On the seven capital sins and what can be done about them

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

St. Bernadette, in answer to the question: "What is a sinner?" said that "A sinner is one who loves evil". Her answer was clever, because she did not say "does", but "loves". We all do evil, for all of us sin; for we are frail and prone to sin and self-seeking. The goal of the spiritual life is to die completely to this inordinate love of self so as to become one with God, which is what our hearts are restless for ultimately. But not everyone "loves" sin. Those who do love darkness (Jn 3, 19) will simply refuse to enter into battle against their own tendency to sin. But if you know from within that you do not love darkness and that you want to love God more fully so as to possess Him forever in eternity, then you must choose to engage in the struggle against your own particular tendencies to sin and self-seeking.

We all have our own particular battle ground, that is, our own unique struggles. What I have found over the years is that the seven capital sins are a continuum that marks a range on which each person can begin to outline, in general terms, his own particular battle ground. This range begins with the most spiritual and serious of the capital sins and moves towards the more physical and least serious - note however that "least serious" does not mean that they are not serious. Indeed, each of the seven is capable of killing the grace of God within the soul, rendering the soul dead and thus empty of the divine life.

The first of the capital sins is pride, which is inordinate or disordered self-esteem. In the extreme, it is the decision to make oneself one's own god, that is, to make oneself the measure of what is true and good. Now the word "capital" comes from the Latin caput, which means 'head'. A capital sin is at the head of a host of sins that are its offspring. The sin of pride in particular spawns a number of sins, such as conceit, boasting, stubbornness, disobedience, discord, argumentativeness, competativeness, a haughty demeanor, patronization, isolating oneself out of a sense of superiority, hypocrisy, and prevarication, that is, putting on a façade (wearing a mask). In a religious context, this means Phariseeism or clericalism.

Pride is the root of all sin, and so all of us will struggle with pride at some level; for when a person sins - regardless of the sin - he deliberately chooses to do what he knows to be contrary to God's will. In that sense, he has chosen to "be his own god". But there are some who struggle with - or take delight in - this sin to a greater degree than others. Usually, but not always, they are the very intelligent.

If you find that this is one of your struggles, pray for humility. The word 'humility' is derived from the Latin humus, which means soil or dirt. The human person is really a pile of dirt, made living by a spiritual soul. We are "holy soil" - for human life is holy - , but we are dust and ashes nevertheless. It is matter that severely limits us - angels are not encumbered by matter, which is why they are so much more intelligent than human beings. A good remedy for pride is to meditate on our limitations, for example, on the sheer number of people in this world who in very specific ways are so much more talented than we are. There are so many gifts I do not have that others do have. Some have great mathematical minds, or historical minds, great scientific minds, or philosophical minds, technological minds, etc. There are people who can suffer more than I can, who are more generous, who are more humble, who are better looking, etc. We can also meditate on the level of our own dependency; for we depend on so many people for so many things we are helpless to deliver on our own. Pride is grounded in an illusion, and the more effort we put in to disillusioning ourselves through a concentration on our own radical limitations, the sooner we will begin to feel comfortable with the knowledge of those limits and the truth of our own dependency on others, which is the necessary condition for humility.

Envy, the next capital sin, involves willing that others be deprived of the goods and blessings that are theirs. It is rooted in a love of one's own good to the point that one wills others to be deprived of theirs, or seriously limited in their share of the good. It is accompanied by a secret delight in the misfortunes of others. Its offspring are jealousy, slander, feeling regret upon hearing good news about another or others, suspicion of another or others - which arises from an attempt to interpret another's virtue in a negative light (Oh, they're only doing that because they want… etc.) - , detraction, which is making known the faults of others, and gossip.

The remedy of envy is to pray for compassion or a deeper empathy for others. Most importantly, we should pray for the grace to desire, from the depths of our heart that others share in greater blessings than us. If this is painful, then we should take that as a clue that we need to continue to pray along these lines. In the Litany of Humility, we pray the following: "That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. That others may be esteemed more than I, grant me the grace to desire it; that in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, grant me the grace to desire it; that others may be chosen and I set aside, grant me the grace to desire it; that others may be praised and I go unnoticed, grant me the grace to desire it; that others may be preferred to me in everything, grant me the grace to desire it; that others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…" This last petition is a marvelous one, for it is a prayer that others have a higher place in heaven than us, which means that they will have a greater joy in eternity than us. To delight in retributive justice, however, is not contrary to envy; rather, justice is a good, and to want justice for a criminal is a virtue, while indifference to justice, or leniency, is a vice.

But all of us must be content with the place that God gives us, however insignificant, because God has a providential plan, and our small place within that plan is necessary in His overall scheme of things. As any mechanic knows, if a small and apparently insignificant part is not in its proper place, the whole cannot function well. To accept our limited place in the world is to love His providential plan without even understanding all its details. The greater one's acceptance of one's place, the greater is one's love for that providential plan, and holiness is found precisely in this love of God and His providence. One might have the lowest place on the "totem pole" but have a greater love of God's providence than the one occupying the highest place; it is this love that makes the former greater than the latter.

Avarice is the inordinate love of possessing. Among other things, it is rooted in a lack of faith that God is in control, that is, a lack of faith in divine providence. One fails to find one's security in God and so one develops a disordered desire for security and whatever can procure it. Avarice is fundamentally an inordinate love of the goods of this world. Its offspring are anxiety, stress, hardness of heart (i.e., towards the needs of others), indifference to the suffering and poverty of others, deceit, fraud, violence, and often loneliness.

The remedy for avarice is to cultivate generosity. Almsgiving goes a long way in overcoming this attachment to money and property. There is great joy in simplifying one's life and freeing oneself from the slavery of wealth and the worries it brings. Once a person has acquired this freedom, he is free to take flight into the greater joys of the spiritual life, joys that are interior and are discovered when one begins to enter into the many rooms of the interior castle of the soul through prayer, rooms that lead to the very center wherein one finds a delight and peace with which no pleasure on earth can compare; for at the center one finds God Himself.

Anger is a capital sin that should be distinguished from what is traditionally called "righteous indignation". It is a mark of excellence that one becomes angry at the sight of injustice. The sin of anger, on the contrary, is the deliberate decision to nurse anger against another, to keep the flame alive, to refuse to let go of a grudge. The offspring of anger include revenge, unforgiveness, passive aggressive behavior, verbal abuse, cursing, rebellion, disrespect, and resentment.

The remedy for anger is forgiveness from the heart. Of course, that's easier said than done; we may need the help of a counselor to take us through the steps leading to forgiveness; nonetheless, since anger is a kind of spiritual cancer that can bring on physical disease (i.e., colitis, intestinal disease, colon and liver cancer, etc.), it is urgent to begin, as soon as possible, the difficult work of forgiving those in our lives whom we need to forgive. Most importantly, Christ has said that unless we forgive, we will not be forgiven; for we have been forgiven a debt that we simply could not repay (the debt Christ paid for our sins); how unjust it would be for us, the beneficiaries of his mercy, to refuse to reciprocate and forgive those who have a lesser debt towards us. All we need to do is ask the Lord to bring to mind the image of anyone in our past or present whom He wants us to forgive, and to give us the grace to begin the walk towards letting go of all resentment towards that person, acceptance of the hurt he or she has caused us, and finally forgiveness. The reward of succeeding in this is freedom from the bitterness and darkness with which anger fills the soul.

Sloth is inordinate laziness. It is best described as profound indifference. English writer and poet Dorothy Sayers writes that sloth "believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die". Of course, there are degrees of sloth, and its offspring include procrastination, wasting time, useless activity, trivial conversation, the inability to contemplate (which is true leisure), weak-spiritedness, melancholy, and causeless irritation.

A good remedy for sloth is, first and foremost, to make sure you have a goal. The ultimate end of each person is eternal life in union with God, and our particular way of achieving that end is through our own unique vocation. We have to pray to be given the knowledge of that vocation and then live for it. If we have something to live for, we will avoid sloth.

A person disposed to sloth must force himself to do meaningful things, like volunteer work, helping those around us who cannot, for whatever reason, help themselves. We have to cultivate diligence and industriousness, which are habits that are really not difficult to cultivate. In fact, there is a danger that a person can become too functional or too caught up in his own "doing". What often happens is he begins to believe that God depends on his "doing", which is a delusion. The remedy in both cases is to learn to leisure properly. Genuine leisure is contemplation (of the highest things), and so the best remedy for sloth is to have regular times set aside for prayer and spiritual reading, that is, reading from the classics of the saints and doctors of the Church, such as St. Catherine of Siena, or St. Theresa of Avila, etc.

Lust is inordinate sexual appetite. It is important to note that we are talking about disordered appetite. The sexual drive is not in itself evil, but good. Lust is the appetite for sexual pleasure that is contrary to the demands of human reason. Marriage is the proper context for the sexual act, since marriage is a joining of two, male and female, into one flesh. The sexual act is a joining of two into one flesh, and so it is the act that consummates a marriage. Sexual union is the expression of married love, and it is an act that is in itself open to the procreation of new life. Outside of the context of marriage, the sexual act is neither unitive nor procreative, but is reduced to the pursuit of sexual gratification. It becomes a self-centered act, and using another sexually is very harmful both to one's own character and to the one being used.

The offspring of lust include spiritual blindness as well as a loss of interest in things spiritual; for one is so immersed in the flesh that the goods of the spirit lose their appeal. And because lust is so focused on pleasure, which exists in the self, the sexually disordered will lack a spirit of thoughtfulness. Obscenity is also an offspring of lust, and that includes obscene language as well as the production and interest in obscene literature. Immodest dress is an offspring of lust, for immodest dress manifests thoughtlessness, or worse, a desire to be the center of attention and an object of sexual desire. Moreover, because one is so focused on sexual pleasure, the lustful begin to despair of a future life. Lust is also accompanied by a hatred for the Church, which always stands for modesty and purity.

A remedy against lust is fasting. The reason is that gluttony, which includes dainty eating, will often generate a spirit of unchastity. There are degrees of fasting; one need not fast on bread and water for a full day, once or twice a week - although that might be a good idea for a while - , but regular sacrifices of certain foods, such as sweets, are important to keep the appetites from ruling over the intellect and will. If one is tempted sexually at the sight of a rather sexually appealing woman or man, one can change that temptation into something holy by turning the mind to God and praising Him for creating such a beautiful and desirable creature. Abstaining from alcohol is above all a very important precaution against lust, not to mention avoiding occasions and situations that render sexual self-control very difficult. Finally, spending a great deal of time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament will certainly conquer the vice of lust.

The last of the capital sins is gluttony, which is inordinate appetite for food and drink. It is very difficult to draw the line allowing us to distinguish between the truly gluttonous and a healthy appetite. What is gluttony for a full grown adult will not necessarily be gluttonous for a teenager, and gluttony does not necessarily imply large quantities of food. Essentially, the glutton does not eat to live, he lives to eat. He is overly concerned with food. We really ought to be indifferent to food and eat for the sake of proper nourishment and health. Finding pleasure in food and drink is not sinful, but time should be used for the good of others, not for planning and executing delicious meals on a daily basis.

The offspring of gluttony include a loss of interest in things spiritual, as well as scurrility, which is unbecoming words; for one is so immersed in the physical that it becomes difficult to think before one speaks. Moreover, gluttony involves a disordered love of self, which leads to a loss of thoughtfulness and a delight in speaking that makes one the center of attention. Gluttony also leads to a dullness of the intellect. The remedy against gluttony is obviously fasting in one form or another. Simplicity in eating and the effort to cultivate indifference to food will overcome this particular vice and its offspring.

Concluding Thoughts

By the end of our lives, we should have learned that all that this world holds out to us, with the promise that we will find perfect rest in these goods, is little more than illusion. As life progresses, we ought to become increasingly interior; for this life is about learning to love God and to find our neighbor within the very heart of God, and vice versa. Happiness is only found in dying to the self and awakening to the divine life that is in the very depths of the soul, for the most part hidden behind the darkness of a life blinded by disordered passion. We need to keep in mind that the goods and opportunities we sacrifice in this life, for the sake of His will, will all be returned to us if we achieve our destiny, which is union with God in the Beatific Vision, for God is the Supreme Good, and to possess God is to possess the fullness of unlimited goodness. Nothing is lacking in those who see God as He is in Himself. That is why it is so prudent to choose early on to engage in the battle against our own unique proclivities to sin and self-seeking. Outlined above are very specific ways to counter these proclivities, but the most general and powerful means of overcoming ourselves are regular Confession and Communion. Those who refuse to battle will be the greatest losers, for they are already defeated by their very choice to surrender to a life of sin, selfishness, and darkness.