The Eighth Deadly Sin
Adam and Eve were real people and our first parents (CCC, #375)
Human nature is fallen and prone to sin (407)
The devil exists and tempts us (395)
Marriage is a sacrament and is indissoluble (1601)
Regardless of motive, euthanasia is a murder (2277)
Contraception is sinful (2370)
Abortion is a monstrous evil (2271)
In-vitro fertilization is morally unacceptable (2377)
Homosexual practice is intrinsically disordered, and same-sex marriage is morally intolerable (2357)
Women priests are impermissible (1577)
Mortal sin exists (1861)
Hell exists (1033)
These truths (and many more) should be proclaimed by priests from the pulpit and by Catholic professors from the lectern. But they are routinely regarded as illiberal, unprogressive, and downright embarrassing. Surely, these ancient and inconvenient so-called articles of faith will soon evolve into more socially acceptable forms.
Small wonder, then, that almost all Catholic colleges tolerate – or encourage – faculty members who teach practical anti-Catholicism, repudiating or lampooning many Church doctrines. This takes place under the banner of “critical thinking,” which rather commonly means fervid disavowal of traditional Catholic teaching by self-appointed magistrates of the secular city.
So it’s hardly a surprise that the teachings of the Church are frequently ridiculed in many other places as well: at political conventions, and during ordinary conversations at ballgames, at water coolers, and even at family dinner tables. As the prophet Hosea warned: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”
To be sure, many self-professed Catholic politicians, professors, and pundits display appalling, reckless, and obdurate ignorance of the faith which ought to “preserve [them] from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error.” (CCC 890)
There is, though, something else in play here – an eighth deadly sin. (The traditional Seven Deadly Sins are: pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth.) The eighth deadly sin is eagerness, bordering upon mania, to be seen as avant-garde, progressive, and revolutionary. In a word, modern.
The modern defection from the truth may have its root in willful ignorance, but its branch is a desperate yearning for the approval of the crowd. As Charles Péguy (1873-1914) once put it: “We shall never know how many acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not appearing sufficiently progressive.”
Let’s speak bluntly: many “Catholics” who abjectly fail to ground their politics, their lectures, their writing, and – it must be said – their homilies in Catholic truth are sophisticated cowards.
If by sophistication we understand, “having, revealing, or proceeding from a great deal of worldly experience and knowledge of fashion and culture,” we have part of the eighth deadly sin. The rest is the weak refusal to “spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross.” (CCC #1303).
Could Thomas More get tenure on one of our Catholic faculties today? You have to sympathize with orthodox Catholic assistant professors who worry that they’ll lose their jobs if they tell the truth in love. Still, we are warned never to love “the praise of men more than the praise of God.” (John 12:43)
The eighth deadly sin – sophisticated cowardice – derives, on the one hand, from sophistry (fallacious, even foolish, argument) and, on the other, from lack of courage to do the right thing, for the right reason, in the right way, at the right time.
God has warned us that we must make firm our feeble knees (Is 35:3), and that cowards will end up in Hell (Rev 21:8). Of course, if there is no Hell, no Revelation, no Truth, and No Salvation, there need be no concern about the consequences of sophisticated cowardice. Political punditry, water cooler conversation, and ball game banter may proceed with no regard for the annoyance and inconvenience of Catholic Teaching.
How about those of us who too contentedly celebrate our own valiant orthodoxy? What part have we played, and do we play, in the sophisticated cowardice of our day? Gaudium et Spes has this exactly right: “To the extent that [we believers] are careless about [our] instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in [our] religious, moral, or social life, [we] must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion.” (19)
When others – and we – are sophisticated cowards, we deny Him, and “if we deny Him, He will also deny us.” (2 Tim 2:12) We are called, always and everywhere, to exalt the Cross. (cf. Rom 1:16)
Running for Parliament in 1906, Hilaire Belloc was reproached for being Catholic. He told a crowd: “Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This [taking a rosary out of his pocket] is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative.”
Nothing “sophisticated” there; nothing cowardly, either. And Belloc won.
Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary.