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BOOK BLOG | ‘The Other Six Deadly Sins’ & ‘Christian Morality’ (Sayers - Letter 7)

“Now, I do not suggest that the Church does wrong to pay attention to the regulation of bodily appetites…What I do suggest is that by overemphasizing this side of morality, to the comparative neglect of others, she has not only betrayed her mission but, incidentally, also defeated her own aim even about morality.”

The next two essays in Sayers’ Letters to a Diminished Church will be treated here together. The more extensive and detailed Deadly Sins essay articulates essential attributes of how these sins have worked themselves out in English society in particular. The second, briefer essay on Christian Morality functions as a post-script. Since the latter directly references the former, and reproduces certain language verbatim, it seems fairly clear that both essays were originally composed singly, or at least contemporaneously.

You do not have to be a Roman Christian to have heard of the Seven Deadly Sins (though few outside Rome can actually name them). If you have little familiarity with this topic, it may be helpful to begin by skimming the Wikipedia article before reading my annotated summary of Sayers’ essay. The Catholic Encyclopedia frames it precisely:

“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.”

Thus the “deadly” (a.k.a. “capital”) sins are so called because they are fundamental or primary sins out of which other sins grow. Or to put it in more contemporary terms, they form categories of sin which help us to understand its tendencies, both in the human heart and their impact upon the civilizations of men.

Sayers will make classify these sins roughly as warm-hearted (disreputable) and cold-hearted (respectable) sins. The former are sins of passion: lust, wrath, gluttony. They tend to be related to self-indulgent, uncontrolled or excessive appetites. To engage in these publicly is quite unseemly and socially discouraged. The latter are sins of premeditation: greed (or covetousness), envy, sloth, and pride. These often masquerade in society under a veneer of acceptability, and aren’t really viewed as sins at all until or unless the offender becomes obnoxious by failing to adhere to the use of polite language when discussing it. Sayers points out that it “is interesting to notice that Christ rebuked the three disreputable sins only in mild or general terms, but uttered the most violent vituperations against the respectable ones. Caesar and the Pharisees, on the other hand, strongly disliked anything warm-hearted or disreputable, and set great store by the cold-hearted and respectable sins, which they are in a conspiracy to call virtues.”

Sayers’ begins by observing that today’s culture tends to equate immorality with sexual sin, rather than “the whole range of human corruption”. As a result, much sin goes without the conviction of the law, and therefore without recognition, repentance, or restoration. From time to time, there are periods in which the Church has failed to call certain sins for what they are. It is this which drives her to systematically clarify and apply the Seven Deadly Sins. This is why their names, and their number, have fluctuated through the ages.

We must remember the larger point of the entire essay collection, which is that doctrine is not dull, but rather full of life and significance. Doctrine is not merely proscriptive, but also regulative – that is, it aids in regulating both the life of the believer (helping him to restrain his private sin) and by extension the life of society (by formulating norms and encouraging virtue). Or, in plainer and more direct language, doctrine doesn’t merely tell us what to do, it instructs us how to believe. Since action always follows belief, the latter function is also the greater.

Sayers’ unpacks each of the seven deadly sins singly. For the sake of maintaining a clear and logical organization, and to keep the length of each post manageable, we will begin with lust and proceed though each one in turn.

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