20 February 2009

Satan fell by the Force of Gravity

I couldn't help but sigh the other day when I read on the BBC that a recent Vatican report has found that men and women apparently tend to sin in different ways. It was with a wry grin that I remembered an Anglican friend of mine -- now a clergyman, as it happens -- remarking back in March that when it comes to religion the mainstream media is utterly clueless.

If you remember last year's nonsense about Rome having drawn up a replacement list of seven modern deadly sins, something which never happened, you'll be suitably troubled by it being repeated a year later:
Traditionally, the seven deadly sins were considered: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth.

The Apostolic Penitentiary, one of the Vatican's most secretive departments, which fixes the punishments and indulgences handed down to sinners, last year updated its list of deadly sins to include more modern ones.

The revised list included seven modern sins it said were becoming prevalent during an era of "unstoppable globalisation".

These included: genetic modification, experiments on the person, environmental pollution, taking or selling illegal drugs, social injustice, causing poverty and financial greed.
Frankly, you should be suspicious of any article featuring lines such as 'one of the Vatican's most secretive departments, which fixes the punishments and indulgences handed down to sinners'. Has more than a whiff of Jesuits under the Bed about it, doesn't it?

This looks like a complete non-story, and certainly nothing even close to the lurid fantasy conjured up by the Times, which merrily repeats last year's gibberish, as do pretty much all the other reports I've seen on this; they all appear to be feeding off each other, with none of them bothering to check the source of the tale. For the Times this story is mainly an excuse to roll out some medieval stereotypes:
Sex discrimination is destined to continue in the scorching fires of Hell, according to a study approved by the Vatican which suggests that men are most likely to commit lustful sins whereas women are beholden to pride.

The men, it seems, are the ones whose souls end up being pelted with fire and brimstone, while the women's souls are more likely to be broken on a wheel.
What's actually happened here? Well, it seems -- and I'm working from incomplete reportage, so bear with me -- there's a new book out about St Thomas Aquinas' teaching on the seven capital vices, which is a rather better name for pride, anger, gluttony, lust and the rest than 'the seven deadly sins'. Father Wojciech Giertych, theologian to the papal household, has commented on this book in the Vatican's newspaper, and noted that personal experience seemed to confirm Aquinas' beliefs that men and women tend to sin differently, with men giving way most frequently to lust and gluttony, while women tended more towards pride and envy.

I'm not sure how the reported survey conducted by the 95-year-old Jesuit Roberto Busa factors into all this. Supposedly it is the result of a survey of confessional data conducted by Father Busa that has allowed the Vatican to rank the sins in this way. It doesn't sound likely, though, does it? A survey of confessional data? Confessional data? I'm not sure, but given the nature of the Confessional Seal, can there be such information? Are we to assume that Father Busa wrote to a load of priests, asking them to generalise on their experience of hearing confessions over the years? That doesn't sound very systematic, does it, especially for a scholar reportedly known for his computerised study of the works of St Thomas Aquinas...

Or is that the clue? Is it simply that Father Busa wrote a book on Aquinas' teaching on the seven capital vices, drawing on all manner of linguistic evidence, that being his speciality, and perhaps drawing on some sort of survey, and that Father Giertych commented on it in L'Osservatore Romano, saying that Aquinas' beliefs and Busa's findings tallied with his own experience?

I'm not saying that's what's happened, but it does sound rather more likely than the reports, doesn't it?

Honestly, if sports journalism was this lazy and sloppy -- let alone politics or business reporting -- then heads would roll. It's one of the reasons why I think John Allen is wrong to think that Rome needs to work on its PR -- no matter what it says or does, it's going to be misrepresented by the media.

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