When I was a small child, eager to make my First Communion but less certain about the value and process of making a confession, they gave me a book about how to use the Ten Commandments as an examination of conscience. It was a primer on how not to break them, and it was supposed to help prepare you to confess your sins.

I remember the little publication well. The big sins related to a particular commandment were printed in capital letters. The little sins were printed in lowercase. It made the difference between the two very graphic, very clear.

Many of the sins they warned me about, however, I didn't understand. Adultery, lust, and blasphemy left me more than a little confused. They were definitely outside anything I had ever heard talked about at the family dinner table or out on the playground. Swearing by false gods seemed to fall into a recognizable but relatively remote category. At least no one talked about them much, and I never heard anyone swear by any gods I didn't know.

Other sins on the list, though, were well within my young experience. Failing to go to church on Sundays was a big sin, I knew. Fighting with other kids was there. Disobeying your parents came in for pretty heavy emphasis.

But the older I got, the more I began to realize that someplace along the line, there had been a serious disconnect. Now, I'm afraid, the distance between the sins that little book worried about and the sins I see around me is wider than ever. People are hurting others in ways we couldn't have imagined in earlier days.

As a result, I have found myself with some new sins in mind that I never saw in the book but which I'm convinced are this century's moral carrion. They need to be called what they are if we are going to survive this era with any kind of cohesive human community left at all. Here's one:

I know an old woman who lives with her stroke-struck husband in a house at the edge of nowhere. They survive on a small Social Security check and with the help of a small garden. She has no social life anymore, certainly not in the form of seeing people regularly or going places with old friends.

They're largely a forgotten breed, these lonely and restricted elders whose contact with the rest of the world is limited by distance, age, health, and death. It's a sobering, sad situation, a sign of a world detached from extended families and the intimacy of old neighborhoods.

Then, one day, the couple's two grown children, faithful visitors but distant ones, appeared for their regular quarterly house call, with computers and cables and modems and phone lines and software in tow. Bertha, age 77, for whom good conversation had been cut short by George's stroke, was suddenly "online."

At first, there was some reluctance, of course, some hesitation. But with a lot of coaxing from her adult, professional children and a little bit of patience, the process became routine: Click "Connect e-mail," even "Search." Suddenly, there at the old kitchen table, a whole new world opened for a woman who had had no real social life for years.

Bertha wrote to her grandchildren two states away every day after that. And the children wrote back--about their new cat and their soccer team and their spelling tests. She read newspapers from one end of the country to the other. She ordered books and CDs and even a featherbed to make George more comfortable. She downloaded a free phone and began to talk to another old lady in England every day. Life became something to look forward to again.

And then one day, she picked up an e-mail labeled "Have I Got a Surprise for You." It was an exciting moment. But she never did understand what the surprise was, and after that the computer never worked correctly again. She had no one around with enough experience to give her the technical support she needed. She had no money to buy a new one. Most of all, she had no way now to talk to her friends and explain what had happened.

So, finally, she took the computer off the kitchen table and put it on a shelf in the pantry and never used it again. The kids still call every week or so to see that the old folks are all right, of course, but there are no daily messages anymore. Someone told her later that the problem was a "virus," whatever that was.

I felt something begin to burn at the back of my throat when I heard the story. Somewhere, I'm sure, someone laughed at the thought of what they'd been clever enough to unleash. No real harm done, after all. Nothing important was lost. Just a bunch of letters written by hundreds of old ladies to hundreds of children everywhere. No real damage unleashed. All you have to do is reformat the machine, reload the programs, and start again. Anyone who doesn't back up files, deserves to lose them, don't they? It was just in fun, they say.

But I'd call it stealing. When you take an innocent person's joy away, and render their property useless to them, and make it impossible for them to function in society again, and drain their life of human contact, I'd call it a sin.

There are lots of new sins, far subtler and more wide reaching than what we've seen in the past. Maybe it's time to rewrite that little book.

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