The Catholic Thing
The Deadliest of the Deadlies, Today Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 10 December 2012

If you ask still-practicing Christians about the vices of post-Christian America, many would say: abortion, divorce, promiscuity, pornography, gay marriage, and other burgeoning forms of cultural crudeness. These are serious sins and social problems, to be sure, and naturally grow wherever Christian virtues shrink. But anyone familiar with the traditional sorting of sins and vices might produce a very different kind of list.

It’s telling that even Christians today usually don’t. Lust, which lies behind several vices mentioned above, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, a very common and subtle fault. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, it’s the first sin that leads into Hell and the last to be purged in Purgatory. It’s hard to guard against precisely because it partly imitates – but in truth counterfeits – one of the most divine realities: the love between two persons.

But there are worse sins, and the worst of all, the one way down there frozen in ice – and perpetually so because it seeks to flee the fire and warmth of the Spirit and the whole divine order – is Pride: The very non serviam (“I will not serve”) of Satan himself, the deepest and dumbest of sins because there is no place to flee from God, no other reality where we can have it better our way, whatever we think.

If you read about Pride casually in some Christian book, you may get the impression that it’s only a kind of self-absorption, neglecting your family or neighbor, or not seeking social justice. You often hear that in homilies, too. But Pride is far darker and deadlier than that. It’s what keeps us from understanding our place in the world, what is below and, more particularly, what above us.

St. Vincent De Paul warned: “Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.” It’s no surprise that post-Christians don’t get this point because, in the general cultural breakdown, most Christians haven’t gotten it either. This is one of the deepest ways we’ve lost the living connection to our own tradition. And it’s not merely a question of liberal/conservative. Things would be a lot simpler if it were.

The liberals, to be sure, have long tried to redefine Christian faith and morals. In the mid-nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman had already made stopping liberalism in religion his central task. But even among Catholics, something even worse than liberalism has partly succeeded. To take a current example, as we linked to last week, a soppy song “Love Cannot Be Silenced,” is circulating among some communities of religious women stung by the Vatican’s criticism of their practices earlier this year. I’ll spare you this horror, but it’s simple self-satisfaction is telling:  “We are faithful, loving and wise, dancing along side by side, with a Gospel vision to lead us and Holy Fire in our eyes.”

             The Fall of Lucifer by David Collins (1933)

Now, in general, people learn a bit about that most Christian of virtues, humility, almost in the normal course of things. Anyone with moderate self-knowledge who has grappled with the challenges of living knows how weak, feeble, silly, and blind everyone is at times. This is simply a reality principle. Even the virtuous pagans did not – like the presumptuous sisters – dare to call themselves wise (sophoi), but mere lovers of wisdom (philo-sophoi), which they were pagan-humble enough to know they had not attained. You get the impression that the nuns have been dosing themselves for years with the poison of the divine female Sophia, and as a result almost unconsciously make several proud claims. Who of us, even the nuns, thinking seriously on it, would claim to be faithful, loving, wise?

I often find conservative Christians have drunk a different Kool-Aid, most noticeably we/they seem to believe that because we stand by the Creed (an otherwise excellent thing) that we also live it – and have a right to abuse others because they don’t. If only. I’ve known quite a few conservative Christians and I’m sorry to report, beginning with myself, that the Seven Deadlies are alive and well among us, Pride, as always, in the forefront. I’ve even run across a few accomplished theologians and highly placed churchmen who, in person, might be described as lacking a certain self-forgetfulness.

Many more of us have just absorbed the general arrogance of post-Christian culture. A few years ago, I participated in the search for a new director of a Catholic organization. One applicant, barely been past thirty, regaled us with accounts of personal achievements in terms better applied to Christ’s Second Coming. I pointed this out later to the rest of the board. An experienced professor at a prestigious university sighed, “That’s how they’re all taught to present themselves these days.” But this of a Catholic, seeking to run a Catholic organization?

Pride cannot be laid out on a liberal/conservative axis, or along lines of class difference, as many now think. I’ve lived in Washington for decades and often hear politicians denounce “elites” and praise the wisdom of the American people. I sometimes wonder whether they know any of the latter. I grew up among working-stiff Catholic ethnics and am grateful for it because there is real virtue and holiness among simple people. But I know – and am even related to – simple people in small towns who are as drop-dead foolish and as blowhard arrogant as any Beltway insider. And I also know many men and women of honor, humility, and Christian piety serving in prestigious positions in politics, the military, and journalism. Even – amazing grace! – a few lawyers.

Sin and virtue operate on a different register than the categories we usually use in our public life these days. We all have to stay committed to public struggles on many fronts – and in coming days especially to the defense of religious liberty. But it’s far more important never to lose sight of a crucial Christian perspective: even this fine and essential work can be done in godly, or ungodly, ways.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by Ib, December 10, 2012
Thank you, Dr. Royal for a reminder: "Sin never sleeps."

You are lucky to be able to write, "I’ve even run across a few accomplished theologians and highly placed churchmen who, in person, might be described as lacking a certain self-forgetfulness." In my own experience, I have met many who were downright unpleasant and difficult. I have spent many hours talking to run-of-the-mill faithful who left the Roman Catholic Church because some cleric treated them shabbily rather than with pastoral care. Usually after some coaxing I can get them to realize that what Father, Sister or even Bishop So-and-So said or did is his or her problem, not theirs, and that they can return to the Roman Catholic Church and the Sacraments.

On another note, I have always wanted to thank you for your translation of Jean-Pierre Torell O.P.'s two volumes on the life and teachings of St. Thomas. I read them several years ago and have regularly returned to them since.
written by Bangwell Putt, December 10, 2012
To truly pray, to understand and intend to pray each word, of the prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola, the "Suscipe," is one way to begin to prepare oneself to accept purification.

How painful the process is. How humbling. How difficult.

How liberating.
written by Manfred, December 10, 2012
This is an excellent column Dr. Royal, and quite timely. Unfortunately, I am afraid the Church brought a lot of this upon Itself with its tolerance of the "Dual Magisterium". Once dissident theologians, bishops and priests were allowed to state publicly that the hierarchy had it wrong on various matters of faith and morals, the laity believed it had to find its own way. Confusion reigned.We were told that "the Church was going to change. Don't be foolish and follow the blind leaders. Think for yourself." The main topic at that time was the issue of contraception. The rupture on this topic was devastating and permanent, so much so that Cdl Dolan has only this year reintroduced the perennial teaching on contraception and declared this teaching stands. My wife and I stood firm on this teaching and as a result we lost many "friends". I don't mean to appear smug but Cdl Dolan admits that he and the other bishops did nothing to teach moral theology for forty-four years. My wife and I, and many others like us, could have used support from the hierarchy but it wasn't there.
written by Willie, December 10, 2012
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was so self absorbed he could not even love those who loved him. He was so enamored by his reflection in the water he could not leave and died. As the psalmist says,"He made us a little less than God." Could our new found post Christian pride be interfering with our marriages, our birth rate our lack of concern for the unborn and our ability to form relationships? Is our society's dependence on medication for depression and anxiety an attempt to cope with our new found pride; are we somehow afraid that we may die like Narcissus? Is pride destroying our Christian culture? Our we so consumed that we don't even care?
written by William Manley, December 10, 2012
Mr. Royal, speaking of the seven deadly sins, why do we hear nothing about gluttony from the pulpit or the hierarchy? Even our First Lady has identified obesity as a very serious national problem. How does gluttony link to pride...or even lust? Might make for a very interesting future post. It does seem to be the one sin linking all members of the political spectrum. Someone, I can't remember whom, said that America is the only country where even the poor people are fat. Thanks for considering it.
written by Miriam, December 10, 2012
All SIN is idolatry --- whether it is the love for animals and/or things (paganism), the love for humans (humanism), or the love for self (narcissism).

Only one love is psychologically healthy and that is the LOVE for the TRUTH (which is God.) When one loves the TRUTH, one cannot (will not) escape God. When one truly loves God, love for one's self and others follow. It is only when one truly loves GOD FIRST can one put one's love for anything else in its proper place --- whether it is love for one's self, love for another or love for love's sake alone.

St. Thomas Aquinas said “Love follows knowledge.”

I disagree.

I say, "We cannot hope to know what we do not love FIRST." Knowledge follows LOVE.

As humans we WILL love first. It is our God-given nature. But it is only when we love GOD FIRST that we come to know the TRUTH and arrive at FAITH.

In this respect, St. Thomas Aquinas got it right: “The things that we love tell us what we are.” And we can love all things when we love GOD first.
written by Achilles, December 10, 2012
Mirriam, you can not love what you do not know. I put my money on St. Thomas Aquinas.
written by Jack,CT, December 10, 2012
Mr Royal,
Very provoking and "RAW", Thanks!
written by Tony Esolen, December 10, 2012
Even among the pagan Romans, "ambition" was considered a deeply serious vice, and that sense remained active until very recently:

But Brutus says that Caesar was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man,
So are they all, all honorable men.

From Milton:

Is there no place
Left for repentance, none for pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among the powers beneath, whom I seduced
With other promises and other vaunts
Than to submit, boasting I could subdue
Th'omnipotent. Ah me, they little know
How dearly I abide that boast so vain,
Under what torments inwardly I groan,
While they adore me on the throne of Hell
With diadem and scepter high advanced,
The lower still I fall, only supreme
In misery: such joy Ambition finds.

Telling ... And then there's the word "Idol," and the word "celebrity," and "famous," and "luxury" ...
written by Louise, December 10, 2012
Robert, in the link you gave the overview says that the seven deadly sins are attitudes that underlie sin. Does that mean that one confesses the actual sin committed rather than one of the "sevens" themselves?
For example, rather than confessing guttony a person would confess that they overate at x number of meals, or oversnacked, or ate too much junk food etc? rather than saying that one committed the sin of gluttony?
written by Robert Royal, December 10, 2012
Louise if you are worried about this, it's something you obviously discuss with a trusted confessor. The Seven Deadly Sins clearly underlie many other different and specific sinful acts. So the answer may be - again, talk to a priest - that you may need to confess both. Some deadly sins like Lust and Gluttony may tend more to showing themselves in specific acts. But Pride, Envy, even Sloth may be more subtle and a matter of internal dispositions, which are no less spiritually deadly than outward acts.
written by Kerv, December 10, 2012
Pride may have been behind the dissident theologians leading the flock astray. But, the flock allowed themselves to be led astray because of the forgotten 8th Deadly Sin - Acedia.

By the way, I am very proud of my great humility!
written by Miriam, March 18, 2013
Achilles wrote:
"Mirriam, you can not love what you do not know. I put my money on St. Thomas Aquinas."

Humans are wired to love first before we know --- whether it's a pretty face or a love for the TRUTH. Familiarity may breed contempt later. BUT we pursue only what we love first.

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