What is Capital Sin or a Capital Vice?
The Catholic Encyclopedia states that “Sin is nothing else than a morally bad act (St. Thomas, De malo, 7:3), an act not in accord with reason informed by the Divine law.” God has given us free will, reason, and a sense of responsibility. We are to use these gifts to live by His law. Sinning is what we do when we use our gifts of reason and free will in deviation from God’s law.
Since the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great (who lived from 540 – 604 AD) the Catholic Church has maintained that there are seven capital sins, also referred to as the seven mortal sins, seven deadly sins, or seven capital vices. Mortal sin refers to sin, due to action and intention, which is of a graver nature than venial sin. Where venial sin is relatively minor, mortal sin creates the threat of eternal damnation, a full turning away from God on the part of the sinner, unless absolved of the sin.
In defining capital sin, the Catholic Encyclopedia references St. Thomas Aquinas:
“According to St. Thomas (Summa, II-II:153:4) 'a capital vice is that which has an exceedingly desirable end so that in his desire for it a man goes on to the commission of many sins all of which are said to originate in that vice as their chief source.' It is not then the gravity of the vice in itself that makes it capital but rather the fact that it gives rise to many other sins.”
What are the Seven Capital Sins?
In the early centuries of the Church, the formal list of the capital sins took a few different forms. The earliest predecessor to the list that has been accepted for the past millennium was penned in the 4th century by a monk named Evagrius Ponticus, who listed eight “evil thoughts.” Seven of these evil thoughts were first listed formally by Pope Gregory the Great and later were enumerated by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica: vainglory (pride), avarice (greed), gluttony, lust, sloth, envy, anger (I-II:84:4). Since that time, theologians have retained the list.
Pride – Pride is an unrestrained and improper appreciation of our own worth. This is listed first because it is widely considered the most serious of the seven sins; pride often leads to the committing of other capital sins. Pride is manifest in vanity and narcissism about one’s appearance, intelligence, status, etc. Dante described pride as “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbor.”
Greed – Greed, which is also known as avarice or covetousness, is the immoderate desire for earthly goods, as well as situations such as power. It is a sin of excess. The object a person is greedy about need not be evil, but the issue lies in the way one regards the object, placing inappropriate value on it. Greed can further inspire such sinful actions as hoarding of materials or objects, theft and robbery, trickery, and manipulation.
Gluttony – Gluttony, which comes from the Latin gluttirei – to gulp down or swallow, refers to the sin of over-indulgence and over-consumption of food and drink. The manners in which gluttony can be committed, as first mentioned by Pope Gregory the Great and later reiterated by Thomas Aquinas, are eating too soon, eating too expensively, eating too much, eating too eagerly, eating too daintily, and eating wildly.
St. Alphonsus Liguori explained that “it is not a fault to feel pleasure in eating: for it is, generally speaking, impossible to eat without experiencing the delight which food naturally produces. But it is a defect to eat, like beasts, through the sole motive of sensual gratification, and without any reasonable object” (The True Spouse of Jesus Christ).
Lust – The sin of lust refers to impure desire of a sexual nature. Sexuality is a gift from God, and not inherently impure in itself. However, lust refers to the impure thoughts and actions that misuse that gift, deviating from God’s law and intentions for us. Indulging in the sin of lust can include (but is not limited to) fornication, adultery, bestiality, rape, and incest and can lead to such things as sexual addiction.
Sloth – Sloth is often described simply as the sin of laziness. However, while this is part of the manifestation of sloth, the central problem with sloth as a capital sin is spiritual laziness. The sin of sloth means being lazy and lax about living the Faith and practicing virtue.
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains: “In general [sloth] means disinclination to labor or exertion. As a capital or deadly vice St. Thomas calls it sadness in the face of some spiritual good which one has to achieve. . . St. Thomas completes his definition of sloth by saying that it is torpor in the presence of spiritual good which is Divine good. In other words, a man is then formally distressed at the prospect of what he must do for God to bring about or keep intact his friendship with God. In this sense sloth is directly opposed to charity.”
Envy – The sin of envy or jealousy is more than merely one person wanting what someone else has; the sin of envy means one feels unjustified sorrow and distress about the good fortune of someone else. The law of love leads us to rejoice in the good fortune of our neighbor – jealousy is a contradiction to this. Envy is named among the capital sins because of the other sins to which it leads.
Anger or Wrath – From the Catholic Encyclopedia:
“[Anger is] the desire of vengeance. Its ethical rating depends upon the quality of the vengeance and the quantity of the passion. When these are in conformity with the prescriptions of balanced reason, anger is not a sin. It is rather a praiseworthy thing and justifiable with a proper zeal. It becomes sinful when it is sought to wreak vengeance upon one who has not deserved it, or to a greater extent than it has been deserved, or in conflict with the dispositions of law, or from an improper motive. The sin is then in a general sense mortal as being opposed to justice and charity.”
Because anger can be just, and due to the common usage of the word anger, this capital vice is often referred to as wrath or rage, emphasizing the unbalanced and improper motives which result in anger being a mortal sin.
Seven Capital Virtues
The Church also recognizes seven capital virtues that are the appropriate counter to these vices: chastity, abstinence, liberality or generosity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility.
We highly recommend John Zmirak's book, The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins. With unparalleled wit you'll learn more about what the sins are, how to avoid them, and people in history who have embodied them. Given a 5-star Tiber River rating.
You can also read more about the seven capital virtues.