Meanings of the Seven Deadly Sins

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Many people have heard of the Seven Deadly Sins, but do you actually know what they are? In this lesson, we'll discuss these sins and explore their role in the Catholic faith.

Sin

There are many old jokes about guilt in Catholic life. While we lovingly joke about Catholic guilt, this experience is actually a very important part of Roman Catholicism. Why? Guilt is the punishment for sin, the internal expression that a person has broken the laws of God. In Catholicism, it's an important part of faith and a way for Catholics to understand their relationship with God.

Now, some sins are seen as worse than others. Topping the list are the Seven Deadly Sins, those deemed to be of serious enough nature to constitute a direct offense against God and God's will. In Catholic traditions, these are definitely things you should feel guilty about.

History

The Christian Bible never explicitly lists out the Seven Deadly Sins, although there are many references to the sins that God despises the most. The most comprehensive of these can be found in Proverbs 6;16-19. In the early medieval era, European priests and monks began debating the nature of various sins and started compiling lists of sins. The first man to list seven sins as the most deadly towards a person's spiritual relationship with God was St. Gregory the Great, a 6th century pope and theologian.

St. Gregory the Great
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Throughout the centuries following St. Gregory's list, the nature of the Seven Deadly Sins was a major debate amongst Catholics. From Thomas Aquinas to Dante Alighieri, the greatest minds of the continent explored this topic. The most recent came in 1992 from Pope John Paul II. This declaration helped standardize this list we use today, but also formally reminded Catholics that the Ten Commandments are still the supreme spiritual law upon which all others are based. The Seven Deadly Sins therefore provide more of a moral guideline than strict legal proscription.

The Seven Deadly Sins

Lust

So, let's get to know the Seven Deadly Sins. Each represents a major moral vice and is contrasted with one of the Seven Heavenly Virtues, or exemplary moral attitudes. First on the list is lust or luxuria in the Latin. Lust is roughly defined as excessive desire and is generally used in a sexual content outside of a sanctified marriage. Lust makes people irrational, encouraging them to act without thinking and detracts from the love a person should feel for God. It is contrasted by the virtue of chastity (defined by purity as well as knowledge and wisdom). Lust is often misunderstood as being purely about sexuality, but the basis here is about maintaining rational control of oneself.

Gluttony

The next sin is gluttony, or gula. This is defined by wastefulness, overindulgence, and malicious deprivation. Gluttony is often applied to the consumption of food, but also refers to sexuality and the basic relationships between people. Do you treat people with respect, or do you refuse to share and hoard everything for yourself? The opposite of gluttony is the virtue of temperance, which like chastity is really defined by control over one's actions.

Gluttony, in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch
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Avarice

Avarice is the third sin. Avaritia in Latin is basically greed. Avarice is an obsession over physical things, placing them in greater importance than spiritual needs. It is said to cause disloyalty and betrayal and is always treated as a malicious act by the Catholic Church. We can understand this when we remember that Judas betrayed Jesus for financial compensation. The opposite of avarice, therefore, is charity.

Sloth

Next we've got sloth or acedia. No, sloths are not sinful creatures. This sin refers to an attitude of laziness and apathy. It's a sin because other people have to work harder to compensate for your idleness. In general, any action which is destructive towards a healthy community is sinful in Catholic traditions, so we can see how sloth could be damaging. Additionally, spirituality is supposed to be an active, engaged pursuit, not one of apathy. The opposing virtue of sloth is diligence.

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