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Capital Sins and Virtues

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The capital sins are really the basic manifestations of our fallen human nature. And the corresponding virtues are the principal ways in which God wants us to grow in sanctity. To know these sinful tendencies is to know who we are by our natural inclinations and to understand the opposite virtues is to see what is our most important task in life—to please God and reach the heavenly destiny which only the virtuous can hope to attain.

Our Proneness to Sin

There is no better way to appreciate the power of divine grace than to realize how naturally prone we are to sin. We therefore need the grace of God to cope with our spontaneous evil inclinations.

What are these inclinations? They are the result of original sin. At Baptism, we receive the supernatural power to overcome these passions, as we may call them. But the urges remain. They are traditionally identified as pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth.

We are naturally proud. We have a built in self-esteem that tends to make us forget who God is and who we are. The most basic form of pride, therefore, is to think of ourselves independently of God. We are forever thinking of what we want, instead of asking ourselves what God wants. As a result, we not only take other people for granted. We are inclined to use people for our benefit. Our pride leads us to see others as means for our own self-advantage to the point where we practically define “love” as the value that another person can serve in our lives.

We are naturally greedy. We have an instinctive desire to possess things. Of course we need food, clothing and money to provide for our well-being in life. But avarice urges us to acquire more than we need. When it becomes an addiction, it degenerates into greed. We seek to accumulate in order to satisfy our ego, and then expect others to honor and praise us accordingly.

We are naturally lustful. The built-in desire for sexual pleasure which is reserved for marriage, is not under spontaneous control. The sex-mania of the modern world is a tragic witness to the havoc that lust can create unless it is mastered by the rational will.

Envy is the sadness we feel when someone else has something or has succeeded which contrasts with what we lack or where we have failed. We naturally envy other people's gifts or achievements, for no other reason than because they put us in the shadow. In other words, envy feeds pride.

Gluttony is the irrational desire for food and drink. It is irrational either in the quantity consumed or in the quality of what we eat and drink. Certainly we must nourish our body to sustain our life and health. But as a society becomes affluent, its desires go far beyond what is necessary and resort to all kinds of exotic satisfaction of the palate.

Anger in itself is not sinful. It becomes sinful when we: are provoked to indignation over something trivial or when the intensity or duration of the anger is out of proportion to its cause. An angry person wants to remove the obstacles that stand in his way. There is such a thing as using our temper. But we should never lose our temper.

We are all naturally lazy. We do not like to exert ourselves. A slothful person does not want to do what God expects of him, now, in these circumstances. We want to “take it easy.” Our fallen human nature dislikes work whether physical, mental or moral.

Our Invitation to Virtue

In God's providence, the seven capital sins are His way of urging us to a life of sanctity. What are we saying? We are saying that what we call the capital sins are really seven capital invitations from God to practice the corresponding virtues.

Our faith tells us that God never permits any evil unless He foresees that a greater good will somehow result from the permitted evil.

Our human nature has been terribly wounded by sin. Because of the sin of our first parents we lost what is called the gift of integrity. We all now have concupiscence, which is the natural proneness to sin.

But what is so painfully obvious to us, that we lack the native power to control these sinful impulses, is precisely why we must rely on the grace, won for us by Christ, to not only conquer these evil inclinations. No, they are meant to strengthen our resolve to became saints. How? By going to Him who alone can enable us to actually profit from the passions that plague our moral life.

Once we realize this, our lives are changed. Throwing ourselves into to the arms of Christ, and relying on the help of His Mother, our sinful urges become the occasion for rising to heights of holiness.

The saints were not manikins or robots. They were not passive statues. They were men, women and children with powerful desires to pride and lust, to anger and greed, to envy, sloth and gluttony. But they learned to use these very passions as the providential means of attaining sanctity.

John A. Hardon, S.J.
University Of Detroit-Mercy
November 10, 1993

Copyright 2002 Inter Mirifica

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