Presenting the Deadliest Sin in the World
What is the deadliest sin in the world? St Thomas, following St Gregory the Great, argued that one sin was in a sense the deadliest of all, more prone to generate other sins, more directly opposed to the goodness of God than even the capital seven. All of the deadly sins have this sin in common, if not as their direct cause, then as an indirect consequence. The sin that has pride of place is the sin of pride itself!
The Queen of the Vices
All sins involve a turning toward some lesser good or pleasure, while turning away from higher goods and, ultimately, from God Some sins may be committed through ignorance or weakness, and may not be directly intended as affronts to God. Pride does not necessarily engender every sin one commits, but it has the potential to spawn every form of sin. A person may have serious problems with lust or with wrath, for example, but realize they offend God and strive mightily to conquer them A person filled with the vice of pride may feel no compunction and openly defy God in his sinful acts The word for pride in Latin is superbia, and Thomas says it “is so-called because a man thereby aims higher (supra) than he is.” Pride is an inordinate desire for one’s own excellence and to have things one’s own way, rather than God’s way.
Pride has been with us since Adam and Eve chose to follow their desires, rather than the will of God. The seven deadly sins have been with us always since that time and have always represented a spiritual struggle. Today, though, pride is attaining a very powerful ascendancy where formerly. Christian cultures are becoming increasingly secularized Man is, in essence, increasingly consciously choosing himself over God, enthroning his own will, and casting God aside as irrelevant or nonexistent.
Lust, for example, deriving from our natural desires for the procreation of the species, has been with us always and has always required struggle and restraint. But now, as never before, popular culture and media, and indeed, even some Christian religious denominations, glorify lust and strive to promote and sell every form of sexual sin as a proper expression of our sexuality, regardless of the damage to countless families and to the destruction of millions. Ignorance and weakness certainly play a role here, which is why young would-be mothers and fathers facing an unexpected pregnancy need to be educated, supported, loved, and shown the value of every life.
Any of the seven deadly sins becomes far more deadly when openly flaunted through pride. Pride is also especially deadly because even the virtues that we develop may be kindling for its fires. St Gregory described a type of pride wherein we boast of goods or virtues we don’t really have, but he also described three types of pride that build upon good qualities we may actually possess. There is a pride of arrogance in which we think that our good comes from ourselves, rather than from God. There is also a pride in which we may acknowledge that our good comes from God, but we believe we have earned it due to our own merits. Yet another kind of pride “despises others and wish[es] to appear the exclusive possessors of what they have.”
We must exercise special care, even as we pursue virtue, so that we do not fail to acknowledge our gratitude to God for whatever success we may achieve. Pride may lurk within even apparently quite saintly souls, and we must all exercise care that it does not lead us to a fall.
Catholic psychologist Henri Joly (1839–1925) tells the story of two would-be saints who stumbled through simple acts of pride. St Philip Neri had been sent by the pope to visit a monastery to interview a sister who had reportedly been blessed with private revelations and ecstasies. Philip headed out for the monastery on his mule on a very stormy night. When he arrived and the sister was brought before him, “she appeared full of sweetness and unction.” Philip then sat down, stuck out his leg, and said to her, “Pull off my boots.” Upon seeing the sister draw herself up, disdainful and clearly scandalized, he had seen all he needed to see. “He seized his hat and went back to the Vatican, to tell the Holy Father that a religious, so devoid of humility, could not possibly possess the graces and virtues she was credited with.” The key word there is humility.
Joly tells of a similar incident in which a priest was called to examine another young woman supposedly blessed with extraordinary graces. “‘You are the saint, aren’t you?’ he said to her ‘Yes, Father,’ was the answer he got. The illusion was instantly detected.”
True humility is the bane of pride, and it is shown by real saints. When someone once told St Thérèse of Lisieux that she was a saint, she rejoined, “No, I am not a saint. I am a very little soul whom God has overwhelmed with graces. In heaven you will see that I am speaking the truth.”
Humility then is the virtue especially opposed to pride. Humility counteracts the envy that springs from that type of pride that Gregory said, “despises others and wish[es] to appear the exclusive possessors of what they have.” Humility opposes all forms of pride It grounds us in the earth and reminds us who we are and where we come from.
In his book The Theological Virtues, the learned twentieth-century Dominican theologian Fr Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange provided a wonderful graphic image depicting the relationship between Christian virtues. Christ is the rock upon which the structure is built. The hinges of its doors are the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance (since cardo is Latin for “hinge”), and on the doors are written the names of other associated virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit. The base that sits on the rock on which the rest of the edifice stands is the virtue of humility. If we are not humble, we will succumb to pride, and our edifice of virtue will crumble. The structure is crowned by an arch, and the left and right pillars are marked “faith” and “hope.” Which virtue stands at its pinnacle at the top of the arch? Well, faith and hope are theological virtues, and we know from St Paul (1 Cor 13:13) that faith and hope abide with one other virtue, and it is the greatest of all. It is the mother of the virtues and the greatest antidote to pride and to all manner of deadly sins.
The Mother of the Virtues
St Thomas wrote a great deal about sin because he knew there were so many ways we can miss the mark. There are so many false, partial, and changeable goods that can distract our pursuit of the true, complete, and unchangeable goods that God would have us enjoy. Yet, as we have seen, he was not nearly so interested in how low we can go as in how high we can rise. For this reason, he wrote far more on virtue than he did on sin. And what is the highest virtue to which we can rise? It is the love that is charity. Thomas calls charity the mother of all the virtues, since “every virtue depends on it in a way.”All the moral virtues depend on the practical wisdom of prudence to select the right means to their ends, but how do we know if the ends that we seek are truly virtuous? We know if they align with ordo caritatis, the order of charity. When Jesus summed up the law and the commandments to tell us to love God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves, He commanded us to live the life of charity God is the most virtuous, highest, and last of all ends Charity resides in the will, and the will desires, seeks, and loves the good. The love of charity seeks the highest good, union with God.
Thomas says that the chief act of charity is to love, and he compares the love of charity to the heat of a powerful furnace. The stronger the furnace of charity we build within ourselves, the further will its flames reach, serving even to heat strangers and our enemies. But since those closest to the furnace should get the most heat, true charity should begin at home and be directed in the greatest intensity toward those with whom we live out our daily lives.
When we are aflame with the love of charity, pride and the capital vices may well go up in smoke. Pride and capital sins, the foundations and pillars of vice, say, “me, myself, and I.” Humility and charity, the base and the pinnacle of virtue, the left and right bookends of the books of virtue, say “God, neighbor, and then yes, me too.”
All manner of vices grow in strength and magnitude from repeated sinful acts, but we should recall that virtue grows too from simple daily deeds. Aristotle said we become builders by building and harpists by playing the harp. St Thomas tells us that each loving act of charity we perform increases within us the tendency to perform more charitable acts, “and this readiness increasing, man breaks out into an act of more fervent love, and strives to advance in charity, and then his charity increases actually.”
If we are to defeat pride, sloth, envy, avarice, vainglory, gluttony, wrath, lust, and all of their sundry death-dealing daughters, we must turn to God and ask Him to bless us with the mother of the virtues and with all of her sturdy sons and virtuous daughters. We must practice them every day, and show our children, friends, and neighbors, by our words and deeds, that virtue can prevail over all manner of vice, and all from the grace and for the glory of God.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Dr Vost’s The Seven Deadly Sins: A Thomistic Guide to Vanquishing Vice and Sin, which is available as an ebook and paperback from Sophia Institute Press.