Obstacles to Joy: The Seven Deadly Sins Today

Counting is an act of love. It is impossible to count without pausing and attending. A child who reckons up his marbles stops and handles each one as he counts them. He knows their exact number, like the woman who swept her house until she found the one missing coin of the ten. And Jesus explains how we count with God by telling us that He numbers the very hairs of our heads.

Counting is a profound act of objectivity, because whatever exists can be counted. Horses exist; hence the number of horses alive at this moment is some particular figure. You will live a certain number of seconds in your life. There are an assignable number of angels in existence: no more, no less.

Socrates used to chide his followers because they knew exactly how much money they owned but could not say how many friends they had. This inability implied a lack of love, already mentioned, and a lack of knowledge. In order to count a thing, you need to know what a thing of that kind is: I cannot count the robins in my yard, if I cannot distinguish blackbirds from robins. To count is to delimit, to judge where something begins and where it ends.

There is a numbering of the things of our faith that implies attention and knowledge. Some of these numbers are, as it were, given to us or revealed. When we say that there were 12 apostles, or 10 commandments, or seven sacraments, we report on something given to us. Even to use the numbers here is an act of faith in a revelation.

 

Other numbers provide a kind of inventory of that vast body of spiritual knowledge acquired in the Church by long experience. We have generally impoverished ourselves of this knowledge and have become as apathetic and ignorant as those whom Socrates admonished. How many cardinal virtues are there? In order to answer this question well, I need to know what a virtue is and what makes one cardinal. But in order to know this, I first need to believe that knowledge of such things is possible, and I need to care enough to try to acquire it.

Culture abhors a vacuum: as Christians have disappropriated themselves of the spiritual wisdom of the Church and have ceased perceiving and analyzing the world in terms of virtues and vices, sin and grace, the field has been taken over by the crude hydraulic metaphors of Freud and the structural explanations of sociologists. When we try to understand ourselves, we do not employ concepts taken from Christian anthropology. Thomas Aquinas once told a friend that he had experienced no “first movement of concupiscence” after an angel appeared to him to give him the gift of purity. Notions of that sort play no part in the self-examination of Catholics today, nor could they be translated into talk of sublimation, projection, and identification. It is not, as some would flatter themselves, that we have merely rejected a rigid and restrictive scheme of the past; it is rather that we have exchanged one scheme—clear, definite, and wellfounded—for others that are, at best, tangential to Christian interior life.

I write this by way of apology for speaking of the effects of the seven deadly sins today. If human nature has remained the same over the last 2,000 years, then the seven deadly sins have remained the same, and we ignore them at our peril.

Some sins cause other sins. Obviously, impatience can cause an outburst; envy can cause backbiting; lust can cause adultery. In such cases, the cause may itself be the effect of another sin. The man who shouts because he is impatient may be impatient in the first place because he is excessively anxious about his money. Now deadly sins (or, more properly, “capital” sins) are those that tend to be starting points for other sins; they are first causes of sin which draw other sins after them.

The seven deadly sins are sloth, envy, covetousness, vainglory, gluttony, lust, and anger. They are starting points for other sins because each is closely related to happiness. Happiness is that for the sake of which we do everything else. Hence, we are especially drawn to whatever we take to contribute to happiness; if, for example, we think that our happiness consists in serving God and neighbor, then we will be drawn to this. Each of the deadly sins mimics some aspect of happiness or is in some other way parasitic upon happiness. We are drawn to commit these sins, and to commit others for their sake, as contributing to some false picture of happiness.

Sloth

Sloth is often confused with laziness, but it is something very different: it is, in fact, the condition of being sad because of the goodness that God possesses and wishes to share with us. Laziness is contrary to industry and diligence, but sloth is contrary to joy. We ought to delight in God’s goodness and in His spiritual gifts: we sin by sloth when we are saddened by them. When going to Church on Sunday is viewed as a burden rather than a blessing; when we are secretly pleased that duties keep us from attending weekday Mass as we had resolved; or when we distract ourselves by reading the paper instead of the Bible as we had intended; then we sin by sloth.

What is the typical manifestation of sloth today? What syndrome of sins does it cause? I believe that sloth is today principally manifested by what are called workaholics. Sloth is essentially sorrow in contemplation. We try, then, to avoid this sorrow by avoiding occasions for contemplation. Yet contemplation is the most free and unconstrained human activity, because it is chosen purely for its own sake. Hence, we avoid occasions for contemplation by placing ourselves under a spurious and strictly unnecessary yoke of necessity, and this is what workaholism essentially is—a freely adopted servitude.

Hence, I simply cannot find the time to pray, because I am too busy with important work; I need to be at work on Sunday; it is, unfortunately, impossible for me simply to spend time with my family. Yet there is no necessity here, really. In reality, we ought to work in order to have time to pray, to worship in Church, to spend time with our families. When work habitually makes demands that override these duties, then something should give—and why not the work?

The plea of necessity makes sense for a desperately poor man, but not for a well-trained professional with many options before him. We sense an insincerity, a secret pride in the fact that one really is so thoroughly bound to one’s work as to be an exception to the rule of humanity. Children see through this pretense; they understand the true necessity which compels a poor woman to place her children in day care; they can make no sense of the illusory necessity which binds wealthy parents to work instead of spending time with them.

Envy

Envy is sorrow at another’s good because that good is taken to lessen one’s own excellence. It is opposed to good will, since we ought to be pleased when something good happens to or is obtained by another. Envy is to be contrasted with zeal, which involves desire to achieve some good for myself that I observe in another. Envy and zeal both begin with a comparison between my own good and my neighbor’s: I note that my neighbor has some good which I lack. Zeal is a good response to this comparison: I resolve to acquire for myself a good like that which my neighbor has. But envy is a perverted response: because I am unhappy with myself, I become unhappy with my neighbor’s good and aim to bring him down to my own level. Hence, these two features are essential to envy: the aim to bring others down to one’s own level, and a complacency in one’s poor plight.

The chief manifestation of envy today is relativism. This relativism involves essentially the denial of spiritual goods. It is motivated by an envy which consists in unhappiness in even the possibility that others may have these goods which one lacks. By denying the existence of such goods, we deprive others of them in thought and intention.

The three spiritual goods that are denied are truth, holiness, and vocation. Everyone, it is urged, must have an equal hold on the truth: all religions are true, all points of view are valid. But why should this be? Why cannot some enjoy more of the truth than others? Clearly, if someone else has more of the truth than I, the correct response would be zeal: I should try to learn from him and remedy my ignorance. Relativism regarding truth, then, has the two characteristics of envy: it would bring everyone down to the same level of ignorance, and it encourages complacency in that ignorance.

Envy of holiness is displayed in relativism about means of grace: God can be worshipped, it is claimed, outside a church as much as inside; the Eucharist cannot really be so important a source of grace as to be our spiritual food; no particular act could possibly cut off a person from God’s grace; we can be just as holy if we do not pray regularly as if we follow a plan of regular prayer. In spite of clear evidence that these things do matter, we persist in our complacency about them through envy.

Envy of vocation is displayed in a relativism about states of life which denies that some goods may be obtained in some states of life which are inaccessible in others. Of course, if there are distinct states of life, then in choosing one I necessarily limit myself and cut myself off from some very valuable goods. In envy, I deny that others can attain these goods that I lack, and I assert that I can attain every good for myself. The folly of priests who must be politicians, laymen who must be clerics, old men who want to be young, and women who want to be men, is based on a denial of distinct goods, and the presumption that all spiritual goods ought to be accessible to everyone at all times.

Covetousness

Covetousness is an immoderate love of possessing. It aims at an abundance of possessions because this seems to bring about self-sufficiency—which is a characteristic of happiness—by seeming to insulate a person from necessity and fortune. A covetous person in effect identifies happiness with having many things. Although typically not directly intended by the covetous person, a great disparity of wealth in a society is a consequence of the sin, since those who covet simply desire “having many possessions,” without these possessions being related to anything or anyone else.

The principal manifestation of this sin today is what is known as the “contraceptive mentality.” This has often been described as a mentality of control, but a confusion needs to be avoided here. Although contraception involves the use of technology, the desire for control that constitutes the contraceptive mentality is a kind of graspingness or possessiveness which is contrary to generosity. This is quite different from technological control, which is contrary to incompetence or artlessness.

Like the classic miser, the contracepting couple never has enough possessions to be ready for a child. If they do decide to have a child in the end, it is not because they have finally reached some predetermined level of financial security; rather, their reasons for having children at age 35 were valid also ten years earlier.

The disparity in wealth produced by the contraceptive mentality is striking. Very often one sees that two incomes, each sufficient to support a large family modestly, are combined to procure a harmful excess of material goods for a relative few.

Vainglory

Glory, honor, admiration, and prestige are all closely related. Consider the case of honor, which is easiest to understand. If A honors B, there are three ways in which this honor can be misguided, empty, or vain: first, A may not be a competent judge, so his opinion is in fact worthless; second, what B is praised for may not be worthy of honor; third, A may praise B in some manner inconsistent with love of God and neighbor.

We see the effects of vainglory, I think, chiefly in the “respect of persons” which has brought about a secularization of Catholics in public life. This secularization, by now familiar to all, is most evident among our politicians and academics.

To be pleased that Catholics have been so successful as now to be “fully accepted” in American culture is vain. When the U.S. Bishops met with John Paul II in Los Angeles in 1987, I was embarrassed by the remark made there that “the Church in the United States of America can boast of having the largest number of educated faithful in the world.” I see very little reason for boasting, given what I have seen happen to Catholic religious education and catechesis. Is the boast about mere numbers? Surely the average Catholic college graduate of 30 years ago was far better educated both generally and in his faith than graduates of today.

The pope replied gently to the boast, though his comments should be seen as directed to us all: “But how is the American culture evolving today? Is this evolution being influenced by the Gospel? Does it clearly reflect Christian inspiration? Your music, your poetry and art, your drama, your painting and sculpture, the literature that you are producing—are all those things which reflect the soul of a nation being influenced by the spirit of Christ for the perfection of humanity?”

When we view Catholic lawyers, physicians, professors, and legislators, we should ask similar questions about our laws, mores, schools of philosophy, professional codes of ethics, and media.

Gluttony

Gluttony consists in any disordered desire of eating and drinking. Although we probably eat more than we need most of the time, we tend to be gluttonous rather by being too finicky about our food.

There are different ways of being finicky. One way is to be overly concerned about the taste and preparation of food. Another is to be excessively concerned with its effect on our health. This latter disorder is especially insidious because it has the outward appearance of something very moral. We seem, after all, to be denying ourselves by avoiding all but healthful foods; yet to be preoccupied with one’s own health is hardly altruistic.

The gluttony that troubles us today is an exaggerated concern for our health. It leads to a kind of fixation on food, with its calories, vitamins, and fiber. A person’s body becomes the center of his attention. We seek after medical studies and collect them almost superstitiously, studying them like entrails of an animal for what they might reveal about the future.

Lust

The effects of lust are evident enough: adultery, divorce, illegitimacy, rape, abortion, pornography, child molestation, and homosexual activism. But even more serious than these evils is our inability to act against them, even after they have been recognized as evil. Divorce, most of us now acknowledge, is dreadfully bad, but there is no chance of our restricting ourselves by law from obtaining them.

Lust consists in a certain vehement disorder of sexual desire which disrupts our reason and will. Its insidious effect in our society is the destruction of childhood and of the aspects of childhood in adult life. Lust results in a calculation in pursuing pleasure that is incompatible with the spontaneity of childhood. It causes a loss of wonder and delight in the ordinary, since as a result of lust a person considers something to have value only insofar as it leads to the extraordinary and momentary pleasure of genital acts.

Lust brings about a disillusionment—a jadedness that you can read on a person’s face—which consists in the presumption that human beings are not in fact capable of acting for the sake of spiritual ideals. It causes distrust, and necessarily brings romance to an end, because it leads us to think that the appearance of those about us—their civility, graciousness, tact, and propriety—is a mere façade, used as a cover behind which all pursue a sexual bottom line.

This calculation, loss of wonder, disillusionment, and distrust are all directly contrary to the distinctive virtues of childhood. Because of lust, our society has grown inhospitable to children. They disturb us; they accuse. It would be better that they not be around—or, if they are to be present, let them become like us.

Anger

There can be no anger without the perception of injustice. Anger is not impatience, which is a type of despair. Nor is it mere irritability. Our anger always has the aspect of indignation. This is why the sin of anger is so insidious: it necessarily shows a righteous face.

Anger is sinful when it has no reasonable foundation or when it has such a foundation but is excessive. I sin, for example, if I am angry at someone who unknowingly harmed me (if he was not responsible for his ignorance). I sin if I become enraged because of some minor slight.

Anger suffuses throughout civil life today. We see this in the tone of public discourse and in the way strangers relate to one another in our cities. But anger has an organized expression in our public life in various misguided social movements, such as feminism and gay rights. Both movements allege injustice which never existed; both react with extreme anger against the injustices that do exist.

We all know feminists raised comfortably in upper middle-class families, never denied an opportunity for advancement because of their sex, who yet are quite sure that they have been oppressed since birth. To become an ideological feminist, is, to a large extent, to be taught to feel deep anger for injustices that do not exist. The homosexual group ACT-UP organized an angry chant at the San Francisco AIDS conference that went: “300,000 dead from AIDS: Where was George?”, implying that the blood of so many human beings was on President Bush’s hands. If this were true, we ought immediately to put the president on trial, convict him, and execute him. But such charges of bloodguilt have become so commonplace that we can hardly take them seriously—even though those who make them are dead earnest.

Yet it is hard to know which is worse: this vicious anger, which feels no need to justify rationally its extreme charges, or the posture of appeasement often adopted by those against whom such anger is directed. The inference seems to have been accepted as universally valid: those people are angry; therefore, they are victims of injustice.

It is difficult to avoid the deadly sins: “broad and smooth is the path that leads to destruction.” One striking reason for this is that each sin can present an appearance directly opposite to its true character. Thus sloth takes the form of excessive work; gluttony appears as the disordered asceticism of the health fanatic; envy shows up in a false generosity which denies that anyone has the truth precisely by granting that everyone has it. What is required, then, is that, through the grace of God, we “be not conformed to this world,” but rather be transformed in Christ, so that we might joyfully “show what the will of God is, that which is good, acceptable, and perfect.”

Michael Pakaluk

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Michael Pakaluk is Ordinary Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. A Newman scholar, he is working on a book on Newman as philosopher. His latest book is The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark (Regnery, 2019).

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