Examining Your Conscience by Looking to Virtue Over Vice


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Until several years ago, the end of the Act of Contrition about sinning no more — and avoiding the near occasion of sin — always left me wondering how to actually carry out that resolution. That all changed when, at the suggestion of a priest, I started to examine my conscience before each confession in light of the seven capital vices, or seven deadly sins. The seven capital vices are those bad habits, the root of which is pride, from which all sins come. Pope Gregory I (St. Gregory the Great) explains in his Moralia on Job that the “seven principal vices ... spring doubtless from this poisonous root [of pride], namely, vain glory, envy, anger, melancholy [sloth], avarice, gluttony [and] lust (31.45.87).” By examining my conscience for these capital vices, and their offspring, and by learning about their opposing virtues, I have begun to understand more clearly what my sins actually are.

As a result, I have been able to find practical ways to combat these sins through forming the opposing virtue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good.” It further cites St. Gregory of Nyssa, “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God” (1803). St. Thomas Aquinas explains how human virtue is a good habit in which we subject our reason, will and passions to right reason (Summa Theologiae, q. 55).

We are all born with the potential to imitate the goodness of God — after all, we are made in the very image and likeness of him — but as a result of the Fall, actualizing this potential and becoming who God made us to be is difficult.

Vice is a bad habit that causes us to be less like God, is contrary to our nature and is not in accord with right reason. Because of the Fall, we are subject to concupiscence, where our passions are difficult to control as they resist our reason. Pride, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “is said to be the beginning of all sin, not as though every sin originated from pride, but because any kind of sin is naturally liable to arise from pride” (Summa, II-II, q. 162, Article 7).

St. Gregory the Great explains further:

“For from vainglory there arise disobedience, boasting, hypocrisy, contentions, obstinacies, discords and the presumptions of novelties. From envy there spring hatred, whispering, detraction, exultation at the misfortunes of a neighbor and affliction at his prosperity. From anger are produced strifes, swelling of mind, insults, clamor, indignation, blasphemies. From melancholy there arise malice, rancor, cowardice, despair, slothfulness in fulfilling the commands and a wandering of the mind on unlawful objects. From avarice there spring treachery, fraud, deceit, perjury, restlessness, violence and hardnesses of heart against compassion. From gluttony are propagated foolish mirth, scurrility, uncleanness, babbling, dullness of sense in understanding. From lust are generated blindness of mind, inconsiderateness, inconstancy, precipitation, self-love, hatred of God, affection for this present world, but dread or despair of that which is to come” (Moralia, 31.45.88).

The good news is that, for every vice, there is a virtue we can develop to help us overcome that vice.

That is why we must strive for virtue. Every virtue is the perfection of a good habit. To become perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48), God calls us to seek to attain all of the moral virtues.

When we confess our sins in the sacrament of confession and pray for help, God gives us the grace to help us resist temptation and form virtue through performing good acts. One overcomes pride through acts of humility, seeing oneself as one truly is before God. When we see ourselves rightly, we can combat the sins to which pride often leads us. Vanity, a love of the good opinion of others, is overcome through acts of magnanimity in which one gives due honor to God for all abilities.

Immoderate, sinful anger can be combated through acts of meekness and patience. Covetousness, or greed, can be overcome through acts of generosity and liberality. Envy, not just jealousy of another’s good, but a desire to deprive a person of these goods, can be combated through acts of kindness. The sadness and melancholy of sloth must be thwarted through acts of diligence, gratitude and love. Gluttony, the immoderate use of food and drink, is opposed through acts of temperance and abstinence, the taking of food within reason.

One overcomes lust through acts of chastity according to one’s state in life, whether married or single. These acts must be internal and external, in order to truly form a virtue.

The more good acts we perform, the easier they become, and, before long, we are on our way to being more virtuous followers of Christ.

The theological virtues — infused in us by God at baptism and when we are in a state of grace — of faith, hope and charity are necessary for us to truly have all of the other virtues.

Charity, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains, is the mother of all of the virtues, because in her all other virtuous acts are conceived (Summa, II-II, q. 23, a. 8). St. Paul says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 13 — our good acts are worth nothing without charity.

So, unless we pray to have charity and foster a love of God through prayer and acts of thanksgiving, we cannot achieve any of these virtues.

Susanna Spencer writes from

St. Paul, Minnesota.