Catholicism and the Social Dimension of Sin

Father James Martin takes the London Times to task for their framing of the story of the Catholic Church’s developing views on the nature of sin. (Click here for my blog post on the Times story.)

Father Martin writes in the America Magazine–the national Catholic weekly–that the Times’ story has confused the issue “unnecessarily.” He writes:

pd_hell_070706_ms.jpgMy 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.”

The Vatican’s intent seemed to be less about adding to the traditional “deadly” sins (lust, anger, sloth, pride, avarice, gluttony, envy) than reminding the world that sin has a social dimension, and that participation in institutions that themselves sin is an important point upon which believers needed to reflect.

In other words, if you work for a company that pollutes the environment, you have something more important to consider for Lent than whether or not to give up chocolate.

Globalization, the Catholic Church, and Classroom Pedagogy

A while back I had the opportunity to allow a job candidate to come in and use my intro to IR class to give a her candidate classroom lecture. Following the 40-minute lecture–after the candidate and the rest of the faculty had left the room–I asked my students to anonymously write down their impressions of the teaching style of the job candidate. One of the responses was particularly illuminated and the latest news about the Catholic Church’s efforts to reform the concept of sin reminded me of that student’s response. The student’s response was (and I’m paraphrasing here):

“I didn’t like that she went around the room and made everyone answer her introductory question. I pay $40,000 in tuition annually and I have the right to sit in the classroom and be bored and do nothing if that’s what I want to do.”

I felt sorry for this student, because s/he has forgotten a couple of important rules about life, let alone post-secondary education: first, you only get out of something what you put in. Second, and more important, the whole classroom experience is a social experience, and the outcome of the educational process is not only a function of what the student him/herself is doing, and what the instructor is doing, but what others in the classroom are doing as well.

Apropos of the preceding, here is news from the London Times online, which demonstrates the Catholic Church’s approach to the concept of sin:

seven_poster.jpg…[Bishop Gianfranco Girotti] said that priests must take account of “new sins which have appeared on the horizon of humanity as a corollary of the unstoppable process of globalisation”. Whereas sin in the past was thought of as being an invididual matter, it now had “social resonance”.

“You offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting your neighbour’s wife, but also by ruining the environment, carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments, or allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA or compromise embryos,” he said.

Bishop Girotti said that mortal sins also included taking or dealing in drugs, and social injustice which caused poverty or “the excessive accumulation of wealth by a few”.

He said that two mortal sins which continued to preoccupy the Vatican were abortion, which offended “the dignity and rights of women”, and paedophilia, which had even infected the clergy itself and so had exposed the “human and institutional fragility of the Church”.

Maybe it’s time for Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman to do a sequel to Seven. 🙂

Comparative Political Party and Electoral Systems

In a few weeks, we will conduct an in-class exercise that simulates a German national election.  This will give you a good idea of the specifics of the German political party and electoral systems, which you will then be able to compare to other systems around the world.  The German system is fairly complicated in that each citizen casts two votes, one for a member running in a single-member district, while the other is cast for a party via a proportional system.

Elections are, of course, the conditio sine qua non–and the minimal institutional requirement–of democratic political systems.   A great web site dedicated to keeping track of elections around the world is They do not as of yet have the results from the most recent national elections in Spain, (they will shortly) but they do have election results for countries around the world going back decades for some countries.  You should check them out.

The Christian Science Monitor  on the incumbent Spanish government’s re-election this past week:

oresults_p1.jpgAided by a near-record turnout, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and the Socialist Party won the Spanish national elections – suggesting further changes toward diversity in a young democracy whose older generations cut their teeth on the Franco dictatorship and the moral authority of the Roman Catholic church.

The Socialist victory suggests Mr. Zapatero’s party has broken out of the longtime secondary status it has labored under, despite winning the last election in 2004.

Now, say analysts, the Socialists’ more liberal appeal to young people, women, and immigrants – along with its contemporary style of campaigning – must be taken seriously by the conservative Popular Party (PP), which ran on an older message of Spanish traditionalism and antipathy toward the feisty Basque and Catalonia regions.

Do the cited paragraphs remind you of any other electorate?

Modeling Social Processes–Abortion in Cross-national Comparison

Thanks to a post by Zoe and Geoff, I decided to use the social fact of variation in abortion rates from country to country as the inspiration for class discussion today on the modeling process in social sciences. First, the data* (listing only the top and bottom 10–the US is 30th (out of 90 countries with data available) with a rate of 23.9% in 2003):










Bosnia and Herzegovina



























Puerto Rico



























Now, according to Lave and March, the next step in the model-building process is to consider a social process that would lead to this outcome. There were three potential answers given in class, which correspond to three categories of explanation that we will address throughout the course:

1) Cultural–it would seem that religion is very important to individuals in the countries with the lowest rates. Most of these countries are strongly Catholic and the Church’s official policies are strongly anti-abortion (pro-life). Thus, individuals in these societies are inculcated with a strong view of what to do in the case of an unwanted pregnancy.

2) Rational Choice–one of the groups argued that the decision to abort (or not) a fetus was made on the basis of strategic calculations of self-interest. The countries at the bottom, these students argued, were agricultural and poorer, and children are needed as a source of labor for the household, as a future hedge against retirement for parents who live in societies with a poorly developed social welfare state, with little hope of receiving retirement funds from the government.

3) Institutional–rules, laws, regulations. Some students argued that some countries (like Chile) have laws making abortion illegal, thus either lowering the number overall, or decreasing the incentive for those having illegal abortions to report them to the official authorities.

That was great work; give yourselves a pat on the back or a round of applause.

The third step in the modeling process is, then, to tease out further implications of your preferred hypothesis above. Let’s go back to the cultural explanation. If it’s true that the Catholic Church has a tremendous impact on people’s views of what is right and wrong then, as one student asked, “wouldn’t it also be the case that divorce levels in these countries should be lower than divorce levels in the countries at the top of the list (since the Catholic Church also frowns upon divorce) ?

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