Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

07 December 2018

Pride: “I Will Not Serve”

The deadliest of the deadly sins requires the most vital remedy: Christ the humble King is the antidote to the Pride of the lion. “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake He became poor although He was rich, so that by His poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Of course, there is the desire to avoid the fall before which pride goeth (cf. Prov 16:18)—a desire motivated by a healthy enough dose of pride...and prudence. 


Unhealthy pride registers as a pronounced preoccupation with self that makes us alternately disappointed or fascinated. Superiority and inferiority have their respective dangers. “What are other people saying or thinking about me?” is a heavily-traveled road. In order to drive on that road, we find ourselves exaggerating, or desiring to impress. Our knowledge, our talents, our resources become a tool for shaping perceptions rather than serving for service’ sake.

Our fair land seems forever embroiled in a conflict of some sort. Remarkable, though, is the drama of the angelic conflict of Lucifer and Michael, which didn’t really involve a sword. Rather, while Lucifer declared he would not serve, effectively making himself out to be God, Michael responded, “Who is like God?“—the meaning of his name. The truth was spoken, the untruthful angels had a great fall, and the rest is salvation history.

Subtle is the soul’s campaign to become the sole arbiter of good and evil. Before the first human sin was the first angelic sin: Lucifer’s refusal to worship as God desires. “I will not serve!” was his anthem. Note that, while the angelic will and intellect are so supreme as to manifest in a single act of choosing and knowing, we humans thankfully move about from one act to another, giving us the very possibility of repentance.

The 1992 Supreme Court decision “Planned Parenthood v. Casey” astoundingly declared, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.“ Come again? 

How this decision disastrously unfurls: I recently read that 45% of all 2011 U.S. pregnancies were unintended. That information came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Human life, a disease! The Catholic Church still doggedly claims that reproductive “freedom” (aka contraception) is not the answer to the irresponsibility and violence that mostly men perpetuate: we have to dig deeper.

The preceding reflections on the capital sins did not observe the order that Bishop Barron rightly employed in his talks. Take the initials of my reverse movement, and you have the acronym PALE GAS: Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice, and Sloth. Like a pale gas, any of these sinful trends can begin to characterize our attitudes and behaviors, and finally suffocate us. Through the “breathing treatment” of repentance, however, a new air can inhabit our souls.

06 December 2018

Avarice: Private Exceptions, Common Good

Contrary to the antagonizing protagonist of the movie “Wall Street,” greed, also known as Avarice, is not good. Among the capital sins it may not be the worst, but the immoderate or unreasonable desire for riches hampers our pursuit of the kingdom of God.


The Catholic Church is no foe of private property or the entrepreneurial spirit. She is the BFF of the common good and those who care about it more than their wealth. Such persons value stewardship over ownership, holding over grasping. They ask what they can do with what they have for their God and neighbor.

Pope Leo XIII, considered the father of Catholic social teaching, said, “Once the demands of necessity and propriety have been satisfied, the rest belongs to the poor.“ That statement serves as a scathing examination of conscience upon what we own and how we dispose of it.

Bishop Barron channels Saint Thomas Aquinas when he affirms the doctrine of creation as the basis for the Church’s teaching on the use of material wealth. God made the world and everything in it. Everything we have comes from God and is best directed God-ward. Say what you will about Rush Limbaugh, but I’ve always admired his slogan, “Talent on loan from God“ because, whether or not you think he has any talent, if he does, it is. Likewise for the rest of us.

Avarice, therefore, definitely deals with nonmaterial entities; in such cases it is especially related to envy because it is motivated by the fear of inadequacy. Who says you’re not enough? Our fundamental insecurity is one not-to-be-overlooked aspect of original sin; it plays out in all of the deadly sins.

Francis Cardinal George, former Archbishop of Chicago, once spoke to a gathering of prominent donors in his archdiocese. He said to them, “The poor need you to draw them out of poverty; and you need the poor to keep you out of hell.“ Consider also the Lord Jesus’ famous dictum, “The poor you will always have with you” (Mt 26:11). The materially and spiritually poor, if you are open to them, will appear throughout your life in different disguises as aids to your salvation.

The poor in spirit seek out persons and situations that bring them closer to God and virtue. Saint Augustine described the sinful human condition as “curvatus in se” (bent in upon oneself). Nowhere is that condition more evident than in the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32): by demanding his father‘s inheritance, he effectively treated him as if he were already dead. Perhaps, when that son returned home, he began to look beyond himself, and find something of heaven.

God’s Gift

Ipse nos tibi perficiat munus æternum

May He [i.e., Christ] make of us an eternal offering to You[, Father] (Third Eucharistic Prayer)

 ⸁ὃ δέδωκάς μοι (John 17:24, NA28)

That which You have given Me [i.e., The disciples, to the Son by the Father]

Both phrases – the liturgical and the biblical – refer to human beings as gifts being given to God.

In both phrases, God is both the giver and the receiver of us: (1) The Son presents us to the Father by the Spirit’s power, and (2) the Father has presented us to the Son.

Sometimes we hear the disparaging assertion that someone believes he or she is “God’s gift to the world.“ The temptation to pride is so close to the human heart because this prideful declaration is so close to, yet so far from, the truth.

05 December 2018

Lust: The Destroyer of Community

Lust might often be considered the most deadly of the seven capital sins, but to Dante and Catholic theology, it is the least deadly perhaps because it involves the least amount of malice – that is to say, when employed in its “purest“ form without the urge for power.

Recall, Bishop Barron says, sexual pleasure is something that God wants human beings to enjoy; it is necessary for married couples to carry out their divine mission; for that reason perhaps it is so easy to twist. How we bandy about the term “love,” over-identifying it with elated feelings or physical states. What potential hides within sexuality and sexual expression – potential for good or evil!

Lust is the excessive craving of the pleasures of the body. It treats a human being (another, or self) not as a person worthy of her or his own regard, but as a tool for satisfying sexual urges. Lust uses people for what can be extracted from them, and sexual gratification is probably the easiest quality to separate from personhood.

The multi-billion dollar industry of pornography centers around the objectification of individuals by one another. The cult of celebrity, tabloid magazines (“scandal rags”), and certain kinds of “reality” television indirectly emerged from porn, I would say, because of their intense focus on glamour, drama, manipulation, and humiliation. Relationships with these characteristics might somehow, somewhere trace them to porn use.

It’s all a distancing from reality as it is. Life and our uncomfortable feelings around actual human relationships demand addressing, but like similarly charged magnets, we resist and repel. Fantasy is easier, and its avenues plentiful.

We are created in and for real communion. Marriage is the privileged path to sustained sharing in the prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of another. For the human race as a whole, sexual activity within a covenant bond is necessary. But marriage is no mere outlet for sexual interest, nor celibacy a refuge from it. Whether it flowers in marriage or intentional celibacy, the integration of sexuality is crucial for peace.

“For peace”? At the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, Mother Teresa declared abortion the greatest threat to world peace. Abortion, that fruit of lust and power, reveals and fosters unrest in the lives of everyone involved. Though it may seem like a pardon from a sentence, abortion levies a sentence of its own. But for every lust-power offense there is always healing, the gradual work toward a new awareness of one’s dignity and the earnest pursuit of chastity.

Authentic, inspiring community helps provide that healing. Whether it is transparency in the marital relationship, in counseling, a twelve-step program or friendship, active participation purifies human hearts. God-at-work-in-community gives people power to sever from their lives whatever enslaves them and warps their regard for self and others.

04 December 2018

Envy: Fearing I Am Not Loved

We turn now to Envy, defined by St. Thomas as “sorrow at another person’s good”; or, captured exquisitely by author Gore Vidal, “When a friend of mine succeeds, something of me dies.” The other side of it is schadenfreude, pleasure taken in another person’s failure. It is the “closest daughter of pride,” Thomas would say. My take on that: like pride, envy tries to establish Who I Am To Judge others as worse or better than I.


From the vantage point of our Creator, we are equal recipients of love, fundamentally connected to each other as organs working for a body. God is Love, and that Love is not partial—not favoring one over another, never fragmentary. But we unfinished symphonies tend to look at ourselves in the incomplete moment, “as in a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12, now “dimly, as in a mirror”). Lacking the full story of ourselves and others, we see others’ projected selves through the prism of what we can barely tell of our insides. At the root of this and all sin is the fear that I am not loved into and through my existence.

The possible motives for envy include traits, status, abilities, achievements, situation or relationships. Maybe someone else has what we want; maybe we cannot or will not expend the necessary effort to obtain it. Envy leaves us diminished by others’ successes and pleased for their deprivation, even if it doesn’t result in our enrichment. It is hard in envious moments to realize that good is not divided by being multiplied.

There is a rampant sense of entitlement out there/in here. Life simply is not fair. Nobody owes us anything. Expectations do not automatically or necessarily match reality. This ends up being something to “grieve” like any loss, though not without also denying, bargaining, and hopefully accepting (other dimensions of grief).

Scapegoating is a product of envy. Undermining, blaming, isolating, gossiping about others, all follow from it. We can see how envy lies at the root of so much violence. Think of the bullets and bombs that men have discharged over the past couple of years.

The counter to envy is admiration. Look around at the traits, status, abilities, etc. of others (especially those you think you don’t have, or have “less” of) as one fellow member of Christ’s Body rejoicing in the other. Make a point of acknowledging those gifts to the person. Publicly note a good quality of a person being vilified, in the very midst of a gossip session you “happen to be” in. Revel in the differences around you and cherish your unique role in salvation history.

At the Wedding Feast of Cana, when the wine ran out, Mary was lovingly detached from whatever excitement an envious person might derive from that awkward situation. Instead, she did something about it: she took the matter to Jesus. There is always something we can do to improve our situation. Praise and service are good examples.

03 December 2018

Gluttony: Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart

Editorial note: The ideas and packaging in this series about the seven deadly sins come from two sources: 1. Bishop Robert Barron’s series, “Seven Deadly Sins / Seven Lively Virtues” (wordonfire.org); 2. A talk I prepared several years ago for a theology presentation.

I just can’t get enough of talking about Gluttony. Alongside lust, it is considered among the “least” deadly of the deadly sins because it involves the domination of reason by the passions more than a twisting of ego; it is more a problem of weakness than malice.

Gluttony is immoderate or unreasonable pleasure in food and drink. Our nation’s tendency to obesity is definitely a physical and psychological problem, but at depth it is spiritual. By extension this vice applies to other practices and substances we consume, things that end up consuming us. Entertainment comes quickly to mind. The latest iOS update allows you to monitor the “screen time” you and your family spend. How would you and I feel if those amounts were published?

Out of a sense of entitlement and even plain old enjoyment, we might “treat ourselves,” and this is not evil; but we must honestly consider how much attention, time, and money we devote to particular agents in our lives. The lack of satisfaction tempts us to try more of what finally cannot satisfy the interior hunger for communion with God and others. When our usage of finite goods distracts us from serving the common good and the infinite good, we have a problem. Modern language might suggest we have an addiction.

For all this, we are not Puritans. Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc famously declared, “Wherever a Catholic sun doth shine / there’s music and laughter and good red wine / At least I have always found it so: / Benedicamus Domino! [Bless the Lord!]” Like Catholic liturgy, Catholic life-in-general enjoys a certain sober frivolity. Because we take life seriously, we can have fun with it: another paradox for you.

Asceticism is the discipline of our incessant juvenile desires. We want to develop a plan of eating, drinking, and exertion that provides us greater energy, strength, and endurance. Mature regulation of the lesser goods, Bishop Barron notes, will allow the greater goods (e.g., literature, friendship, science, the quest for God) to emerge. Rightly we’d chafe at whipping ourselves in the style of medieval monks, but an hour on an exercise apparatus or the skipping of one meal might seem nearly as torturous. Are we as willing to discipline ourselves for the service of spiritual values as we are for physical health and appearance?

Twenty years ago a retreat director suggested I give up coffee; whether permanently or temporarily, I cannot recall, as I was so traumatized by the thought. What did that say about coffee; about my attachment to coffee; about me? A good question to ask is, “What do we hold onto?” It applies to physical enjoyments and spiritual pursuits alike.

In Dante’s Purgatorio, the gluttonous are made to quote the 51st Psalm: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.” We open our lips to ingest, and to suggest (disciplining our speech applies here!)—but the praise of God is the best purpose for the mouth God gave us, and it’s always a good substitute for overindulgence.

02 December 2018

Anger: The Explosion, The Slow Boil

Anger is a normal human experience. It’s a function of hurt: scratch one, sniff the other. As we will see with all of these deadlies, the problem is taking them to excess, or to defect. That’s right: the extremes can go in either direction. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, sinful anger is an immoderate and irrational desire for revenge.

It’s funny in a tragic way that even Christians take the Old Testament “eye for an eye” prescription as normative for their own experience—or rather, they take their misreading, and take it long and deep. The original intent was that one should not exact any more than the harm one had incurred: in other words, not a life for an eye, an arm and a leg for an arm. Left to ourselves, Mark Shea writes, “the ancient Israelites were…barbarians just like us.”

Our anger can run hot with explosiveness, hostility, and fury, or it can run cold with denial, resentment, or depression (“anger turned inward”). Left untreated, I think it shows up as the headaches and stomachaches we often get without detectable cause. Anger comes out sideways as sarcasm, which registers very high in these troubled times, especially in the social media. Passive aggression retains the level exterior but thinly masks volatility, lending daggers to smiles.

Anger is very much tied up with unmet expectations, either regarding the past (resentment) or the future (fear). Parents know well the tantrums of childhood that can stop cold shopping, worshipping, or just about any other pursuit. No foe of calculated chaos, I threw my fair share, and repent of it to this day whenever I see one in action. As adults, our tantrums usually just get a bit more sophisticated. They can give quite a rush.

We have to admit the inadequacy of the lex talionis (law of like-for-like), the (un?)intended result of perpetuating the cycle of guilt, shame, and rage in our world. In place of sinful anger, we are invited to insert humility, courage, and forgiveness. In the face of human sin, Jesus responds with anger channeled into mercy. He allows mankind’s violent streak to strike Him, upon the holy and life-giving Cross, where alone it ends up accomplishing untold good.

To Jesus we can offer our own sadness, fear, and resentment—but not “just” to Jesus. What do I mean? We don’t want prayer to become a “holy” way of stuffing down what ends up coming out sideways and shamefully. For me, safe conversation, exercise, and creativity help me deal with life’s real or perceived inequalities. They can help you too.