Throughout history the so-called seven “deadly” or “capital” sins have been enumerated in different ways. Aquinas preferred to speak of the seven capital vices: vainglory, envy, anger, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, and lust (ST Ia IIae q. 84 a. 4). The reason they are called “capital” is because they “give rise” to all the other vices. The common element of all vice is that it deceives one into seeking after evil “on account of some attendant good.” Vainglory, for example, is an excessive desire for honor and praise, which are goods when sought after in the right way and to the right degree. Again, with respect to gluttony, food and drink and nourishment of the body are good things, but the glutton pursues these goods inordinately. So, too, with lust, which involves the inherent goods of sexuality such as preservation of the species. Covetousness seeks after the external good of riches in a disproportionate way. Aquinas notes that it is often out of an exaggerated desire to avoid the evils contrary to these attendant goods that one develops these extreme appetites.
However, it can also happen that one develops a vice by avoiding a good thing due to fear of an attendant evil. For instance, sloth refers, basically, to avoiding the physical effort attendant with spiritual exertion. Envy wrongly views the good of another as an obstacle to one’s own well-being as does unjust anger. Again, Aquinas’s key point is that these vices also emerge from resistance to something perceived as an evil, in the ontological sense.
Now, human beings quite rightly regard human suffering as evil and seek to avoid it. And suffering is evil. Even within Christianity, the distinction between dysteleological and redemptive suffering does not contravene this recognition. The problem is not with the recognition. Problems arise from the manner in which one seeks to avoid suffering, as Aquinas makes clear.
It seems to me that a major difficulty confronting our society today is that we seek to avoid suffering by making an idol of comfort. We seek after comfort. What people find comforting varies. One person seeks after the comfort that comes from recognition and achievement (vainglory). Another comforts himself with food. We even have a category called “comfort” foods (gluttony). Still another uses sex for comfort (lust). Someone else comforts himself through the accumulation of riches (covetousness). A different person becomes obsessed with celebrity culture and reality TV (envy). The slothful person makes an idol of idleness, particularly on Sundays (sloth).
Anger is an interesting one, because it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that people find anger comforting, since anger is an unpleasant feeling. However, if this is the case then explain to me why people watch cable news. As I’ve mentioned before, I sometimes flip back and forth between Fox News and MSNBC to see what they are up to. It appears to me that Fox News viewers tune in to hear about what a bad job Obama as doing since he is such a dove in dealing with terrorism. This upsets them and they keep coming back for more. However, when one flips to MSNBC the narrative is about how Obama is too hawkish with all of his drone strikes. MSNBC’s viewers keep coming back for that. So it seems to me that both sets of viewers would be more pleased with Obama if they watched the other cable news network. The Fox folks would be thrilled to hear about all the drone strikes. The MSNBC viewers would be pleased to find out how much Obama believes in a political and diplomatic solution to the problem of terrorism. But both sets of viewers do not do that. Rather, they tune in to the narrative that keeps their anger and frustration humming. Hence, odd as it may seem, I must conclude that people find a particular comfort in nursing certain angers.
Sinful states of the soul can arise in several ways, However, they often arise from pursuing goods excessively or seeking to avoid ontological evil too much or in the wrong way. We live in a society in which a dehumannizing commercial mentality fosters exaggerated distortions of the innate human tendency to avoid suffering and seek comfort. Everywhere we turn someone has comfort for sale. Thus, it is all too easy to develop the capital vices, for everywhere one looks the objects of these vices are disguised as innocent medicines designed to distract one from whatever difficulties he or she may be facing. Even Christianity itself is sometimes reconstructed in conformity to the norms of this commercial mentality; it is sold as a kind of spiritual oxycodone.
So what is the solution? I think it has something to do with this:
“Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Mt 5:4)
In his book, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, Fr. Robert Barron discusses the significance of this passage, particularly for people living in a consumer culture:
We could render this adage as how blessed…you are if you are not addicted to good feelings. Pleasant sensations—physical, emotional, psychological—are wonderful, but since they are only a finite good, they can easily drive an addiction, as can clearly be seen in the prevalence of psychotropic drugs, gluttonous habits of consumption, and pornography in our culture. Again, Jesus’s saying hasn’t a thing to do with puritanism; it has to do with detachment and hence with spiritual freedom. (44)
What Fr. Barron describes as “good feelings” is what I mean by comfort. It is an odd thing to comfort oneself through practices that are destructive of oneself physically, spiritually, or both, but yet this continues to go on under the sun. But note that the thing sought after, comfort, is a good thing to seek after. However, Jesus’s teachings seem to suggest that to seek comfort one must mourn, that is, one must face one’s suffering. To come before the idols of comfort is to hide from one’s pain. To come before God is to face it and it is here, according to Jesus, where true comfort awaits.