Thomas Sutcliffe: Let those without sin cast the first stone ...

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It was a little startling to read that Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, had drawn up a list of seven modern deadly sins. I had no idea that the sin management business had been going so well that the Church Authorities now feel able to expand their portfolio and tackle human frailty on a whole series of new fronts, including drug abuse, excessive wealth and environmental pollution.

And, to be honest, I doubted that their battle against Lust and Sloth and all those last season deadly sins really was going well enough to justify an expansion of operations. The whole thing smacked a little of those bold new policy targets which politicians occasionally announce, largely as a way of covering up their failure to meet the old ones.

It's not their fault, of course. It's ours – unremittingly dedicated to sin and, it seems, quite ingenious at thinking up new ones. You'd have thought "Avarice" might have covered the accumulation of unseemly wealth, but it seems not.

The Catholic Church has never really been at ease with human ingenuity though, whatever its fruits. Easily the most depressing feature of the reports was the presence on the list of "genetic modifications which alter DNA or compromise embryos" and "morally debatable scientific experiments", both of which confirmed the Catholic Church's ingrained hostility to certain strands in contemporary science. These are mortal sins, by the way, which, according to the Catholic Catechism, secure for their unrepentant perpetrators an express ticket to Hell.

Imagine this scenario then. A scientist who had successfully discovered a cure for cystic fibrosis, perhaps arrived at through experiments involving the use of human embryos and administered by means of gene therapy, would find herself, in the event of her sudden death, plummeting to a place of eternal physical and spiritual pain.

Fred West and Harold Shipman, curious about the new arrival, break off from an animated discussion of murder techniques and ask, "What are you in for then?" At which point she would have to carefully explain that she had used her intellect and abilities to relieve human suffering – and that she wasn't sorry for doing it. And the fact that she wouldn't end up in Hell because it doesn't actually exist isn't really the point. This is what Bishop Girotti believes would and – presumably – should happen. Does any word but "repulsive" do it justice?

Quite a few of us, of course, religious or not, would be against "morally debatable scientific experiments" (although we might actually like to have the debate first before we decide). But the Catholic Church's record as a moral arbiter of scientific endeavour is utterly wretched. Just read the Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on Galileo Galilei if you want an example of intellectual dishonesty and self-interested trimming. Or reflect on their long and bitter opposition to evolutionary theory – the truth of some elements of which the Vatican has only recently acknowledged.

Or consider its deeply dishonest campaign to discredit condoms as a protection against Aids infection – arguably the most lethal bit of dogma of the last 30 years. And although pontificating is, literally, what bishops are on earth to do – given their virtually seamless record of error when it comes to pontificating about scientific discoveries, you'd think Roman Catholic bishops might have acquired a little humility by now. We don't need new sins, but the habit of denouncing first and understanding later is surely a candidate.

But will I ever catch my flight?

I visited Terminal Five last week, for a preview of British Airways' new Heathrow home. The building itself is very smart and infinitely preferable to the shanty town of the existing terminals.

But I can only hope they relax the security procedures before they go live. Going airside, it took me nearly 10 minutes to pass from metal detector to final dismissal, including a body search so thorough that it almost qualified as a complimentary massage. The only time I've undergone a more detailed scrutiny is flying out of Tel Aviv on El Al, a famously exigent airline. BAA is either going to have to get more sloppy or more selective – or the place will grind to a halt on day one.

* I wrote a while ago about the apparently happy mingling of road traffic and pedestrians in 1909, as evidenced by a piece of film included in Tate Britain's show about the Camden Town Group.

Not happy at all, I'm told by Stephen Inwood, author of City of Cities: The Birth of Modern London. He points out that in 1910, official records show that 332 people were killed by motor vehicles in Inner London, with 54 dying in fatal accidents involving horse vehicles. In 2004, by contrast, 79 people were killed in the same geographical area. More startlingly there were only around 9,000 registered motor vehicles on London streets in 1910, which suggests that one person died for every 30 motor vehicles on the road.

The off-hand insouciance displayed by those crossing the road in the Tate film may not be evidence of a lost concordat between motorist and pedestrian but rather of a fatal failure to adapt to new conditions.
t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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