March 13, 2008

To everyone who got exercised about the “Vatican’s” new so-called “list of deadly sins” for the modern age, I have some good news—or bad news, if you’re a jaded secularist looking to pick a fight: The Vatican didn’t publish anything of the kind. In fact, if I might explain a little about how things work here in Rome (just a few blocks away from where I’m sitting now, over at St. Peter’s): “The Vatican” rarely issues anything, other than parking tickets and stamps; that name refers to the government of the micro-state known as Vatican City, created in 1929 by the Treaty of the Lateran, to guarantee the Church’s independence of the Italian State. (This independence came in handy from 1944-45, when Pius XII was able to hide thousands of Italian Jews and dissidents from the Germans, under the fig-leaf of Vatican sovereignty; many of them lived for months in the papal wine cellars, and where possible the Jews were served Kosher food at the pope’s insistence.)

When an official teaching of the Church is issued, it’s issued by some office or other of what is called the Holy See. That name refers to the papal office, and the pope’s role as universal pastor of Christians—rather than as administrator of a few acres on the western side of the Tiber. So when you read a media report that attributes some doctrinal teaching to “the Vatican,” consider yourself forewarned that the reporter (in this case, a writer from Bloomberg News) probably doesn’t understand the institution about which he’s writing. Another clue is when he attributes the chance remark of a cardinal or priest to the “Vatican,” because that cleric happens to work there.

There are many different forms in which new explanations of the Church’s timeless teachings can come from the Holy See: They range in level of authority from mere advice or the pope’s private opinion, such as he might express in Sunday talk (or “Angelus) delivered to pilgrims at noon in St. Peter’s Square, up through encyclicals, Church councils, and finally solemn ex cathedra statements, which are notoriously rare. If the Church were to issue something as important as a new list of deadly sins—updating a teaching that goes back to St. Gregory the Great (+604))—it would probably come at least in the form of an encyclical, a letter addressed to the bishops and faithful of the world. Or it might be offered by the Church’s doctrinal office—which Cardinal Ratzinger headed before his ascent to the papal throne—the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The list of new “deadly sins” came from none of these sources. In fact, it was compiled by a journalist, Nicola Gori, who was interviewing a bishop, Gianfranco Girotti, for the quasi-official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. In the interview, published March 9, the journalist teased out from Bishop Girotti his ideas on how to apply Catholic morality to contemporary questions, such as economics and the environment. Bishop Girotti has some competence to address these issues; as regent of the tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, he is in charge of offering guidance to priests around the world when they hear Catholics’ confessions. But the good bishop has no (and would claim no) authority to update the moral theology of the Church and re-orient it toward social issues, instead of one’s personal moral life. That’s just how the media spun it. It’s as if a prominent rabbi in Israel, in an interview, spoke about a serious moral issue, and the secular media presented it as “Jews Add 11th Commandment.” Fech!

That said, it makes perfect sense for churchmen such as Bishop Girotti to address contemporary problems. As an old and wise institution, the Church is obliged to warn modern men that our consumption of natural resources and impact on ecology has implications for the Common Good. Economists have a name for such implications; they call them “externalities,” by which they mean costs which an individual or corporation imposes on innocent third parties. This happens when companies poison streams, and if the scientific consensus is correct, it is happening with climate change. I don’t see how it is “conservative” in any sense to laugh off documented warnings that our present reckless behavior may be endangering the viability for the entire earth’s population of what is—I hate to say it, folks—THE ONLY INHABITABLE PLANET WE KNOW OF SO FAR. If there were even a 10% risk that driving our gas-guzzlers really threatened to MAKE EARTH UNINHABITABLE, I would think a Burkean might take notice. Certainly, a bishop might pay attention. So would the pope. Who wouldn’t? The same people who laughed off warnings about the Iraq war, I should think.

I wish that U.S. bishops would pay more attention to the externalities generated by mass immigration. Ironically, their advocacy of the unlimited influx of cheap labor into the U.S. helps feed into one of the other evils rightly bemoaned by Bishop Girotti, “excessive wealth”—by which he means, I think, exaggerated inequality, particularly within a given society. The growing inequality in the U.S. today is vastly increased by the influx of unskilled immigrants, as Harvard’s George Borjas has documented. He’s not making the obvious point, that by bringing in poor people from Mexico you’re increasing… the ratio of poor Mexicans to upper-class suburbanites. Instead, he’s noting that the WAGE FREEZE experienced by the American native working class over the past 40 years can be traced directly to the ever-growing numbers of unskilled workers arriving on our shores, bidding down the price of labor. Good capitalists out there who accept the laws of supply and demand should be able to understand this point. The “conservatives” who support unlimited unskilled immigration are perfectly aware that they are pulling up the ladder which once connected the working class (men like my father) to the middle class… and they’re perfectly happy to do it, since it means cheaper gardeners and more compliant maids. Those of us who don’t sign on to this plutocratic plan have a name for such people: Hacienda Republicans. It’s worth pointing out what typically happens to haciendas in the long run. They prove surprisingly… flammable.


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