For Catholics, is stem-cell research worse than sloth?

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March 12 2008 5:37 PM

Deadly Sins 101

Is stem-cell research worse than sloth?

Hieronymus Bosch's Seven Deadly Sins. Click image to expand.
Hieronymus Bosch's Seven Deadly Sins

The Vatican released a list of seven new sins on Monday. Dubbed the "social sins," they include conducting stem-cell research, polluting the environment, and causing poverty. Along with the old standbys —like lust, pride, and greed—these seven are considered to be of the "deadly" variety. What kinds of sins aren't deadly?

The venial ones. The Catholic Church divides sinful behavior into two categories: mortal and venial. (The distinction wasn't widespread until the medieval period.) Mortal sins are those that the sinner knows are serious but nonetheless decides to perform. They include the seven deadly sins as well as countless others, like witchcraft or skipping out on Sunday Mass. Other indiscretions, including any that were carried out by an ignorant or unwilling sinner, fall into the venial category. So do lesser versions of the mortal sins; for example, mild overeating would be a venial sin whereas gluttony is deadly. With both types, you can wipe the slate clean with confession and repentance, but only unrepented mortal sins can condemn you to eternal hell.

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Obviously there's some wiggle room as to what exactly qualifies as a mortal sin since the sinner's intention and awareness are taken into account. Beyond the basic mortal-venial divide, Catholics have carved out many gradations of sin severity and appropriate penance. A thousand years ago, a priest who heard a confession could refer to his Penitential, a handbook issued by local churches outlining the gravity of each specific sin. Even then he wouldn't be bound by the guidebook, however, and today priests have the freedom to assign penance as they see fit.

Islam has a similar division between Kabira (grave sins) and Saghira (minor sins), with a widely agreed-upon list of 17 grave sins. Unlike in Catholicism, sinners appeal directly to God for forgiveness, without the middleman of a priest. As a result, the repentance process is less clear-cut: You can't just do your Our Fathers and regain purity. Rather, the grave sins and minor sins are tallied up over your lifetime, and at the end it's your overall track record—what sins you committed and how fervently you repented—that determine whether you make it into paradise. That process is referred to as "the accounting," and the only certainty in the calculation is the one grave sin that cannot be forgiven: renouncing Islam.

Judaism also distinguishes between "heavy" and "light" sins. But both Islam and Judaism lack the central authority that the Catholic Church has to specify what behavior qualifies as which kind of sin. Any rabbi's or mufti's interpretation of which sins are the extra-bad ones is as valid as any other's. And since the Jews lack the fire-and-brimstone view of the afterlife present in Islam and Catholicism, the arithmetic of sin gets even more muddled: Even if all rabbis agree that adultery (which the Torah specifies as punishable by death) is a "heavy" sin, they probably won't have a uniform answer for what happens to an adulterer after death.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Art Friedson, Frank Griffel of Yale University, Paul Griffiths of Duke University, and Francis E. Peters of New York University.

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