Deadly Sins

Pride goeth before a fall, as everyone knows.  But it turns out women are more likely to be tripped up by excessive self-regard than their male counterparts, whereas men are more often laid low by lust.  This according to a recent study approved by the Vatican that found sinful predilections differed between men and women, as indicated by their confessions to a priest.  News reports of these findings bordered on the tongue-in-cheek, with prominent mention of the medieval tortures that awaited unrepentant sinners, according to a list of eternal punishments for specific sins issued by a sixth-century pope.  Pope Gregory was not the first to enumerate the so-called deadly sins, but his list is still considered definitive, and each was accompanied by a punishment that was deemed to fit the crime.  Accordingly, uppity women risked being broken on the wheel for all eternity, whereas licentious males would be smothered in fire and brimstone.   

Gregory’s Seven Deadly Sins (pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth) are deadly not because of their impact on others but because of their effect on the perpetrator.  In Roman Catholic theology, sins are categorized as venial or mortal, depending on their degree of severity.  Unless mortal sins are confessed or otherwise forgiven through an act of perfect contrition, the sinner goes straight to hell.  Even when sins are forgiven, they do not necessarily go unpunished.  The early church adopted an elaborate system of penances for wrongdoing, some of which were quite onerous.  Later, penances could be reduced or eliminated altogether through an equally elaborate system of indulgences in exchange for good deeds or alms-giving.  The aggressive fund-raising tactics of papal agents (“As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs”) was one of the abuses cited by Martin Luther in fomenting the Protestant Reformation.

These days ecclesiastical pronouncements on sin tend to be greeted with indifference, if not outright derision.  To begin with, the church’s moral authority has been compromised by its own misdeeds.  But even were this not the case, the church has had a progressively more difficult time maintaining its footing, given the moral drift of the secular world.  There is no longer a foundation to support the church’s unwieldy enterprise for reconciling sinners.  Eternal damnation seems disproportionate to offenses that are increasingly viewed as mere human failings.  Confession and absolution are no longer regarded as obligatory, to say nothing of the whole system of penances and indulgences.  Repentance itself seems beside the point where there is no real conviction – or even comprehension -- of sin.    

Whether or not we live in a moral universe, we must act as if we do if we are to make it a fit habitation for creatures who believe they are made in God’s image.  But how do we stand upright when our world is askew?  The prophet Amos had a vision of God holding a plumb line, which builders use to make sure their structures are vertically aligned.  The plumb line is a metaphor for truth.  It is a very simple device, really nothing more than a lead weight hanging from a string.  When our frame of reference is some man-made contrivance, the string may appear to hang crookedly.  But we know that the string always hangs true because it is governed by a higher law, in this case the law of gravity.   

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