vatican official. “If yesterday sin had a rather individualistic dimension, today it has an impact and resonance that is above all social.” Glosses Ms. Wilkinson: “In this age of expanding globalization, the Vatican is telling followers that sin is not just an individual act but can also be a transgression against the larger community.”

This new proclamation from the Vatican is disturbing, because it conflates the Archaic Hebrews with the Early Christians. The whole point of Judaism is that one has to “obey the law,” regardless of what one thinks. Among other places, this was reiterated at the Ten Commandments, which are a series of social injunctions (“Thou shalt not,” etc.). In this respect, Judaism is much like Islam. The emphasis is on the welfare of the tribe, not on that of individuals.

Jesus, on the other hand, was the exact reverse. He said, in effect, “It doesn’t matter if you flout social convention, so long as your heart is pure.” See, e.g., the Sermon on the Mount; and the story of Lazarus (John 11: 41-44), where Jesus did right by raising the poor guy from the dead. He did so, though, on a Saturday. He thus broke the law, which forbade any kind of “work” on the Sabbath. By “breaking the law,” he “transgressed against the larger community” – much to the displeasure of the Pharisees.

The concept of “sin,” in fact, arises only from the notion of “self” that Jesus (and his interpreters, such as Paul) devised. There cannot be “sin” without a “self” who is “sinning.” Compare tribal communities such as the Ancient Greeks, where Menelaus was happy to get Helen back, even after her decades-long tryst with Paris. She still was “peerless among women.” She had not “sinned,” and could not have sinned in principle, because she had no “self” to do the sinning.

The Vatican’s new pronouncement also has disturbing (and inconsistent) implications for the Sacrament of Confession. Confession is supported by related doctrines such as atonement, restitution, penance and absolution. These, however, are concepts of “self,” not of “community.” They are based on Adam’s “original sin,” for which Jesus atoned. He could do so, because he not only was the Son of God, but also a man. Why bother with this, if one simply is following the law?

Far be it from me to urge the Vatican to reconsider its theological pronouncements. This one, however, seems somewhat dubious.