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Sins of tobacco require more than day’s indulgence


In Nov. 29, a papal bull was released with guidelines for Holy Year indulgences. Incarnationis Mysterium included a five-page appendix suggesting various ways for gaining indulgences. Actions ranged from the old (visiting Rome’s basilicas) to the new. According to the Catholic News Service, “the church will offer a plenary, or full, indulgence -- one per day -- during the Holy Year for those who go to confession and Communion, and then ... abstain for at least one whole day from unnecessary consumption, such as ... tobacco.”

While many have questioned this renewed stress on indulgences as archaic, I question the archaic approach the institutional church has toward tobacco itself.

Smoking causes almost half a million deaths a year in the United States, more than 3 million deaths worldwide. Instead of a strong Jubilee statement related to the release of captives applying to tobacco addiction with warnings to tobacco corporate executives to “sin no more,” tobacco users get an indulgence for what can only be considered an indulgence to continue killing oneself and others.

The pope, the Vatican and the U.S. bishops continually challenge Catholics on the issue of abortion. But all have maintained virtual silence on the fact that, annually, cigarette smoking causes up to 141,000 abortions in the United States alone, according to the Journal of Family Practice. Does not this number parallel the number of deaths coming from “partial birth” abortions?

In the face of all this data, the only “official” reference to smoking in any church document I have found is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There tobacco use is covered under the “the virtue of temperance.” It “disposes us to avoid every kind of excess” including “the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco or medicine.” It seems tobacco can be used in moderation; only its excessive use is sinful.

Last year, as tobacco program coordinator for the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, I researched statements related to tobacco from Protestant and Catholic organizations. I sent my unofficial survey to all the major Protestant churches in the United States and a random sample of all the Catholic dioceses and religious orders. Questions dealt with five areas: 1) Whether or not the group or its parent organization had made any morality statement regarding tobacco; 2) issues related to tobacco investments (screens, holding stocks, divestment and shareholder involvement on tobacco concerns); 3) smoke-free workplaces; 4) acceptance of ads or moneys from tobacco interests as well as whether tobacco entities had ever been honored by the religious institution; and 5) personal impressions as to whether religious leaders had been silent or vocal on the issue of tobacco.

Two-thirds of the Protestant groups submitted their denominational stances on tobacco. Many grounded their prohibitions for its use in Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians about not violating the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Going further, the American Baptist church urged its members “to speak out against those who would seek profit and wealth by promoting the use of a substance shown to be destructive to health and life.” Such a denominational stance stands in stark contrast to the Vatican having Philip Morris sponsor its U.S. Vatican Art Exhibit in 1983!

Overall, Protestants had a much higher percentage with “screens” against tobacco investments (77 percent) than Catholic dioceses (20 percent). One exception: the Detroit archdiocese. It noted that “our investors understand it [tobacco] as belonging under ‘Preserve the Sacredness of Human Life,’ ” one of its four investment guidelines. That principle states: “Companies that produce pharmaceuticals or products which are contraceptive, abortive and which damage the health of the mother or children act contrary to this principle and should be avoided.”

Catholic women’s congregations had more tobacco screens (55 percent) than men’s (14 percent). The Catholic group with the furthest reaching position on tobacco was the Adrian, Mich., Dominican Sisters. Among the men, the best news came from Maryknoll. Its congregational leader responded that the order held tobacco stock but: “We are open to being further educated on this.”

Around this same time, Maryknoll magazine featured the order’s shareholder concerns and efforts. Among the actions covered was its shareholder resolution calling on RJR Nabisco to spinoff its non-tobacco operations. It received many letters of protest for holding tobacco stock. Fr. Joseph La Mar, its corporate responsibility agent explained: “After consultation with our own treasury folks and with our investment managers, we have divested of tobacco stock and have added tobacco to our restricted list.”

If only other Catholic officials, especially those at the Vatican and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, could echo those of Maryknoll’s leader -- “We are open to being further educated on this” -- we would have a less archaic approach to tobacco than a plenary indulgence for stopping for a day. That’s an indulgence that only leads to disease and death.

Capuchin Fr. Michael Crosby writes from Milwaukee, where he serves as the tobacco program coordinator of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

To read the papal bull Incarnationis Mysterium, click the link below to go to the Vatican's Web site. Click “The Holy See” for English, then click the link to the bull in upper left hand corner. Use your browser’s “Back” button to return to this page.

  • Vatican Web site

National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1998