In traditional Catholic piety, sins have been divided into venial and mortal sins: venial being more minor offenses, and mortal sins being those that mark a significant life-changing turn away from God. Another designation that has been part of our tradition is that of “Deadly” or Capital sins. The word capital is derived from the Latin root caput, meaning head. So, these capital sins are the source or headwaters for sins.
The seven capital sins, for those of you making lists, are: Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, and Lust. What most moral theologians will tell you, however, is that these seven things aren’t really sins in themselves. They are characteristics or emotions that, when acted upon, lead directly to sin.
Take anger, for example. At times anger is justified, like when one is confronted with injustice. Some times people even refer to “righteous anger,” like the anger expressed by Amos and the other OT prophets when their people went astray. Anger is an emotion, a feeling, and it arises unbidden. You can’t make yourself not feel it, but you can decide how – or whether – to act on it. Anger, if unchecked, can lead to violence. So, although Anger isn’t itself sinful, if it is unchecked, it can lead to acts that are clearly sinful.
And this is the nature of Capitol “sins.” Although they aren’t really sins in themselves, they can lead to sin. They describe character weaknesses and tendencies toward sin, and so they need to be handled thoughtfully and carefully. Perhaps they would be better described as the seven capital temptations.