April 30, 2008 (the date of publication in Russian)

Anastasiya Kirillova


"Theological amendment" ascribed to Vatican

Weeks ago, Russian media were flooded with sensational reports on seven more items allegedly added by the Holy See to the list of mortal sins The rumor contained a reference to L'Osservatore Romano, the official mass medium of Vatican.

However, the list of new sins suspiciously differs on Russian websites, except those which just mechanically reproduce the report from a supposedly higher authority.

The most popular version included: transgression of bioethics (particularly, birth control); experiments on fetal tissues (medical use of stem cells, etc.); pollution of environment; increase of social stratification; use of drugs; excessive wealth and activities that multiply poverty.

Though this combination did not look plausible, the news instantly spread across the web, spawning a number of analytical interpretations and even broadcasted by state-run TV channels (that distorted the original text most of all). The subject dominated in the blogosphere around three days. Impressed bloggers reproduced the sensational news on their pages, expressing surprise or indignation over "arbitrariness" of the Holy See.

In fact, L'Osservatore Romano has not lately published any "list of new sins". This document does not exist at all. On March 9, the paper published an interview with Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the ecclesiastical body supervising issues of sins and penance. Monsignor Girotti expressed his view on globalization and relevant erosion of the very definition of sin in human conscience. He spoke about "social malice" of the new century that affects not a single individual or a group of persons but potentially the whole mankind.

The excerpt that gave birth to the web sensation does not contain any extraordinary statements. Here is the translation of the piece in L'Osservatore published by

Nicola Gori: What is in your view the malice of today's society?

Gianfranco Girotti: There are different field where sinful behavior affects individual and public rights. First of all, this is reflected in bioethics that clearly violates the basic rights of the Human. Today's genetic experiments and manipulations are unforeseeable and uncontrolled.

In another sphere, in social life, that is use of drugs that damages the mental state and obnubilates the mind, and alienates many young people from the Church.

In the sphere of distribution of public and economic welfare, this is social stratification. This means that the poor are plunged into desperate poverty while the rich gain more wealth. Add environmental pollution. All these issues are urgently facing the humanity.

Rev. Sergey Nikolenko, a Roman Catholic priest and expert in cathechetesis and evangelization, expressed in the air of RIA Novosti that Monsignor Girotti's interview was focused on social malice and not the canonic list of sins of an individual. Nikolenko made clear that the misinterpretation was made by La Repubblica that identified the items, mentioned in Girotti's interview, "a list of mortal sins", actually in order to ridicule Monsignor Girotti.

The traditional list of mortal sins remains unchanged. It includes Pride, Wrath, Envy, Lust (Lechery), Gluttony, Avarice (Mammon), and Sloth. It was formulated by Gregory Dialogos in the VII century and propagated in the XIII century by Thomas Aquinas. Some theologians contribute a list of virtues that are opposite to each of the sins. This list (in which the approach of Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology coincides) is not a corpus of canonic law and not an indispensable part of Christian belief.

Both Catholic and Orthodox theologians emphasize that the concept of five mortal sins helps the human to recognize his spiritual imperfection. The same purpose was pursued by Gianfranco Girotti who expressed his personal view on sinful behavior to the interviewer from L'Osservatore Romano.

Russian Orthodox clergymen share Girotti's judgments. Rev. Vladimir Simonov, chair of the Publishing Department of the Moscow Patriarchy and Arch-Priest of the Church of Our Lady in Staroye Simonovo, claimed that the problems he mentions encounter the Orthodox community as well, and that they had been already raised and identified as substantial and requiring solution in the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Thus, the Holy See has not introduced any groundbreaking amendments to basic theological definitions. The rumor was refuted, and most of the websites erased the sensational version. Still, the very phenomenon of massive misinterpretation of theology by journalism is worth discussion. In fact, not only bloggers but first-rate state-run media of the Russian Federation have relied upon a piece of anti-clerical mockery of La Repubblica's columnist without a bit of criticism, as if he were commenting on table manners. Russian journalism should not be so careless with fundamental issues, and not so reliant upon idle quizzery of secular newspapers: the fact they are published in Rome does not yet make them the instance of ultimate truth.

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