A Hard Icon for a Soft Age: Pope Benedict Comes With an Ancient Rebuke

Posted: Apr 14, 2008 12:01 AM

Pope Benedict XVI is an odd man for our season. We hardly live in a religious age, or even in a time of minimal regard for concerns of the soul. But when the pope visits the United States this week, he will be a welcome visitor for more than hundreds of thousands of Catholics who live here. The devout will want to hear him say mass at the new baseball stadium, and the Protestants, Jews and those of no faith will be more than merely curious. Pope Benedict is a tough icon for a soft age, unapologetic for defending the ancient code of morality, virtue and rectitude by which everyone can measure himself or herself.

Religious faith has become a subject for fun and derision, and books promoting atheism as some sort of pseudo-faith are bestsellers. But large majorities of Americans say they believe in God, and the three remaining presidential candidates are open about their Christian beliefs. The Seven Deadly Sins -- pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust -- are first transgressions against Catholic dogma, but continue to resonate with skeptics as well. The sins are far more powerful as the diagnosis of wayward human behavior than a sinner saying "my genes, the environment or my toilet training made me do it."

Many of us poke fun at belief in Satan, but even such a sinning poet as Baudelaire observed wryly, "The Devil's cleverest wile is to convince us that he does not exist." Anticipating the pope's visit, The Washington Post, which famously mocked faith as something only for the poorly educated and "easy to command," recently mocked politics, Washington's only reason for being, as the devil's work. (I think they were joking.) "It's harder and harder trying to do the Lord's work in the city of Satan," John McCain told a small audience in Atlanta at the headquarters of Chick-fil-A, a fast-food restaurant chain whose founder is a devout Baptist. (I think he was joking, too.) The capital's Mayflower Hotel, where Eliot Spitzer is said to have rendezvoused with an expensive call girl, has joined the Watergate on the tourists' tour of famous sites of sinning.

Passages in John Milton's epic "Paradise Lost," which tell how Satan leads the fallen angels in a debate over how to avenge their expulsion from heaven, read like the transcript of a meeting in Washington to discuss options in the war against the Islamist legion in the Middle East. In Milton's poem, the fallen angel Moloch calls for "open war." Belial prescribes wishful thinking, passive capitulation -- doing nothing: "Our Supreme Foe in time may much remit His anger." Mammon expresses the isolationist position, wanting to dig for gold and other treasures to make a heaven of hell. Satan speaks of colonizing Earth.

The late Henry Fairlie, a well-known British journalist writing from Washington in the 1970s, was a bit of a lady's man and hardly a prude, but he eloquently rebuked the sin of pride in his book, "Seven Deadly Sins Today," observing how the sins puff up the political establishment with vanity, egotism, self-glorification and self-righteousness. He invoked Dorothy Sayers' warning "the devilish strategy of Pride is that it attacks us, not in our weakest points, but in our strongest. It is preeminently the sin of the noble mind." Nothing has changed in the three decades since.

Prior to Pope Benedict's mission to Washington, Bishop Gianfranco Girotti -- overseer of the Vatican office for matters of sin, punishment and penance -- announced an additional list of seven deadly sins. These include: polluting the environment, trafficking in drugs, manipulating human genes, contributing to the poverty of others and accumulating excessive wealth. In this catalog of vices, global warming is the real fire and brimstone. Or, as a headline in the London Telegraph put it: "Recycle or Go to Hell."

The original top seven said it better. The new list moves the emphasis on personal behavior to an emphasis on the community's social goals. "Forgive me father, for I scored in the stock market," doesn't quite carry the weight of a confession of avarice, which shows a hardness of heart to the dismal lives of the poor. St. Paul called avarice the root of all evils because it enables a rich man to satisfy his desire to sin.

Pope Gregory the Great, who consolidated the original seven deadlies in the sixth century, decreed that his list would serve "as a classification of the normal perils of the soul in the ordinary conditions of life." The conditions of life have changed radically since then, but the normal perils of the soul have not. The devil is still in the details.