The disorder introduced into our human nature by Adam’s fall from grace reveals itself especially through seven dominant vices known in our Catholic tradition as the capital sins. These are: pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. We call them “capital” sins (from the Latin caput, meaning “head”) because they are the sources or fountainheads of all the sins people commit, whether sins of commission or sins of omission. We call them “deadly” because they cause spiritual death; Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen liked to call them the “seven pallbearers of the soul.”
Spiritual growth is impossible unless we try to dig up the roots of our sins with the help of God’s illuminating and sanctifying grace.
The first of the seven deadly sins is pride, defined as inordinate self-esteem or self-importance. Pride is the prolific source of countless sins, including presumption, hypocrisy, disobedience to lawful superiors, hardheartedness to subordinates, acrimony, and boastfulness. Some of the ways in which sinful pride manifests itself are: exaggerating one’s own talents, attributing to oneself qualities one lacks, magnifying other people’s defects, putting other people down, ingratitude, and failing to attribute one’s gifts and talents to God.
We know from Sacred Scripture that pride is the bottleneck of all graces (Jas 4:6); that it is self-ruinous (Lk 14:11); that God hates it (Prov 8:13) and punishes it (Prov 16:5); and that it deprives one’s good works of merit in God’s sight because it makes one perform them with a wrong intention (cf. Mt 6:1-2).
Humility, or poverty of spirit, is the opposite of pride. Just as pride is the foundational sin, so humility is the foundational virtue and thus ranks first among the Beatitudes (Mt 5:3). The virtue of humility makes us indifferent to worldly power, prestige and riches, so that we might keep our focus on God, who alone is our supreme joy.
“Learn of me,” Jesus tells us, “because I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). Imagine our divine Savior in His Passion, undergoing the cruelest torments yet uttering no complaint and showing no resentment (cf. 1 Pt 2:23). Then pray: From the sin of pride deliver me, O Lord.
Avarice, also known as covetousness or greed, is defined as the immoderate desire of earthly goods, especially those that belong to others. Of the Ten Commandments, two regulate not only our external actions but even our internal desires. These are the ninth and tenth commandments, both of which forbid avarice (“You shall not covet…”).
St Paul calls avarice the “root of all evils” (1 Tim 6:10). Robbery, theft, fraud, parsimony, and callousness toward the poor all stem from avarice. But there are more subtle forms of avarice that may blind us to the sinfulness of our actions. Some people imagine that just because they found some money or personal belongings, the items belong to them (“Finders keepers!”). Unscrupulous contractors put in time not required for the job at hand, or use inferior materials at a higher price. Gambling, playing the stock market, and purchasing goods on credit are not in themselves sinful, but they become sins if a person risks loss so great that he cannot pay his debts and support his dependents. Advertisers convince us that we must have the latest fashions or models, when we could just as well continue to use our serviceable appliances, clothing, cars, smartphones, etc.
St Francis de Sales says that everyone claims to abhor avarice. We wax eloquent when we explain how we must have the necessary things to get along in the world. But we never think we have enough, so we always find ourselves wanting more. How often do we include avarice in our examination of conscience or bring it up in confession?
We can enjoy the goods of this world, but we must be on guard not to become unduly attached to them and thus fall into idolatry (cf. Eph 5:5). God alone is our supreme happiness. Of all people, Christians should not be overly concerned with earthly goods; for our heavenly Father has care of us (cf. Mt 6:31-32). Does this mean we should neglect our duties and occupations? Certainly not. It means that, while attending to our affairs, we must not neglect the affairs of the soul. “Seek first [God's] Kingdom and His righteousness,” Our Lord promises, “and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:33).
Mercy is the virtue that opposes avarice. Peter Kreeft writes in Back to Virtue that avarice is “the centrifugal reach to grab and keep the world’s goods for oneself,” whereas mercy is “the centripetal reach to give, to share the world’s goods with others.” Mercy is the antidote to the greed that poisons the soul.
“Learn of me,” Jesus tells us, “because I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). Imagine our Savior, whose Passion depicts a progressive impoverishment. He is abandoned by most of His disciples, then stripped of all honor and finally of life itself. Then pray: From the sin of avarice deliver me, O Lord.
Of the seven deadly sins, envy is the only one that gives us no pleasure at all, not even fleeting satisfaction. Envy is defined as sadness over another’s happiness, blessings or achievements, such that we should want to see the other person deprived of those goods, and we are happy when he has actually lost them. Like all sins, envy proceeds from the foundational sin of pride, which cannot tolerate a superior or a rival. It takes many different forms, including annoyance at hearing another person praised, depreciating the good reputation of others by speaking ill of them, and desiring to eclipse others even by questionable methods.
Envy poisons our whole being. Because Cain was envious of his brother Abel, he “was very angry, and his countenance fell” (Gen 4:5). Because the sons of Jacob envied their brother Joseph, “they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (Gen 37:4). Because Saul was envious of David, he “eyed David from that day on” (1 Sam 18:9). “Jealousy and anger shorten life, and anxiety brings on old age too soon” (Sir 30:24).
St Paul places envy among the works of the flesh and declares that “those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19-21). He bids us “conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in … quarreling and jealousy” (Rom 13:13). In private matters, envy produces angry words (1 Cor 1:11) and harmful deeds (Jas 3:16). In public matters, it breeds war, symbolized in the Apocalypse by the rider on the red horse who was given power “to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another, and he was given a great sword” (Rev 6:4; the sword stands for war). Among Christians, discord born of envy can lead to the sin of schism, or separation from the universal Church, which is what the Apostle feared would happen in the Christian community at Corinth (1 Cor 11:18-19). And envy can make priests and vowed religious resent their celibacy when they see happily married people.
Generosity is the opposite of envy. Whereas envy brings only sorrow and pain, generosity is the seedbed of joy. This should come as no surprise, since we are created in the divine image. We are truly happy insofar as we are conformed to God the Holy Trinity, whose very essence is self-giving love and receptivity. St Anselm of Canterbury teaches that our ultimate joy in heaven will be increased by the absence of envy: “If anyone else whom you love as much as yourself possessed the same blessedness, your joy would be doubled because you would rejoice as much for him as for yourself.”
“Learn of me,” Jesus tells us, “because I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). Imagine our divine Savior before Pontius Pilate, delivered up out of envy by the chief priests (Mk 15:9-10). Then pray: From the sin of envy deliver me, O Lord.
Fourth on the list of the seven deadly sins is anger, or “wrath” in Old English. What most people mean by “anger” is often not a sin, but simply an emotional response to a perceived injustice, wrongdoing or annoyance. Such was Our Lord’s anger at the money-changers in the Temple (Mk 11:15-19).
Just as it is wrong to be angry without cause, so it is wrong not to be angry when there is cause. Peter Kreeft illustrates the point in Back to Virtue: “To be angry at the lawyer who got the drug pusher free on a technicality is not sinful, especially when your son is lying in a coffin after an overdose from that pusher.” A more common example of anger that is not sinful but righteous is that of a parent at the misconduct of a child, provided the parent’s response is not excessive. The parent still loves the child but is angry at the child’s bad behavior.
Alas, Original Sin has invaded every corner of our soul. Consequently, anger is often a violent, inordinate desire accompanied by hatred or vengefulness. If anger is unreasonable and therefore too strong for the occasion or the person at whom we are angry, it can be a mortal sin. Whereas righteous anger wills what is good (justice and correction), sinful anger wills evil (“Damn you!”). As a capital sin, anger easily gives rise to many grave sins, including murder: “For the stirring of milk brings forth curds, and the stirring of anger brings forth blood” (Prov 30:33). “Pitch and resin make fires flare up, and insistent quarrels provoke bloodshed” (Sir 28:11). God warned Cain when Cain grew angry because God favored Abel and not him; but instead of heeding God’s advice, Cain nourished his resentment and finally murdered Abel (Gen 4:6-8).
The Letter of St James cautions: “Everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the wrath of a man does not accomplish the righteousness of God” (Jas 1:19). And St Paul exhorts: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil” (Eph 4:26).
Meekness is the virtue that helps us to control anger. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land” (Mt 5:5). The essence of meekness is not weakness, but the combination of strength and gentleness, the ability to use force when necessary and the gentleness to forego it.
“Learn of me,” Jesus tells us, “because I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). Imagine our divine Savior, the Suffering Servant whose mercy Isaiah prophecies: “A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench” (Isa 42:3). Precisely because Christ loved sinners, He rebuked them (often scathingly!), but was always ready to suffer harm rather than inflict it. Then pray: From the sin of anger deliver me, O Lord.
Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, our Western culture has said that sex has no intrinsic relation to procreation, or even to love and intimacy. Not surprisingly, then, these intervening years have brought permissive abortion, no-fault divorce, legalized prostitution, the mainstreaming of pornography, and the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples. Behind this devaluation of sex is the deadly sin of lust, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines as “disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure” (no. 2351).
The Catholic Church has always taught that sexual pleasure is morally permissible only to married people and only when they use it in the way God intends. Regrettably, Christian morality in general and Christian sexual morality in particular are often seen as arbitrary rules imposed by God or the Church to keep people from enjoying life’s pleasures. Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” based largely on the Book of Genesis, casts traditional sexual morality in a fresh light. George Weigel provides a fine overview of the pope’s approach in The Truth of Catholicism. In sum, the only sex worthy of men and women made in God’s image is sex that expresses complete and irrevocable self-giving, not a use (or abuse) of another for fleeting gratification. The self-giving that defines real love implies openness to the gift of new human life, just as God’s love “burst the boundaries of God’s inner life and poured itself forth in creation.” It is immoral to separate sex from commitment (as in fornication and adultery) or from procreation (as in contraceptive and homosexual acts).
Sodom’s destruction was divine punishment for sexual vice (Gen 19:24-25). Our bodies are temples of the living God (2 Cor 6:16), and we should control them “in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen” (1 Thes 4:3-5). Impurity should not even be mentioned among Christians, never mind practiced (Eph 5:3-4). Lust enslaves the will, destroys love of prayer, weakens faith, hardens the heart, and fills the conscience with dissatisfaction.
The opposite of lust is chastity, a species of that blessed “purity of heart” (Mt 5:8) and one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). Sexual feelings, fantasies and desires will ebb and flow as naturally as the appetite for food and drink; these are perfectly natural and human. The chaste person subordinates these to God’s will. Chastity is a life’s task requiring reliance on prayer and the grace of the sacraments. It demands common sense, too. When Jesus said the desire for adultery is itself adultery (Mt 5:28), He was following the Jewish tradition of “building a wall around the Torah (Law),” that is, forbidding a less serious offense so as to avoid a more grievous one. The great saints of God shut their eyes and ears from everything that could be for them an occasion of impurity.
“Learn of me,” Jesus tells us, “because I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). Imagine our divine Savior, who loved selflessly even to the point of surrendering His life for sinners (cf. Phil 2:8). Then pray: From the sin of lust deliver me, O Lord.
Eating and drinking are necessary for our self-preservation. To facilitate these two functions, God has attached a certain pleasure to them. The pursuit of this pleasure as an end in itself, however, is the deadly sin of gluttony. Most people identify gluttony with eating or drinking excessively. They are correct, but gluttony takes other forms too: fussiness about the quality or presentation of one’s food; eating too hastily, too hoggishly, too sumptuously, or too often. Father Benedict Ashley, O.P., in Living the Truth in Love, explains that “individual acts of gluttony are not ordinarily seriously harmful and therefore are venial, but habits that seriously harm health (at least in the short range), if not corrected, are mortal.” (Of course, in assessing the gravity of any human act, we must remember that subjective factors such as chemical dependency or neurotic compulsion can lessen the degree of guilt.)
As one of the seven deadly sins, gluttony paves the way for more grievous offenses. Drunkenness caused Noah’s disgrace (Gen 9:20-27), Lot’s incest (Gen 19:30-38), and the decadence both of the pagan Persians (Est 1:6-10) and of the Jewish priests and prophets (Isa 28:7-8). Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of pottage, a kind of bean stew (Gen 25:29-34). Gluttony was the cause of liturgical abuses within the Christian community at Corinth (1 Cor 11:21). St Paul calls gluttons idolaters “whose god is their belly” (Phil 3:19).
Because man is a unity of soul and body, the Church has always insisted that the body must be disciplined as well as the soul. “Scripture’s cure for gluttony is not dieting but fasting,” writes Peter Kreeft in Back to Virtue. “Fasting, in addition to reducing weight, reduces gluttony and, best of all, is a form of prayer. It is recommended to us on the very highest authority, that of our Lord himself.” Saints Augustine, Jerome, and John Cassian are but three of the many Church Fathers and spiritual writers who extolled periodic fasting. Latin-rite Catholics are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and for one hour prior to receiving Holy Communion. Yet even when not fasting, we should remember St Josemaría Escrivá’s advice in The Way: “The body must be given a little less than it needs; otherwise, it will turn traitor.” How much more progress we could make in the spiritual life if only we accompanied our prayers with sacrifice! “The day you leave the table without having made some small mortification,” the saint warns us, “you will have eaten like a pagan.” (Talk about food for thought!)
“Learn of me,” Jesus tells us, “because I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). Imagine our divine Savior, forty days and forty nights in the desert, faint with hunger from fasting. When tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread, He rejoins, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:3-4). Then pray: From the sin of gluttony deliver me, O Lord.
The last of the seven deadly sins is sloth, which St Thomas Aquinas defines as disgust for virtue, a languor of the soul which deprives it of the power to do good. “Pride may be the root of all evil,” observes R. R. Reno, “but in our day, the trunk, branches, and leaves of evil are characterized by a belief that moral responsibility, spiritual effort, and religious discipline are empty burdens, ineffective and archaic demands that cannot lead us forward, inaccessible ideals that, even if we believe in them, are beyond our capacity.” This is sloth.
Medieval writers often speak of sloth as a waning of confidence in the importance and power of prayer. St Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of a sterility and dryness of his soul that makes the sweet honey of psalm-chanting seem tasteless. Dante, on the fourth ledge of Purgatory, describes the slothful as suffering from a “slow love” that cannot uplift, leaving the soul stagnant under the heavy burden of sin. The ancient monastic spiritual writers, recalling Psalm 91:6, nicknamed sloth the “noonday devil” who tempts monks to sadness and despair. In the heat of midday, as the monk tires and begins to wonder whether his commitment to prayer and solitude was a mistake, the demon whispers, “Did God really intend for human beings to reach for the heavens? Does God really care whether you pray or not?”
To us moderns, the whispering voice says, “God is everywhere. Couldn’t you just as well worship on the golf course as in a church?” Or, “God accepts you just as you are. Why change?” In our sloth, we avoid any spiritual discipline, Christian or otherwise. Missing Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, laxity in prayer, disregard for the Church’s laws of fast and abstinence, a tendency to follow the lines of least resistance — these are all manifestations of sloth.
An indolent soul is barren in good works (Prov 24:30-34) and easily falls prey to the devil, “for idleness teaches much evil” (Sir 33:27). As motionless water soon becomes stagnant, so the Christian who lives idly will soon become corrupt. Remember Our Lord’s emphatic warning about the slothful servant and foolish virgins (Mt 25:1-30), and His promise to spew the lukewarm out of His mouth (Rev 3:16).
Hungering for righteousness, or likeness to God, is the beatitude that remedies sloth (Mt 5:6). God alone satisfies the deepest desires of the human heart. Sensuality, technology, money and power are just a few of the false gods that leave us ultimately empty. Seek the true God and you will find Him (Mt 7:7-8), and in finding Him you will have the joy that overcomes sloth.
“Learn of me,” Jesus tells us, “because I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). Imagine our divine Savior on His way to Calvary. Three times He falls under the weight of the heavy load; yet instead of giving up, He gets up with renewed resolve to fulfill His mission. Then pray: From the sin of sloth deliver me, O Lord.