Sinful journalism

seven deadly sins wristbandsYesterday I poked fun at the shoddy journalism that marked coverage of the Vatican’s supposed reissue of seven deadly sins. Most of the papers responsible for the bad reporting were British. Which, considering the different standards and approach of the British media, isn’t the most surprising thing in the world.

Last year, the inestimable John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter wrote:

Reporting on religion in the mainstream British press is not only sometimes dreadful, it’s dangerous, and something needs to be done about it.

Allen was writing about an objectively false report in the Times (U.K.) stating that Anglicans and Catholics were considering uniting. But his statement could have been written this week.

Well, the sad news is that the America media can’t get enough of sensationalism either. Fox News was rerunning the Times (U.K.)‘s coverage on this story but ABC News had reporter John Berman come up with an original story for Nightline. It is laughably bad. I think it makes the British papers look good. Take, for instance, the headline:

Wrath, Lust, and Littering? The New Seven Deadly Sins
Vatican Official Says Old Sins Don’t Cut it in the Modern World

Not true. The Vatican official did not say that “old” sins don’t cut it anymore. That’s just not true.

For the last 1,500 years or so, the world of sin has been fairly simple.

Wrath and lust are two biggies on the list of the “seven deadly sins” proclaimed by Pope Gregory in the 6th century, and made famous by Dante in the “Divine Comedy” an Italian poem that portrayed the Christian after-life in the 1300s.

But these days, according to a Vatican official, anger management and a cold shower might not be enough to keep you sin-free not if you litter.

I bet any pastor or priest hearing confession would be able to dispute the notion that the sin of lust is in any way straightforward. My own pastor says sexual struggles are huge, sweeping, nearly universal problems and that the longer he is a pastor, the more he realizes they are some of the deepest problems as well as the most difficult to rectify. The notion that sexual sin is either straightforward or easily cured by a cold shower is offensive and dismissive to the extreme. Since the Brits do “cheeky” better, this kind of silliness comes off better across the pond.

And it’s a shame about this coverage because the underlying story sounds interesting. I presume the Vatican official was talking about modern sin precisely because yahoos like this ABC reporter don’t understand how the sin of lust adapts to ever-changing circumstances.

Also on the list are drug abuse, and huge inequality of wealth with the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer. Some hedge fund billionaires better start brushing up on their Dante.

Hardy har har! Oh wait, that’s stupid. Speaking of brushing up on Dante, Berman, remember how he talks all the time about the sin of avarice? Well, see, avarice refers to an excessive greediness after wealth. So it’s not really new, then, is it?

And economic injustice — particularly as it pertains to the poorest — isn’t exactly what you’d call a new concern for the church either. Here’s another egregious paragraph:

According to Catholic doctrine, mortal sins are a grave violation of God’s law, and can bring about eternal damnation if you don’t confess. It’s unclear which of the newer sins are mortal, but either way, it’s a pretty big impetus to pick up your trash.

Hurt me. Or to put it in a way he can understand, it’s unclear if Berman’s hacky prose is a regular feature of his writing, but either way, it’s a pretty big impetus to avoid his byline.

So how does all this horrible reporting happen? Catholic News Service blames headline writers having fun. America — the National Catholic Weekly blames a mixture of problems:

My guess is that some in the media bobbled this story for two reasons, neither of them malicious. First, a general unfamiliarity with the contemporary Catholic tradition of social sin, even though under Pope John Paul II something like “anti-Semitism” was often referred to in those terms. And, second, the fact that a headline that reads “Seven New Deadly Sins” is undeniably sexier than a headline saying, “Vatican Official Deepens Church’s Reflection on Longstanding Tradition of Social Sin.”

Speaking of social sin, Catholic News Service framed the story in a way that might be helpful for readers. I just hope these predictable and boring reporters have gotten the worst journalism out of their systems. I don’t know how much more I can take.

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  • FW Ken

    So much silliness, so little time.

    For one thing, “mortal” sin is 1.) objectively serious in and of itself, 2.) done in full knowledge that it’s wrong, and 3.) done freely. I would submit that littering is not intrinsically serious matter, although perhaps concealing a toxic waste dump site might be. Building homes on a toxic waste site would be serious, but, arguably, the builder could be unaware of the toxic waste underneath. And so on. All of which is to say that I doubt the Vatican official referred to “mortal sin”.

    Second, I can’t imagine a sin that, for a Catholic, isn’t “social”: individualism is not part of our Faith. All of us are connected to one another in Christ, and what one does affects all.

  • Stoo

    Well for a star it’s just “the times”, there’s no “of london” in the name.

    Also I’d agree some of the coverage of that “new sins” stuff wasn’t great. But the papers seemed to settle on a fairly flippant tone. I guess a lot of peoples angle is of not taking the pope especially seriously as an authority figure. I mean this is the guy in charge of an institution that preaches against poverty then opposes the contraception that might help stop it! I mean I get that there were some errors, but I also suspect our press just aren’t respectful as you’d like them to be.

  • Mollie


    Your unquestionable wisdom about birth control and poverty notwithstanding, this is not about respect but getting basic facts right.

  • Martha

    Oh, that report…

    “The biggest new concern the “sin official” listed is genetic engineering.”

    “Sin official”? “Sin official”??!!

    “It’s unclear which of the newer sins are mortal, but either way, it’s a pretty big impetus to pick up your trash.”

    No, it’s perfectly clear: how you tell a mortal sin is this way (CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, SECOND EDITION

    - “1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

    Or, as we learned it back in school, “Grave matter, full knowledge and free consent.”

    “It is just that new developments, new advances, mean new ways of sinning — could it be long before loud cell phone conversations make the list?”

    Goodness, I don’t know, John – why don’t you tell me? Though I’ll grant him this much – I’m not exactly sure is it a mortal sin to make someone to want to boil your turnip head in oil, dear John, but for my part I know I shouldn’t want to do that to you.

    And these are the same guys who expect us to take their word for it when reporting on finance, politics, and law.

  • Stoo

    I’m pretty sure I said “I get that there were errors”.

  • Christian

    Thank you for your blog, God Bless you :)

  • B. Minich

    Now, I realize that this was probably submitted before the Spitzer stuff broke, but how can you say that lust is easy when so many major political figures, who seemingly have no reason to cheat on their wives, do so anyway? Spitzer was married, had one of the most powerful jobs in the country, but he threw that away because he was lusting after something he didn’t have. Sin that causes someone to have the desire for prostitutes despite what it might cost him is a bit more involved than this story lets on.

  • MJBubba

    Journalists just don’t get … sin.

  • Brian V


    “Unquestionable wisdom” may be something of a stretch. Let me be clear: I’m a physician and Roman Catholic. While I do my best to be consistently “pro-life” (a loaded term, but it will have to do for now) I have no trouble prescribing contraception for my patients and encourage sexually active teens to use both condoms and contraception if they cannot or will not abstain. I find Humanae Vitae, which I have read several times, coherently reasoned but disconnected to lived reality, an ideal which rarely obtains.

    I also frequently work in developing countries in the global South, and my experiences there suggest that poverty is a nothing if not incredibly complex. A dismissive response of the rich North usually takes the form of “Why don’t these people use birth control?” I have no doubt that increased availability and use of contraception may help alleviate global poverty, but it is now and will remain only a small part of the total solution.

    To begin with, the People’s Republic of China was the first country in history to reduce fertility without first raising the average standard of living. How it did so was not pretty, a story I need not go into here. Second, global poverty has at least as much to do with resource and wealth distribution as it has to do with population. Relieving debt, overcoming entrenched economic equalities which benefit the North to the detriment of the South, and reducing excessive resource consumption in the North — these are at least as important as technologically controlled fertility reduction.

    As someone who once imagined that poverty could be overcome with enough condoms and pills, I now suspect that we in the materially comfortable North have our reasons for keeping this conversation focused on contraception:
    First, it permits us in the North to talk about two of our favorite things: sex and technology. Second, it shifts the locus of responsibility for world poverty from the overconsuming North to “all those black, brown, yellow and red people having too much sex.” Self-serving stereotypes die hard if at all, even (perhaps especially) among liberals. Third, it costs us next to nothing. We don’t have to reexamine the ways in which other parts of the world are destroyed and impoverished for our benefit, don’t have to question our assumptions about cheap technological fixes, and don’t have to even think about changing the way we live.

    Emmanuel Katongole, a Catholic priest from Uganda, writes quite perceptively about the effect of “condomisation programmes” in response to AIDS in his country. Katongole’s focus, interestingly, is not on Church teaching about “intrinsic evil” or separating the unitive and procreative aspects of sex, but rather the corrosive effects of imposing a Northern model of sexual individualism upon the far more communal societies of the South. It’s a very complex matter, hardly the sort of thing to be solved with a few more tons of pills and miles and miles of latex. And there’s very little relevant,”unquestionable wisdom” on the matter to be heard from those of us north of the equator.

  • Mollie

    Brian V., et. al.,

    Not that I’m taking a position on the issue here but I was being sarcastic with Stoo.

    But, of course, all this is off topic for GetReligion. We limit our discussions to media coverage of religion.

  • Brian V


    Thanks. Point taken.


  • Stoo

    Ok sorry, I didn’t mean to try and start an argument about catholics in africa. It was just an example of a reason for why some of the press here might not be hugely impressed with the pope. Readers here might not agree with the reasons, but that’s another matter.

    Throw in that we’re a more secular country in the first place, so more likely to be a bit flippant about this kind of news item.

  • DJY

    I would question whether it is either necessary or good that we be a “bit flippant” (which, in this case, seems to be a more than generous characterization) when it comes to the coverage of something that millions hold dearly. Frankly, if being the leader of nearly a sixth of the planet’s population (millions of whom, breathless reports notwithstanding, actually follow) is not sufficient to “impress” regardless of your views, I’m not sure anyone, Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Pol Pot, you name him or her is impressive.

    Indeed, I would argue such wanton flippancy is the leading cause that people view the MSM as institutionally incapable of “Getting Religion” or most other non-ivory tower topics for that matter.

  • Ann Rodgers

    The most basic problem with all of the reporting is the failure to realize that an interview in L’Oservatore Romano does NOT make new doctrine. News outlets were acting as if this was an encyclical. It was someone in the Vatican bureaucracy offering his own analysis about how Catholic teaching on sin and social justice applies in our day. It was no more authorative than if he’d given the same interview to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
    Yes, I know that L’Osservatore Romano is the official Vatican newspaper. But, as an archbishop who used to write for L’Osservatore once told me with a laugh, “Does anybody actually think that the Secretary of State [or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] reviews every article that goes in there?”
    There was nothing new in the interview that I could detect. But if there had been, it would have had no doctrinal impact.

  • Will

    Apparently, a lot of people in “the press” and those who believe him DO think that “The Vatican” is some sort of hive mind. After all, Everyone Knows that TheCatholicChurch is monolithic and authoritarian.(Compare the “Vatican defends Harry Potter/Vatican condemns Harry Potter” stories.)

    This is not peculiar to coverage of “TheVatican” or even the press. I have witnessed over and over, situations where the Third Assistant Bottlewasher’s opinions on something are promptly followed by “Did you hear what THEY said?”

    And I understand that the “official paper” is Acta Apostolicae Sedis.

    In this case, all these “journalists” should have to read Ronald Knox’s story on “The New Sin”. There the Catholics stay calm amid a media feeding frenzy, noting ‘if it contravened some existing precept of God or the Church, it was note new; and if not, it was not a sin.”