by Fred E. Foldvary
If they can find new sin, can they find new sense?
The Vatican has revised the traditional Catholic “Seven Deadly Sins” with new ones, including “being obscenely wealthy.” Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, announced the new sins in an interview published on March 10, 2008, in LOsservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. He explained that the old sins (sloth, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, wrath, and pride), laid down in the 6th century by Pope Gregory the Great, are individualistic, whereas the seven new ones are social, affecting others.
The new social mortal sins consist of producing genetic modification, carrying out experiments on humans, polluting the environment, causing social injustice, causing poverty, becoming obscenely wealthy, and taking bad drugs. The Catholic Church classifies sins into less serious venial sins and the graver mortal sins. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, as violation of God’s law, mortal sins result in “eternal death” if they remain unrepented by the act of confession and penitence. Bishop Girotti explained that the sin of obscene wealth consists of “the excessive accumulation of wealth by a few.”
It is not clear to me why becoming obscenely wealthy was not previously considered a sin, and how new sins can come into being. It seems to me that God’s laws are eternal, never changing, so it is not possible for new sins to be created, even by God. It’s possible that there has been a more fundamental moral law on wealth being bad, and that new circumstances have made obscene wealth worse, while previously it was not so bad. But there have been high inequality and extremely wealthy persons, often kings and emperors, in the past, and it is not clear why great wealth would be worse today than in the past. Also, greed was already one of the deadly sins, so there must be something other than greed going on to make wealth a new sin.
This new sin is qualified by the amount of wealth having to be "obscene." The word "obscene" can mean offensive or repulsive, or else just lewd even if nobody is offended. Since the bishop explained that obscene wealth means excessive accumulation, evidently "obscene wealth" means wealth that people or perhaps Church chiefs consider to be offensive because it is excessive. Then the sin is simply having more wealth than some Church people consider to be OK.
There are two basic ways to apply moral judgments. One is to judge an outcome, and the other is to judge a process. The first way condemns inequality, wealth, or poverty because it exists, regardless of how it came about. The second way judges how it came about. This new Catholic sin applies the first way, judging an outcome regardless of the process of getting there.
The universal ethic universal ethic applies natural moral law to a process, not an outcome. By the u.e., if one acquires wealth by just means, then the resulting wealth is just, i.e. not evil. By natural moral law, human beings are equal self-owners, and therefore properly own their labor and the wages of labor, so even if labor achieves high wealth, it is not immoral. It does not harm others to accumulate wealth by labor and voluntary exchange, no matter how much wealth is produced.
By natural moral law, theft is immoral, so if wealth is obtained by stealing what belongs to others, then that act or process is evil. Stolen wealth is evil not because the wealth is large but because the act of theft is evil.
Therefore by natural moral law, as expressed by the universal ethic, there is no obscenity in wealth as such, no matter how large. By the u.e., the concept of “excessive” wealth is meaningless. There is only evil in obtaining wealth by theft.
If we take human equality seriously, then not only are we equally self-owners but also equal owners of the natural heritage, the natural resources provided by nature or God. Theft takes place when one takes more than one’s equal share of the benefits of nature, as measured economically by the rent of those resources. Theft is also committed by the pollution that degrades the value of the natural environment. If one uses the term “obscene” for wealth, then becoming and being obscenely wealthy consists of the theft of others’ labor, products of labor, contractual obligations, and others’ equal share of nature, including natural rents and environmental quality.
Unfortunately, Catholic doctrine is not congruent with the universal ethic. However, it can become so. If new sins can be recognized, then doctrine can change again, to recognize that "Thou Shalt Not Steal" applies to others’ labor and share of nature, and that if there is no theft, there is no sin in having wealth. The Church need only go back to the Ten Commandments and recognize what is theft and what is not theft.
This article first appeared in the Progress Report, www.progress.org. Reprinted with permission.
Dr. Fred Foldvary teaches economics at Santa Clara University and is the author of several books: The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and the Dictionary of Free-Market Economics.