Sin and virtue are, of course, of great importance to Catholicism. In this work, I will begin a three-part series on sin and virtue. Specifically, I will discuss the seven deadly sins, the seven lively virtues, and the seven heavenly virtues. I will commence with the seven deadly sins.
The existence of sin is one of the most ubiquitous aspects of the biblical faiths. Judaism classifies six hundred and thirteen commandments that it identifies as sinful acts. In Islam, too, the Quran identifies sins as acts against the commands of God.
Catholicism, of course, places a great emphasis on sin and identifies seven sins that are deemed deadly. For the purpose of this work, sin is defined as an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience. It is an act against the will of God and a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church).
It should be pointed out that the Catholic Church distinguishes between venial and deadly sins. Venial sins are acts that, while contrary to God’s will, damage but do not destroy one’s relationship with God. On the other hand, mortal or deadly sins are grave and deliberate acts against the will of God. So severe are mortal sins that it sunders our relationship with God and places our soul in danger of damnation.
In this work, I will discuss the history and development of the doctrines surrounding the seven deadly sins, the effect sin has on us, and why some sins are deemed deadly.
The History And Development Of Sin
The basis of what Catholicism means by sin appears very early in the Bible with what is called original sin (See Genesis 3). As a result, one can interpret much of the Bible as humanity’s alienation from God and the effects of such alienation. It is indeed telling that the first event depicted after Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden is a murder. One need not spend much time watching the news to see that the effects of sin remain as pernicious as ever.
There are many aspects of sin; however, at its core, the effect of sin is to scatter and disorder. This scattering can be seen in the expulsion from paradise and in the disordering of the innate human desire for God.
While sin itself is as old as humanity, the concept of the seven deadly sins appears to date back to the fourth century and a monk named Evagrius of Pontus. Listed initially as eight evil thoughts and passions, they were: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride.
Evagrius sought to list the sins from least to most severe. Moreover, these sins represented an increasing fixation with the self, with pride as the most heinous of the sins.
Pope Gregory the Great reduced the list to seven items in the sixth century. He did so by consolidating vainglory and pride, acedia and sadness, and by adding envy. His ranking of the sins’ seriousness was based on the degree to which they offended against love. In the seventeenth century, the Church replaced the vague sin of “sadness” with sloth.
Categorizing the sins from most serious to least or vice versa was a point of contention among theologians. Thomas Aquinas questioned whether the sins could be (or at least should be) listed by severity.
The seven deadly sins are so-called because they lead to the death of the soul. In committing a mortal sin, one’s soul becomes subject to death, that is, eternal separation from God which is Hell. Owing to the severity of the deadly sins, it is paramount that one avoid them at all costs. If one does commit such a sin, it is crucial that one partakes of the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) and does penance.
Having provided the history and background, I now turn to enumerating the seven deadly sins.
The Seven Sins
I have not made any effort in this paper to order the seven sins according to severity. That is to say that ought not necessarily view pride as being a greater evil than envy.
- Pride: The sin of pride is defined as an excessive love of self or the desire to be better or more important than others. Respect for the human person proceeds by respect for the principle that everyone should look upon his neighbor as another self, above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1931).
- Lust: The sin of lust is an intense desire, usually for sexual pleasure, money, power, or fame. The effect of lust not only damages one’s relationships with others, it often reduces other people to objects to be used for one’s pleasure. Furthermore, lust perverts one’s love of God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 2541).
- Gluttony: The sin of gluttony usually involves the over-indulgence in food or drink. It is a failure to moderate one’s material desires properly. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 2290).
- Greed: Greed is the excessive desire for and love of earthly goods and possessions. Greed perverts the proper ordering of the love of God and neighbors by an inappropriate desire for certain goods. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1849).
- Sloth: Sloth, also called acedia, can take the form of physical laziness, disinterest in spiritual matters, or neglecting spiritual growth. Sloth can be so perverse that it causes one to refuse the joy that comes from God and to cause the individual to be repelled by divine goodness. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 2094).
- Anger or wrath: This sin involves uncontrolled feelings of hatred or rage that often include a desire for revenge. Jesus teaches, “Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 2302).
- Envy: The sin of envy occurs when one experiences sadness or the desire for the possessions, happiness, talents, or abilities of another. Envy can lead to committing crimes. For this reason, the Church teaches that “Through the devil’s envy, death entered the world.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 2553).
The seven deadly sins are intentional acts against the will of God. They are considered so severe that the effect of these sins is to destroy the relationship one has with God and to place the soul in peril of being destroyed in Hell.
In the second part of this series, I will discuss the seven heavenly virtues.