This Friday, Jan. 20, is Inauguration Day. A new president and his administration will take over in Washington, our nation’s capital.
The title of “capital” means where we find the seat of government and the source of power. The word comes from the Latin caput meaning “head” and thus refers to what is most important and even vital to life. The word “capital” also means “major,” so we speak of “capital crimes” for major crimes, or capital investments as prime sources of income. We also speak of “capitals” for the tops of pillars, like those on the Supreme Court Building because they support the top.
In the church, we also speak of capital sins, also known as “the seven deadly sins,” or — more correctly — the capital vices.
As a new government takes over, we the people might hope that our new leaders avoid the capital vices. Sins are wrong actions, while vices are what drive us, or inspire us, to do evil things. The seven deadly vices are like seven bad roads — if you take them, you will go down the path to sin.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists the capital vices as pride, avarice (sometimes called greed), envy, wrath (also called anger), lust, gluttony and sloth (n. 1866). Some lists will also include something called “vainglory,” which is excessive pride.
There is no direct listing of these seven vices in the Bible. However, we can see them at work almost from the start. Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve have everything they could possibly want — but they are tempted to desire what God has forbidden. They get greedy and then they act — they sin. And where does that road — the vice of greed — lead?
A list of vices to avoid did develop early in the history of Catholic Church teachings. A fourth century Greek monk, Evagrius of Pontus, made a list of what he saw as constant threats to those trying to live in monastic life. He called these vices logismoi, a Greek term for evil or obsessive thoughts. Evagrius listed eight logismoi and in order of increasing severity: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia (or sloth, from a Greek word meaning “not to care”), vainglory and pride.
This list found its way to the Western church through St. John Cassian (d. 435) and Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), who added some modifications to give us the list in the catechism.
St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) wrote extensively on the capital vices and called pride “the queen of all vices” and greed (avarice) “the root of all.”
From Aquinas, we also gain the understanding that these vices arise from natural human appetites: appetites we have for good things. For example, we desire food and water — which are good for the body. However, Aquinas said, if these desires become distorted, they can become gluttony and lead to all the sins that rise from it. Just look at what happened to Adam and Eve — and to then their son, Cain, who grew envious of his brother.
The 14th century Italian poet, Dante (Durante degli Alighieri), familiarized us the capital vices through his “Divine Comedy.” It was the popular hit and used strong visuals, as well as poetry, to portray the vices — as well as popular figures, including government leaders of Dante’s time, to illustrate his points.
For Dante, all vices were forms of twisted love. The first three vices — pride, envy and wrath — all led to sins that harm others. The next vice — sloth — led those who followed it to fail to act with love. Dante presented the final vices — greed, gluttony and lust — as love that had become excessive or disordered.
Dante can help us see how the capital vices are devious traps. Falling prey to them takes our natural goodness and leads us off in the wrong direction. It’s normal to want security and to provide for yourself and your family — but when you using slogans like “there’s no such thing as too rich,” you’re headed to the wrong path. In the same way, our natural desire for intimacy can easily be distorted into manipulation and lust. Even the desire for a vacation or early retirement can, if mishandled, lead to weeks or even months of sloth.
Fortunately, vices don’t enter our lives alone. Every vice is countered by a virtue. Virtues are human actions, good habits if you will, that steer us on the right path. And we don’t have to develop virtues alone. As the Catechism tells us, God helps us to practice virtues, by giving us grace (n. 1810).
Virtues, in a religious sense, offer us paths that help us where God wants us to go.
So what virtues help us avoid the capital vices? Not surprisingly, they are called “capital virtues” or, sometimes, “the contrary virtues.” This is because they counter-balance the deadly vices, turning us around in the right direction. The contrary virtues are: humility, brotherly love, meekness, diligence, generosity, moderation and chastity.
- Humility counters pride;
- Envy is overturned by brotherly and sisterly love;
- Meekness or patience turns us back from wrath;
- Sloth is pushed off by diligence or zeal;
- Avarice loses to generosity;
- Gluttony is balanced by moderation or temperance — this is why the church promotes periodic fasting. And;
- Chastity counters lust.
Around the late 11th century, it became common to see painted wheels on church walls — especially in England — depicting the deadly vices. The virtues that counter-balanced them, turned the wheel in the right direction, were also painted. The prayer wheels included many pictures and colors, each symbolizing vices or virtues. For example, red was used for wrath — and, no surprise, green was for envy. Horses meant pride and lions were anger. The virtues were most often depicted as the corporal works of mercy and included a figure of Christ, or a tree.
However, if it became too difficult to remember which animal or color to think about when you wanted avoid a vice, you could always turn to the Lord’s Prayer.
This prayer can be divided into seven parts, with each reminding us of a capital virtue. So, by saying “Our Father, who art in heaven,” we can counter pride — humbly reminding ourselves that God is the one in charge.
That’s not a bad thing for anyone to remember as we enter into a new season of government leadership.
Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; the Summa Theologica; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Modern Catholic Dictionary”; “Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; “The Divine Comedy”; fisheaters.com; deadlysins.com; catholicbible101.com; catholicnewsagency.com; “Seven deadly sins and English wall paintings” at the University of Leicester at le.ac.uk; “Virtues and Vice Lists in the Bible” at catholic-resources.org.
Kasten is the author of several books, including her latest, “Journeys with the Magi. From Persia to Bethlehem… and Beyond” (Amor Deus Publishing at amordeus.com).