Q: Dear Father John, This is really interesting guidance. In the catechism, we learn that root sins are seven and they are, 1) pride, 2) covetousness, 3) lust, 4) anger, 5) gluttony, 6) envy and 7) slothfulness. In your classification there are three. Can you please make it more clear?
A: This question illustrates how rich our Catholic faith really is; it transcends our ability to comprehend it; there is always more for us to discover. This is why the concept of “root sins” can be approached, explained, and understood from different perspectives, just as a diamond shows forth its beauty through many different facets. The different facets don’t contradict each other, they actually enrich the diamond’s beauty. The apparent contradiction between a 7-way and a 3-way categorization of the root sins needs to be understood like that.
Welcoming the Spiritual Wealth
But before I explain how, I want to illustrate this point with a different topic. The Catechism circles back to key ideas frequently. For example, in #45, it teaches us the purpose of human existence: “Man is made to live in communion with God in whom he finds happiness.” That simple sentence is like a atomic bomb: small, yet immensely powerful. But later, in #1721, the Catechism gives an apparently different explanation of the purpose of human existence: “God put us in the world to know, to love, and to serve him, and so to come to paradise.” Is there really a contradiction here? In the words, yes; in the meaning of the words, no. The reality of our purpose as human beings is something so wonderful, deep, and multifaceted that it can be described in myriad ways, as can many other aspects of God’s revelation. Whenever we begin to use our intelligence to delve into the deeper meaning of our faith, we must keep this in mind. Otherwise, we may become unduly attached to certain formulations, thereby missing the point. Throughout the Church’s history, such undue attachments have yielded extremely bitter fruit – heresies, schisms, libels, executions, and riots, to name a few.
Deriving Seven from Three
Now, back to root sins. The section of the Catechism that deals with the seven capital sins that you mention in your question is discussing the concept of vice. Vices are the contrary of virtues. Where virtues are habitual behavior patterns in harmony with God’s will and purpose for our lives, vices are habitual behavior patterns contradicting that purpose. The Catechism explains that, “The repetition of sins… engenders vices, among which are the capital sins.” Categorizing vices according to the capital sins goes way back in our Catholic tradition, and even reflects philosophical ethics as taught by Plato and Aristotle. These vices are called “capital” because they give rise to so many other sins (“caput” in Latin means “head” or source). If I allow myself to be carried away by anger, for example, I may commit vengeance through murder. If I covet someone’s position at work, I may slander them so that their boss fires them. The murder or the slander are sinful result of other, capital, sins.
When speaking of “root sins,” however, spiritual writers are looking at the deep-seated tendencies toward selfishness that we have inherited because of original sin. These are tendencies to seek our happiness outside of communion with God. They are not vices per se, because they didn’t come about as the result of repeated personal sins. Rather, they make up the raw material from which vices spring. We can correct vices by forming virtues, but we can never completely eradicate (“de-root”) our tendencies to selfishness. They always remain to be battled against.
The capital vices, in fact, flow from those self-centered tendencies, those root sins. Gluttony (inordinate attachment to the pleasures of food and drink), slothfulness (inordinate attachment to comfort and ease), and lust (inordinate attachment to sexual pleasure) grow out of the root sin of sensuality. Each of them seeks happiness through material goods or experiences. Envy (willful resentment of another’s success or good fortune) and covetousness (willful desire to possess what rightfully belongs to others) can flow from vanity (seeking fulfillment from the approval and praise of other people), if the reason I resent others, for example, is because they get more attention than I do. But they can also flow from pride (seeking fulfillment in my own excellence and achievements), if my reason for desiring another person’s position, for example, is because I want to assert my superiority over that person. Just to make things more complicated, covetousness can also be a manifestation of sensuality: I can be greedy, for example, because I simply want to enjoy life instead of having to work hard all the time. This slippery nature of covetousness is one reason St Paul reminds us that “the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Timothy 6:10).
By now, if you aren’t thoroughly confused (and here we have just been scratching the theological surface: St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae catalogues more than a hundred vices and virtues, and also, by the way, ends up tracing EVERY vice and sin back to pride), you will probably have perceived why many spiritual writers encourage us to focus on the three root sins. If we just focus on counteracting the vices themselves, we may simply be snapping off branches from the stubborn weed of selfishness, instead of whittling down its trunk.
In the end, however, the main reason for trying to categorize the different types of sins (vices) and the disordered tendencies which gives rise to them (root sins) is to help us work intelligently in our efforts to follow Christ more closely. To that end, you should feel free to use whichever categorization helps you most.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC