Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
As parents, we know that problems which are harder to see, like a young cancer, are easier to cure, while problems plain to the eye, like a five pound tumor, are hard to cure. And we know the same is true spiritually. This is why the Church's tradition concerning the Seven Deadly Sins is so useful.
The Seven Deadly Sins are divided into the three "warm-hearted" sins of
and the four "cold-hearted" sins of
Wrath loves the high of anger. We see it in spouses who love to get mad at each other, who look for reasons to fight, who get a sad little thrill from blowing their top when the husband is late for dinner or the wife loses the checkbook. Wrath is a choice, not a mere reaction of anger. It is there before somebody steps on the wrathful person toes, and the Wrath which comes forth has the quality of indulgence, not reaction. Wrath, in a curious way, is almost glad at the hurt toe since it gives the wrathful person a chance to "vent".
Likewise, Lust is a choice, not a mere reaction. Its essence is not sexuality (which God made), but the choice to treat human beings like things. It is not the animal response to our psychosexual hardwiring, but the will to treat other people as "stimuli" at the service of our demand to be thrilled. This is why the Church warns that we can make our own spouses the object of lust, tuning our love for our wife according to her looks today or treating our husband like an accessory in a fantasy which has almost nothing to do with him as a person. We can also make ourselves into the object of our spouse's lust, rather than a lover and partner in Christ, by encouraging our spouse to relate to us primarily in terms of our looks or sexual prowess while neglecting the many other aspects of our relationship which need as much, if not more, attention.
Gluttony also treats things like persons. Commonly, Gluttony is associated with excess in food and drink, and there is real wisdom in that association, particularly when we contemplate the sad soul who eats and boozes "for comfort" and seeks love from that last bit of sirloin. But, as C.S. Lewis' Uncle Screwtape points out, a persnickety glutton who goes through life complaining "All I want is the teensy-weeniest piece of really crisp toast!" is just as much a slave to gluttony as the excessive consumer, since he also has placed everything at the mercy of his demand for a sensory experience. This is also true of the TV Hog who will never sacrifice Monday Night Football for a night with the family or the soap opera addict who won't stop channel surfing to talk with a child about her day at school.
Here it is worth noting something. Our culture trains us to think of sin primarily as these first three sins of Wrath, Lust and Gluttony. We are far more able to recognize as "dysfunctional" (the modern euphemism for "sinful") a family of bickering fat drunken slobs whose teenager is pregnant (again) than a family of upstanding stock brokers who are "self-made people" with 2.3 Perfect Children. We would much rather have our kids associate with the family of the President of Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe than with the Simpsons. But if the President uses his big bucks to support the work of "charitable" organizations like Planned Parenthood in order to keep down the numbers of Third World peoples by abortion; if his wife chairs a corporation that markets "cop killer" rap music to minority kids; if they raise their children to be "justifiably" aloof from the hoi polloi; and if their lives appear to be a constant whirl of parties, expensive junkets and financial wheeling and dealing, do we feel ourselves menaced by the threat of Avarice, Sloth and Pride? Or do we ourselves take the first step toward these cold-hearted (and respectable) sins by indulging its evil twin, Envy?
Avarice is the sin which places Gain in the Throne made for the Love of God and neighbor. Its practitioners call it Productivity and Industriousness. Likewise, Envy is the smoldering resentment which places Lack (whether it be of money, talent, looks, "advantages" or popularity) in that same Throne and calls itself Fairness. The two sins aggravate each other. Married couples who are prey to Envy and Avarice are often faced with workaholism (Us Smiths gotta keep ahead of the Joneses!), a frenzy to acquire (Us Joneses gotta catch up with the Smiths!) and a certain intramural competition about how money is allotted within the family ("Honey, why do you get this much money allowed for your clothing budget, but I only get that much?"). Envy is also prone to strike in families with step-children, where the charge is often leveled that a parent is treating his or her natural child preferentially over the child of the spouse. It can even be felt at times between "stay at home" spouses jealous of their partner's chance to get out of the house and go to work and working spouses jealous of their partner's chance to duck the rat race.
Surprisingly, both sins (even the "busy" one of Avarice) are engendered by a spiritual weariness, not with the pain of the world, but with the Hope of Heaven. Such weariness is Sloth. And it is because it no longer musters the energy to hope for heavenly things that matter that Sloth preoccupies itself with earthly things that do not. It is what drives spouses to zone out in front of the tube night after night or to slump into an endless blue funk or to attend a mindless whirl of parties and committee meetings, rather than devote a minute's thought or prayer to why life feels so empty or how we should apologize to our spouse for what we said last night. Sloth is a laziness of spirit, not necessarily of body.
But the fountainhead of all sin is Pride, which turns from the help of God and man, usually under the names of Self-Esteem, Independence or Maturity. In marriage, it often asserts itself at the moment we notice our spouse is really different from us. We can fancy "different" equals "inferior" and regard ourselves as "superior". We can make such a big deal of "otherness" from our spouse that it can lead to marital devastation (as witness the all-encompassing "irreconcilable differences" heading under which many divorces are justified). Pride is essentially competitive. There is no such thing as mere "difference" to the soul infected with Pride. Every difference means somebody must win and somebody must lose. The one and only cure for this soul sickness (and all the other sins) is frank acknowledgement of our complete dependence on God in prayer and confession, a quick humility that is the first to say "I was wrong" to one's spouse, a watchful eye on our choices every day, and continual practice of the Seven Virtues by the grace of God.
What does that look like in real life? Next time we will discuss the Seven Virtues. Stay tuned!