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New forms of the old sin

(Article published in the Mar 26, 2008 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

The reaction, at least in the English speaking press, that greeted the publication by Vatican’s official newspaper l'Osservatore Romano of its interview of Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary (which is nothing close, in function, to our national penitentiary) demonstrates the consequences of failing to put one’s responses to questions in the proper frame.

 The main subject matter of the interview, was, generally, the continuing relevance, if any, of the office in the Papal bureaucracy called Apostolic Penitentiary. In particular, l'Osservatore Romano tried to elicit from the good churchman his concept of his office’s present role of ruling on moral issues involved in specific and actual cases presented to it.  Those rulings are authoritative only for those specific cases and are merely, to use our local legal terminology, persuasive with respect to others that may be deemed similar.

 The Apostolic Penitentiary’s contemporary mission is, if I may hazard an opinion, to be the institutional manifestation of God’s abounding forgiveness of sin.  And it seems, in fairness to the bishop, he was apparently laboring mightily to articulate it.  Unfortunately, he failed to frame his response to a very general question, and that failure gave the not-so sympathetic secular media an opportunity to give vent to what seems to be a widespread feeling of irrelevance, not only of his office but, more seriously, of the Church itself.

 The actual question and the answer that Western media feasted upon were, as translated by Intituto Acton, as follows:

 l'Osservatore Romano: In your opinion, what are the “new sins”? 


Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti: There are various areas today within which we adopt sinful behavior as with individual and social rights. This is especially so in the field of bioethics, where we cannot deny the existence of violations of fundamental rights of human nature – this occurs by way of experiments and genetic modifications, whose results we cannot easily predict or control. Another area, which indeed pertains to the social spectrum, is that of drug use, which weakens our minds and reduces our intelligence.  As a result many young people are left out of Church circles. Here is another one: social and economic inequality, in the sense that the rich always seem to get richer and the poor, poorer. This [phenomenon] feeds off an unsustainable form of social injustice and is related to environmental issues-- which currently have much relevant interest.

 This Question-and-Answer was preceded by the question, “Sometimes people do not understand the Church’s issuing of indulgences and Christian forgiveness.  Why do you think it is that way?” and it was followed by the query, “Do you think frequent indulgences inspire one to take on a ‘magic wand mentality’ about ridding oneself of guilt and punishment?” 

 Clearly, based on the sequence of questions the primary interest at that point was focused on indulgences and forgiveness; secondary only was the issue of “new sins”, which is a necessary presupposition for the operation of the former.  But, apparently, Western media had naughty ideas.

 They seized on the good bishop’s clearly off-the-cuff naming of some of present day scientific investigations involving serious moral issues, and, most likely to Bishop Girotti’s own surprise, portrayed him as articulating the modern Church’s additions to, if not revisions of, Pope Gregory I’s listing in the sixth century of the seven capital sins.  In such a context, ridicule was an irresistible temptation.

 The communications debacle could have been avoided, if I may submit, had the Franciscan Bishop Gianfranco Girotti framed his response to the question on “new sins” in the same context that his fellow Bishop, but Jesuit, Carlo-Maria Martini used in his discussion of sin as such.  Martini did a rendition of the Spiritual Exercises, using the text of St. Ignatius, at the retreat of the bishops of northern Italy on the occasion of the fifth centenary of the birth of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the 450th anniversary of the founding of the Society of Jesus. The notes taken during that retreat are presently in Letting God Free Us, prefaced by George A. Maloney, S.J., and published by the New City Press in 1993.

 Concluding his treatment of the first meditation of the First Week of the Exercises, known as the meditation on the three sins, i.e. the sin of the Angels found in patristic writings on the origin of Satan and his devils, the sin of Adam and Eve that the bible uses to depict the entry of evil in our world, and the sin of the man who is imagined to be condemned to hell on account of having committed a single mortal sin, Martini frames sin as the refusal or rejection of God’s gift of sonship that had dire consequences in heaven and on earth. 

 Says Maritini, “…sin determines a degeneration of our relationship with God on the one hand and among people on the other, resulting also in a degeneration of society, of history of morals.  Finally, it brings about the degeneration of each individual.” Framing sin as the cause of degeneration, or of “a disorder which pervades the world in its religious, civil, family and individual aspects,” enabled Martini to connect to the sentiments of his modern audience.

 “Today,” according to Martini, “we rightly lament he lack of sense of sin in the world.  But we must admit that, understood as a consciousness of disorder in our world, we do not lack this sense.  People are seemingly more and more convinced that the world is going badly.  We hear resounding denunciations of corruption in politics, of ecological disturbances, and of wrongs gone by rich countries to the poorer ones.”

 He was thus able to tell his fellow bishops that they now “are called to make clear the theological roots of the disorder existing in the world and to help people recognize it as a personal sin, as a sin each of us is guilty of.  We are called to stress the cause of all this: the distrust of God our Father and loving Lord, of his plan of positive love, of his order of …justice.”

 Characterizing the violations of fundamental rights of human nature occurring in the field of bioethics in the conduct of experiments and genetic modifications, whose results we cannot easily predict or control, the abuse of drugs, which weakens our minds and reduces our intelligence, leaving many young people out of the Church circles, and the injustice in a social and economic system that enables the rich to get richer and makes the poor poorer, as instances of new forms of disorder would have found resonance in the experience of Bishop Girotti’s audience, including the secular media.  Perhaps, avoided the mismatch between the bishop’s message and media’s reportage.

 From the sense of global disorder as a platform, it would have been an easy step to the identification of personal sin as their theological root cause; and from human sin to God’s forgiveness, which is  really the raison d’etre of the Apostolic Penitentiary.