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Still deadly after all these years: the Seven Deadly Sins are alive and well. Think of the times you've fallen from grace--which of these fatal attractions led you to do it?

OF THE so-called Seven Deadly Sins--pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust--some may seem somewhat less deadly than others. Who made up this list, anyway, and what makes these sins more fatal than most?

First of all, it should be stressed that these seven are not sins themselves but rather dispositions that place us in proximity to wrongdoing--they are the "near occasions" of sin mentioned in our Act of Contrition. It would be technically incorrect, for example, to call the experience of anger or sexual arousal sinful. It's what we choose to do with these experiences that has the potential to lead us down avenues of lovelessness and remorse. Because unbridled passions can become portals for wrongdoing, we are well advised to be watchful of them.

The dispositions popularly called deadly are more formally known as capital sins. Pope Gregory the Great (6th century) applied the term capital to certain attitudes that were prone to ALICE CAMILLE, author of the scripture series Exploring the Sunday Readings and God's Word is Alive!, both available from Twenty-Third Publications. become major thorough-fares of sin. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas described capital sins as the breeding ground of all sin.

The precise list of these fountain-head sins changed over the centuries, but the idea that sin begins not in deed but as a poisonous attitude in the heart is as old as the Bible. "Sin speaks to the sinner in the depths of his heart," the breviary version of Psalm 36 warns.

When annual Confession became part of the traditional practice of the church in the 12th century, the Ten Commandments and the capital sins became the usual checklist for making a good examination of conscience. Artists illustrated these dispositions in the visual catechism of their art, and Chaucer used them in structuring his Canterbury Tales.

Many of us were taught that pride, the great sin of Adam and Eve, was the worst of the bunch. But it also seemed clear that lust was the one most likely to be responsible for the loss of our souls if we didn't keep our minds, hearts, and bodies scrupulously pure.

The Seven Deadly Sins have fallen out of view in our present generation for several reasons, some merely unfortunate and others downright distressing. Pride, for example, has been mistakenly confused with the matter of self-esteem. Trampling one's sense of self-worth is not a spiritual goal, and in fact a healthy ego is the best foundation for a vital spiritual life. We ought to feel good about our accomplishments and about who we are just as God made us to be.

Setting ourselves up as Lord of our own lives, however, is spiritually perilous. This deadly sort of pride claims superiority over others and is confident about locating the advent of evil outside of itself. Only God can claim that position.

Envy, the second fatal disposition, has been upgraded to a lifestyle in our society. Why else would we ogle celebrities with such rapt attention? We want their looks, their clothes, their homes, their money, and their opportunities. We think wanting these things shows our good taste and natural ambition.

What it actually shows is how little we've learned about the fleeting nature of this world and how flat-out empty all these sparkling material gains are. The size of our envy is inversely proportionate to the shrinking of our joy. The more covetous we are, the less happy we'll be.

WRATH, OR ANGER, HAS BEEN PSYCHOLOGIZED AND POLITicized out of the list of sinful states and is lately filed somewhere between entitlement and obligation. Never mind that it mostly serves to mask our fear and insecurity, but how did we ever become so convinced that anger is a virtuous motivation?

Yes, there are things that should arouse our indignation: injustice, poverty, the prevalence of violence, the exploitation of the natural world. But very few people are breaking a sweat tonight about those realities unless they directly bear the consequences of them.

Most of the anger around us is a dark and destructive force, increasing division and alienation, contributing to the violent atmosphere of our world, indifferent to injustice as we shout for our slice of the pie and against those who are equally passionate about obtaining theirs.

And sloth? Lots of us have "poor work habits," but we hardly consider that a matter for Confession. If being a couch potato is a sin, then the nation is doomed. The trouble with understanding sloth is part of the wider problem of our unhealthy relationship with work and Sabbath altogether.

We are addicted to work and heedless of the command to rest. We are so untested that we collapse into inertia whenever we stop moving. Television and the computer contribute to the sort of downtime that is more like dead space.

But why are we given time and space and life at all? Not to justify our existence, since God alone gives us both being and meaning. The point of being here is to celebrate God's love for us, which we do by growing inwardly and outwardly toward love's source and subject--that is, God and others. The opposite of this stretching posture is sloth, the stagnation of choosing no development of heart, mind, and body. If the only thing you've changed in recent years is your socks, time to take a look at sloth.

THE DEADLIEST SIN IN AMERICA IS PROBABLY AVARICE, BUT it's also the least confessed according to every priest I've ever talked to. How can it be that we live in the richest country in the world and almost no one says, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned--I am greedy!" Yet we are all immersed in the aftermath of this fatal attraction.

We are rampant consumers. We even think of shopping as a form of entertainment, when it's just an opportunity to sharpen and focus our greed. I freely admit that if I never bought another article of clothing from now until the day I die, I would not be in need--my closet is that full. We acquire because we desire, not because we lack.

We don't think of gluttony as a sin anymore--it's been downgraded to a health hazard in First World countries. Since our awareness of addictive behaviors and predispositions has increased, so has our thinking that impulses toward food and drink are chemically controlled and therefore not our "fault." If we're addicted to sugar from childhood, say, how can the current epidemic of obesity fall under the jurisdiction of sin?

I should say that I've been eating jelly beans out of a dish the whole time I'm writing this, and the dish is now almost empty. Should i go to Confession? Jelly beans, as everyone knows, have no nutritional value and don't even taste that good. The only reason to eat them is because you are an addict or a glutton, as far as I can tell. Either way, I feel guilty and sorry to have eaten them.

But my feelings aren't the point. Surrendering to self-destructive behavior is a bad thing, I think we all agree, whether that "badness" is a sign of moral failure or chemical malfunction. But wanting something that's bad for you is the starting gate through which sin can enter--this is how capital sins operate.

Although there's no sin in simply wanting jelly beans, wanting in this case led to buying them, bringing them home, and putting them in a dish next to the computer, where I would lose all sense of self-control and tell myself that these are my rewards for doing a good thing: writing an article about the Seven Deadly Sins. And such a choice might lead to all the other trouble coining down the pike later: sugar blues, a headache, weight gain and self-loathing, dietary habits that tend over the years toward diabetes, stroke, and heart attack, not to mention envy of thinner people, avarice for more jelly beans, sloth about amending my life, and anger if someone tries to take my jelly beans away.

Far better to say no to gluttony outright than to open the floodgates to all that moral conflict.

BUT THERE'S ONE MORE CAPITAL SIN: LUST. LUST HAS BECOME the most pedestrian of the seven fatal dispositions, not to mention the most overused marketing tool in the business. It sells us liquor, cigarettes, cars, and fashion, as always; but also movies, music, vacations, soda, and increasingly, disturbingly, the 6 o'clock news.

"Do you want sex with that?"--the advertisers seem to be asking. And it appears that we do because it comes as a side order with just about everything these days.

The point is to sell things, and the inevitable outcomes--objectification of women, sexualization of children, increased pairing of sexuality with violence, the weakening of sexuality's power to bond, disillusionment of encountering real bodies where the airbrushed ones are expected to be--are all collateral damage that do not concern the peddlers of lust.

It may seem peculiar to be having a refresher course in the Seven Deadly Sins at the end of the summer, but consider it a salute to what's up in the gospel of Luke this month. Jesus is teaching parables about those who exploit the treasure that's been given to them instead of being responsible stewards of it.

Jesus recommends entering the kingdom of God through the narrow gate, which means leaving a lot of worldly baggage behind. Being mindful of these seven fatal attitudes can help us pare down to fit through that gate.
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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