Those of you who are old enough might remember the 1995 movie “Seven” with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman – a detective story about a serial killer who plans murders corresponding to the seven deadly sins. The seven deadly sins, perhaps more appropriately called the capital vices, have always been a topic of popular interest – hence, the movie, and for a long time I’ve considered addressing them in this column. Ideally, the very beginning of Lent would’ve been a great time to start, but it didn’t quite work that way. So, over the next few weeks, I’ll be addressing the seven deadly sins/capital vices. However, lest we be led to think that our Christian moral life is focused solely on the avoidance of sin and vice, I will also be talking about the virtues and how we grow in them.
When we speak of a “sin,” we’re talking about a specific action, word, or thought that is wrong. However, the word “vice” refers to the habit or disposition/inclination to do what is wrong. Committing a particular sin again and again leads to having a vice… and, having a vice, we are in the habit of committing a particular sin. Changing or breaking free from a vice is not an easy thing to do. It requires conversion of heart, often through prayer and the sacraments, and ultimately growth in virtue. A virtue is the opposite of a vice in that it is having the habit or disposition to do the good. Virtues grow in us the more we experience the love that Jesus Christ has for us, which inspires us to change.
After I speak about each of the capital vices, I’ll also speak about the virtue we need to develop which works against the particular vice. These seven vices (or habits of sin) are called “capital” vices because the word “capital” comes from the Latin word “caput,” meaning “head.” So, each of these seven vices are seen as the head or origin of the other particular vices or sins.
The list of seven vices as we know of them today developed over the centuries of our faith as various saints and masters of the spiritual life tried to identify the different weaknesses in the soul that lead us to commit sin. Over the centuries, that list has changed and varied somewhat. Sometimes the vice of pride is included in the list of seven, and other times, pride is set aside as the mother of all the vices and the vice of vanity (or vainglory) is put in it’s place. To complete the list, following those two vices (which are closely related), we have the vices of envy, anger (or wrath), sloth (or laziness), avarice (or greed), gluttony, and lust.
These vices are arranged from the most serious to the least serious, and from those that are more spiritual in nature to those that are particularly physical or bodily in nature. This is because our soul has a higher dignity than our bodies. Therefore, sins of the soul are ultimately worse than sins of the body. Contrary to what most people think, sins of lust are not the worst of sins. They’re just perhaps the most common.
Next time, I’ll begin with the mother of all the vices, pride, and its opposite virtue, humility.