Preparing for Lent: The Seven Deadly Sins

This post is the first in an 8-part series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

Few traditions in the Church have captured the popular mind quite like the Seven Deadly Sins. The phrase, if not the sins in particular, is well known. This list of evils has served as the structure for Dante’s sublime poetry and for Brad Pitt’s….well, less-than-sublime movie. Painters as diverse as Hieronymus Bosch and Andrew Wyeth have depicted them in art. Unfortunately, the popular mind typically views them as just a curiosity.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Seven Deadly Sins," or "The Seven Vices - Pride," 1558

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Seven Deadly Sins,” or “The Seven Vices – Pride,” 1558

But the whole purpose for considering the deadly sins at all is to help us understand the ways in which we leave God’s path. They are more than just a literary trope or artistic theme. They serve as an effective examination of conscience (as Dante understood). From Saint John Cassian to Saint Thomas Aquinas to the Catechism, this has been the purpose of that infamous list.

And so for us. As we look ahead to the start of Lent in two weeks, we can take the seven deadly sins as an extended examen, a guide for our repentance during those 40 days. This, then, is the first in a series considering the seven deadly sins — and how we are freed from them. Before we get to the sins themselves, however, some prefatory remarks are in order.

First, the Deadly Sins are neither deadly nor sins. Properly speaking they are not sins — not, that is, specific thoughts, words, or actions. You cannot confess gluttony, for example. But you might have to confess a thought, word, or action that was inspired by gluttony and therefore gluttonous. No, these “sins” are really vices, spiritual habits that incline us to sin.

Now, we call these vices deadly because they lead to the death of the soul through mortal sin. But in the Church’s tradition we sometimes refer to them as Cardinal or Capital.  Cardinal, from the Latin for “hinge,” indicates that these vices swing us toward evil (as the Cardinal Virtues swing us toward good). Capital, from the Latin word for “head,” indicates that these vices comprise the origin and source of sinful actions. But let’s face it, Seven Deadly Sins packs more of a rhetorical punch than Seven Capital Vices.

Second, the Seven Deadly Sins are really eight. Well, at least according to Saint Thomas Aquinas (whose enumeration and order this series will follow). That great theologian describes pride as the Queen of all sins and another seven sins as her Generals. Pride — the placing of ourselves before God — is the ultimate source of every sin, no matter how great or small. As pride’s Generals, the seven deadly sins — vanity, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust — wage war against the good in our souls. Each one does Queen Pride’s bidding in a distinct manner.

Third, the order of the sins is not incidental. They proceed from the most deadly to the least, from the most spiritual to the most physical. Materialists that we are, we tend to think that more physical sins — such as gluttony or lust — are the gravest. But it is the spiritual, hidden, festering vices that do the most danger. Like a cancer, they eat away inside of us — unseen and unheard until their infection has crippled us. Further, the significance of the order brings out that the seven deadly sins are united one to the other. Vices travel as a group: vanity inevitably leads to envy, gluttony paves the way for lust, and so on. If we understand their connection, we will also grasp also how to avoid both one and another of them.

Fourth, every vice is the distortion of a good. In The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis observes that the devil cannot create anything on his own. He can only distort the good things that God creates. That truth is in play with the Seven Deadly Sins. Each vice is the distortion of some legitimate aspect of the human person. Again like a cancer, each one fastens on to some healthy spiritual organ for existence and growth. Thus vanity is inordinate self-love, gluttony is disordered delight in food, etc. Which means that in considering the Seven Deadly Sins, we can also learn about the organism of the human soul — about its proper design and powers.

Well, so much for the introduction. Next week we will consider the first of the seven: vanity.

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