Sin has an evergreen appeal. I don't mean the ooh-isn't-that- awful-let-me- have-a-look sort of sin, but the Summa Theologica sort. Coining a memorable phrase a few decades ago, Pope Pius XII observed that the sin of the century was the loss of the sense of sin. But in the case of journalists he was quite wrong. Given half a chance, they become armchair theologians full of airy ruminations about how many sins can dance on the head of a pin. This was evident in the lead-up to Easter as newspapers around the world reported that the Vatican had withdrawn its antiquated list of Seven Deadly Sins and issued a new one. The headlines were predictable — "Lust and littering", "Clone not, lest ye be cloned", and "Thou shalt not trash the planet" — and quite misleading.
This intriguing little story began as an interview in the Vatican's semi-official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, about "new forms of social sin" in the age of globalisation. A hapless official responded by mentioning some bioethical issues, such as applications of genetic engineering which offend human nature, drug abuse and scandalous economic inequality. He included a vague allusion to ecology. It was all sensible stuff. Every generation has its own chance to creatively reinterpret how it will break the Ten Commandments. Centuries ago, slavery was a modish sort of sin, but nowadays the enemies of human dignity prefer to clone men rather than own them.
Bizarrely, this straightforward message was translated for readers of the London Telegraph (one of the first to pick up the story) into "Failing to recycle plastic bags could find you spending eternity in Hell, the Vatican said after drawing up a list of seven deadly sins for our times." It was a classic case of media mismanagement.
But something more remarkable than distorted reporting was at work here. Oddly enough, I detected in the headlines a sense of loss. Journalists seemed dismayed that the Vatican had gone all green and trendy. "We want our Seven Deadly Sins back!" was the lament of newspapers around the world, including India and the Middle East, where there are few Catholics. On the other side of the world, the New Zealand Herald, not hitherto distinguished for its interest in theology, splashed on the issue, with two columns, a cartoon and an editorial censuring the Vatican's presumed capitulation to windy "political superficiality".
This scandalised reaction is a backhanded compliment to the Catholic Church, of course. The media regard its theology as the gold standard of moral rectitude. They may sometimes rail at its intransigence and mock its conservatism. But should it ever backslide on its traditional teachings, it should expect to be crucified.
Reassuringly, those old favourites, the Seven Deadly Sins of pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth are still as relevant as ever, according the the Vatican's definitive treatise on Catholic teaching, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Many sins are condemned in the Bible, of course, not just these seven. But theologians of the early mediaeval period, notably Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th Century, selected seven as specially noteworthy. The idea was that any one of these deadly sins was so attractive that, according to the author of the Summa, St Thomas Aquinas, "in his desire for it a man goes on to the commission of many [other] sins".
Ever since they have fascinated artists. Dante used the sins to structure the Inferno and Purgatorio. The German Marxist playwright Bertold Brecht, a sinner if there ever was one, wrote a musical about them. There have been a number of movies, too, notably Se7en, a 1995 film about a serial killer with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman.
What explains this perplexing fascination? After all, most people smirk at "sin" as a superannuated relic of a bygone age. "Sinful" has become a slogan in advertisements for perfume and chocolate ice cream. But when shoddy reporting makes gives the impression that it has been abolished, all hell breaks loose, so to speak.
Surely it must be that sin is a more satisfying explanation of the evil in the world than determinism. A serious sin is a personal offense against one's neighbour, and, for a believer, against a loving God, done with intent and malice. Sin blackens and scars his inner life and distances him from others, even those he loves. Nearly all great literature shows sin at its destructive work: the murderous ambition of Macbeth, the mad arrogance of Achilles, the adulterous love of Hester Prynne…
The alternatives to sin are boring. Evil is sparked by my hormones, or my bad genes, or the oppressive social environment which surrounds me. It's not really convincing, since we all know, in those midnight moments of bleak sincerity, that I am responsible for what I did. Furthermore, an admission of responsibility makes it possible to seek forgiveness, as Dostoyevsky shows in Crime and Punishment. If Raskolnikov's brain turned him into a murderer, a theory popular amongst neuroscientists nowadays, he would never have discovered redemption. Besides, what sort of headlines can journalists write about misfiring neurons?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.