Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, who occupies the second highest place in the Vatican’s “Apostolic Penitentiary,” may be wondering what the appropriate penance is that the mainstream media should pay for turning his comments about confession into an international burlesque.

In a March interview with L’Osservatore Romano, the good bishop bemoaned the fact that, according to a study by Milan’s Catholic University, 60% of Italian Catholics have stopped going to confession. He also expressed concern that, according to the study, 30% of the same Catholics do not believe there is a need for a priest to be an intermediary.

When asked what he believed today’s “new sins” are, he referred to the violations of human rights that are going on through embryonic stem-cell research, genetic manipulation and abortion. He also made reference to “ecological” offenses, such as pollution.

To this somewhat off-hand catalogue of four, he added drug-taking, the accumulation of excessive wealth, and causing poverty.

Vesting Girotti with powers he does not pretend to have, the media credited him with the remarkable achievement of replacing the classical Seven Deadly Sins with a new septet.

The UK’s Daily Telegraph, for example, ran an article entitled. “Recycle or Go to Hell,” in which it reported that the new list of sins “replaces the list originally drawn up by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century.” The Fox News statement, “Vatican Adds Seven New Deadly Sins,” was echoed in various parts of the world:

• Boston: “Vatican Lists Pollution as New Sin,”

• Chicago: “Vatican Modernizes 7 Deadly Sins,”

• Tampa Bay: “Pope Identifies New Sins,”

• Associated Press: “Vatican Updates Its Thou-Shalt-Not List,”

• Australia, “Polluters’ Souls in Danger,”

• London: “Avoid Recycling, Go to Hell,”

• Turkey: “Seven Deadly Sins Doubled,” and

• India: “Vatican’s New Seven Deadly Sins Include Being Filthy Rich.”

It should be noted that the “Seven Deadly Sins” are not really sins, exactly, but dispositions toward them. Their origin goes back to the First Letter of St. John (15-16), where the Gospel writer refers to the “lust of the flesh,” “lust of the eyes” and the “pride of life.”

According to St. Augustine, lust, gluttony, and sloth exemplify the “lust of the flesh,” while greed is synonymous with “lust of the eyes,” and pride, envy, and anger are identified with the “pride of life.”

A penitent does not confess “pride” but only the transgressions or the specific sins that flow from it. Conversely, by rooting out the so-called “deadly” or “capital” sins, one is taking a decisive step in removing the basis for committing specific sins.

Another important point that the international media failed to report is that sin, in the primary sense of the term, is an offense against God.

“Sin is a rejection of relationality,” writes Cardinal Ratzinger in his 1986 opus, In the Beginning ... Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall. One does not sin, strictly speaking, against the environment.

The environment has no capacity to care what we do to it. After all, it was once a whirling ball of fire. Nevertheless, the future Benedict XVI is at some pains to emphasize that God’s directive expressed in Genesis 2:15 “to till it and keep it” means that humankind is “supposed to look after the world as God’s creation in accordance with the rhythm and the logic of creation.”

In other words, with respect to the environment, God has commanded us to be responsible stewards. Ecological recklessness, then, is a sin against God. It is in no way a “new” sin.

Misunderstanding is one thing. Misrepresentation is another. The second is less excusable than the first.

But mockery can be venal, especially when it is leveled against a Church that is trying to offer light for a world plunged in darkness.

At the same time, mockery is hardly a new sin.

How much damage control, one may ask, can the Catholic media provide against the tidal wave of mockery that routinely gushes forth from the secular media?

This writer was asked to offer his own comments on the Girotti affair by ABC News in New York. I obliged, though I do not know if they were taken with more than a grain of salt.

Perhaps we should see each treachery as an opportunity to teach.

Educated Catholics, then, should be tireless teachers, as well as indefatigable learners.

Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at

Holy Apostles College and Seminary

in Cromwell, Connecticut.