Lex Cordis Caritas - The law of the heart is Love

by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

The key to being a committed Christian is the experience of conversion, that is, Christ's call to turn away from sin and to be faithful to the Gospel. That may sound simple enough, but the very first step of recognizing sin itself is sometimes hard to do. The devil is deceptive, masking sinfulness in an aura that may appear desirable and even respectable, but it is really only evil masquerading under a false façade. We can rationalize and convince ourselves that the things we do out of selfishness are really being done for noble purposes.

Sometimes we may also make the mistake of limiting our awareness of sins to the most serious offenses imaginable and then convince ourselves that since we are innocent of such terrible sins, we have not committed any sins. We may even say, "I've never murdered anyone or cheated on my spouse, so why do I need to go to confession?" St. John responded unmistakably to such assertions when he wrote, "If we say, 'We are free of the guilt of sin,' we deceive ourselves; the truth is not to be found in us. But if we acknowledge our sins, he who is just can be trusted to forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrong" (1 John 1:8-9).

St. Gregory the Great and St. John Cassian described seven deadly or capital sins that often deal more with attitudes of the heart than with our actual conduct or behaviors. Christians in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance identified and associated each of these seven deadly sins with its own archdemon: pride (Lucifer), avarice (Mammon), lust (Asmodeus), anger (Satan), gluttony (Beelzebub), envy (Leviathan), and sloth (Belphegor). They are called capital sins because they lead to other sins, and deadly because their repetition clouds the conscience, corrupts the concrete judgment of good and evil, and deadens our sense of right and wrong. In the weeks ahead, I wish to talk about each of these deadly sins in greater detail.

Just as in the list of the seven deadly sins that I have just given, sloth is usually mentioned last, but I wish to deal with it first because I believe that sloth, properly understood, is at the root of many other sins. Sloth is often mistakenly understood simply to mean laziness. Actually sloth is more than being a "couch potato" who is too lazy to get up and do some chores around the house. It is also more than the lethargy or inertia that a person may experience who would rather just stay home than go to church. The capital sin of sloth refers to a spiritual sluggishness also known as acedia, which refuses the joy that comes from God and is repelled by divine goodness. Since acedia captures the more profound meaning of the spiritual reality than the commonly-used word sloth, I will use the word acedia (pronounced ?-s?'d?-?) in my spiritual analysis of this capital sin.

According to the description of acedia in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "The spiritual writers understood by this a form of depression due to lax ascetical practice, decreasing vigilance, carelessness of heart." (#2733).

In his article, "Pornography and Acedia" (First Things, April 2012), Reinhard Hütter, professor of Christian theology at Duke Divinity School, acedia "is the very foregoing of friendship with God, that there never was and never will be friendship with God, that there never was and never will be a transcendent calling and dignity of the human person. Nothing matters much, because the one thing that really matters, God's love and friendship, does not exist and therefore cannot be attained." In contemporary conversation, acedia is best exemplified in the response you receive when you're trying to explain something that you think is really important and the only reaction you get is a dismissive one-word reply: "Whatever."

The reason acedia is so deadly is that this capital sin creates a void at the center of our being that we try to fill with transitory rushes of pleasure — primarily sexual — hence, its connection to other deadly sins such as lust and vices such as pornography. But these pleasures can never fill the void created by the loss of our transcendent calling to the love and friendship of God. That is why such vices are so addictive, because they never leave us satisfied, and this vicious circle of unfulfilled compulsion ultimately leads to acedia's most dangerous offshoot: despair. As Professor Hütter puts it, "This vice's post-Christian secular offshoot, an unthematic despair posing as boredom, covers — like a fungus — the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional life of many, if not most, who inhabit the affluent segments of the Western secular world."

If we wish to grow in holiness and in our commitment to the Christian life, we must first acknowledge, confront and overcome the sin of acedia. This is the time of year when many parishes are beginning the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), whereby over the next several months people interested in becoming Catholic will learn about the Catholic faith with the hope of receiving the sacraments of initiation on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil. A good starting point in their process of conversion would be to deal with the reality of acedia that the devil will undoubtedly use to try to deter them from their spiritual goal of friendship with God.

May God give us this grace. Amen.