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Chapter 18: The Way of Sin to Death

Question D: What are the seven capital sins?

1. St. Gregory the Great formulated the familiar list of seven capital sins or sinful dispositions: pride, covetousness (or avarice), lust, gluttony, anger, envy, and sloth. These are best explained by St. Thomas Aquinas (see S.t., 1–2, q. 84, aa. 3–4).6 They are sins or sinful dispositions which lead to other sins. They are committed for their own sake, while other sins are committed because of them.

2. Thus, the capital sins are not necessarily the worst sins, nor are they always mortal. Furthermore, since many kinds of sins are omitted from the list of capital sins, it is not a good format for examination of conscience. It is, however, a useful diagnostic tool for Christians in examining their lives insofar as they are sinful.

3. In looking at one’s life, one finds much that is not perfectly integrated with living faith, not only because of immaturity but because of the disintegrity of imperfection and (at least) venial sin. Although a sinner’s life cannot be perfectly integrated as a saint’s can be, still a sinful life has some regular patterns. Consideration of the capital vices helps in locating the strategic points where sin is in control.

4. Self-examination is likely to be more fruitful if one temporarily sets aside temptations to commit serious sins of weakness, which are obvious, and concentrates instead on less obvious sinful dispositions. Using the list of capital vices, one can identify sinful inclinations one is likely to follow without much of a struggle. If ignored, these dispositions inevitably give rise to temptations to commit mortal sins, according to the fourth way described in the preceding question by which venial sins lead to mortal sins.

5. Some of the capital vices are sinful dispositions which compete with love of God and neighbor, apparently providing alternative modes of fulfillment—though of course the alternatives are spurious and far inferior to true fulfillment. So pride is a disposition to fulfillment in status and the respect of others; lust and gluttony are dispositions to fulfillment in immediate sensory gratifications; avarice is a disposition to fulfillment in possessions (see S.t., 1–2, q. 84, a. 4; 2–2, q. 118, a. 7; q. 148, a. 5; q. 153, a. 4; q. 162, a. 8).

6. The other capital vices are sinful dispositions which provide a defense of one’s imperfection and sinfulness. They are directed against the true good, insofar as it threatens one’s sinful self (see S.t., 1–2. q. 84, a. 4). So sloth is a disposition to avoid a more intense moral and spiritual life, which would require one to give up one’s sins and overcome imperfections (see S.t., 2–2, q. 35). Envy is a disposition against the true good of others, whose goodness makes unwanted demands on oneself (see S.t., 2–2, q. 36). Anger, as a capital sin, is a disposition to harm and destroy, especially those things which pose a threat to one’s sinful self; one cannot stand whatever gets in the way of having what one wants, least of all any spiritual or moral authority perceived as interfering with doing as one pleases (see S.t., 2–2, q. 158, aa. 2, 6, 7).

One is likely to miss the point of this analysis of sinful character if one does not use some imagination to translate it into contemporary terms. One need not be analytically precise in this sort of reflection. The following translation is offered by way of example.7

Pride: One’s life is a quest for status. Given this sinful aim in life, one tries to get through school in order to gain a respected position—to be a doctor, a priest, or a businessman. In one’s work, one tries always to move up the ladder. One’s identity depends upon the relationships one has with other people. One wants to be respected and liked, not be looked down on, considered odd, or regarded as a nuisance.

Covetousness: One looks for fulfillment in possessions. Given this sinful aim in life, one wants good clothes and a car. One would like a nice house in a good neighborhood and fine furniture. One wants to be well to do, not in need of anything. One spends much time and effort taking care of one’s things. To have what one wants seems more important than being a better sort of person. The external is vital—for example, the wedding or the ordination ceremony is very significant, careful preparation for marriage or ordination less so.

Lust: One must have instant gratification. Given this sinful aim in life, one wants orgasms when one feels the inclination. But lust is not limited to sexual pleasure. One wants food and drink which will be pleasant; one wants to be amused and entertained constantly; one wants to feel no pain; one wants everything one wants right now. Even in prayer, one wants to feel one is getting something out of one’s prayer; the liturgy must make one feel better.

Gluttony: One must always have more in order to have a good margin for security. Given this sinful aim in life, one wants to have a constantly rising standard of living. One wants to be well insured and to have a large savings account, to make sure of being cared for in retirement. One wants to have more time for oneself, and so carefully avoids becoming committed. One wants to live as long as possible, and so at once sets aside any commitment or good work which threatens health.

Envy: One wishes there were no truly better people around. They make it difficult to maintain the fiction that being better is not really possible. Sometimes they even offer criticism; one wishes people would not be so “judgmental.” One prefers friends who are mediocre morally and spiritually; they are regular folks with whom one can feel comfortable.

Anger: One cannot stand anyone or anything which gets in the way. Thus obstacles to gaining status, to having things, to instant gratification, and to security are resented. Especially resented are spiritual threats: Do not tell me what the Church teaches about this matter; I follow my own conscience. One resents anyone in authority who tries to limit one’s freedom to do as one pleases.

Sloth: One tries to keep one’s mind and heart closed. One avoids experiencing anything or doing anything which would threaten the fragile equilibrium of one’s sinful life. One likes the status quo. Since a largely immature conscience, more concerned with superego guilt feelings and rule keeping than with moral truth, makes only limited demands, one clings to this sort of conscience. One escapes into intense activity—hard work, social life, organizational matters, pastoral responsibilities—to avoid the recollected moment of truth.

6. See De malo, q. 8, a. 1, which introduces a remarkable treatise on the capital sins. For the history of the background and development of the list of capital sins, see Morton W. Bloomfield, The Seven Deadly Sins (N.p.: Michigan State College Press, 1952), 43–89.

7. For a less free updating of the capital sins, see Bernard Häring, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, vol. 1, trans. Edwin G. Kaiser, C.Pp.S. (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1961), 374–82.