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Chapter 18: The Way of Sin to Death

Appendix 2: Covetousness and pride as roots of all sin

In Scripture two dispositions are mentioned especially as the root of all sin—covetousness and pride (see 1 Tm 6.10; Sir 10.13).

Coveting money really amounts to love of liberty and power to do as one pleases (see S.t., 1–2, q. 84, a. 1). One who has this liberty and power is easily able to do evil; one who seeks it is looking for the opportunity to do evil. Moreover, love of money leads to injustice to others. The Marxist analysis of social evil is not wholly wrongheaded, although it is oversimplified. There was no money at all in the earliest human societies, but Man sinned from the beginning. Moreover, diabolical evil is not materialistic.

There is a “lust” or covetousness which is identified with idolatry (see Eph 5.5; Col 3.5). Idolatry is characteristic of paganism and is the source of all pagan vices (see Wis 14.27; Rom 1.21–23). It is not merely an honest error in religion; rather, it is a humanly contrived religion, intended to provide gods which can be manipulated and which make few moral demands. “Coveting” is used in an extended sense to refer to all wrongful desire (see Rom 7.7; 1 Cor 10.6–10). Thus covetousness and idolatry come together in the human will to have what one wants rather than what God wants. Wrongful desire and the displacement of God from his unique supremacy always go together (see Gn 3.5–6).

Regarded in this way, covetousness and idolatry are seen to be aspects of the same basic attitude involved in sinful pride. The Jewish sage who identified pride as the reservoir or root of all sin also identified the source of the pride with which he was concerned: “The beginning of man’s pride is to depart from the Lord; his heart has forsaken his Maker. For the beginning of pride is sin, and the man who clings to it pours out abominations” (Sir 10.12–13). “Pride” here clearly means much more than status seeking, arrogance, boasting, or a haughty attitude. It is not primarily a defect in relationships with other people, but unwillingness to submit to God.

Christian humility is a basic mode of Christian response and the foundation of all the other Christian virtues (see 26‑D). As opposed to it, pride, which can be understood to include the disobedience and rebelliousness which are opposed to meekness, is the fundamental obstacle to Christian moral and spiritual growth. Pride, as opposed to humility, is an unreadiness to seek and accept everything from God; affirmatively, pride is a will to be self-reliant and self-responsible—to be a divine person come of age, as it were, instead of a “mere” child of God.

Although pride, thus correctly understood, is fundamental to all sin, one must be very careful not to confuse this disposition with more specific ones or to draw false conclusions about the spiritual life.

One confuses this disposition with others if one supposes that the fundamental evil of pride is especially present in interpersonal relationships with other people, and that one can avoid pride by taking a self-depreciating attitude or by being careful to remain one of the mediocre crowd. The example of Jesus clearly stands against this misunderstanding. He frankly asserts his own status for the glory of the Father (see Jn 8.45–57). Similarly, in Jesus every Christian can boast and have great confidence (see Heb 3.6, 14). The mark of the legitimate pride of the Christian is that nothing is claimed as if it were one’s own; one’s boast is in the Lord from whom alone one’s goodness comes (see Rom 5.11).

Furthermore, that pride which is basically opposed to humility is not the capital sin of pride—status seeking. One does not commit this sin of asserting one’s autonomy except in wrongly choosing something else. Hence, one does not commit other sins for the sake of opposing oneself to God. One does not decide to disobey God and then think of some disobedience to commit. One rather thinks of some sin to commit—not because it is a sin, but because it has the appeal of the limited good it offers—and then, ordinarily very reluctantly, one decides to disobey God (see S.t., 1–2, q. 71, a. 6; q. 72, a. 4; q. 75, a. 2).

Hence, the pride which is a capital sin is not the root of all sin (see S.t., 2–2, q. 132, a. 4). One must oppose this specific pride, but one also must oppose every other form of sinfulness. It would be a mistake to assume that if one does not seek one’s fulfillment in social status and the respect of other people, then one is essentially humble and a good Christian.