The Deadlies were chosen by committee, but we’ll get to that shortly. Pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust are more formally known as the “capital” sins. In Latin caput means “head”: These sins were deemed to be at the head of all other failures. Entertain these “source sins” and you were kaput.
Ancient Eastern monks launched the trend of vice lists. Becaue perfecting their spiritual lives was all they had to do, cataloguing what not to do was helpful. The 4th-century Egyptian monk Evagrius Ponticus defined eight bad attitudes that led to sin. Not long after, another monk, John Cassian, took the concept to the West, and his list resembles the one we now use—though he retained eight vices. In the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great decided a vice list would be useful outside monastic circles and he’s the one who dubbed them "capital" sins. But he still kept eight: “Vainglory” in his opinion being distinct from “pride.” Twelfth-century theologian Peter Lombard incorporated Pope Gregory’s list into his work. When Thomas Aquinas read Lombard in the 13th century, he decided to tidy up the tally and reduced it to the present seven.
Would this list ever have become more than a theologian’s ideal catalogue of errors if not for the Fourth Lateran Council? Possibly not. In 1215 this council mandated annual confession of mortal sins, putting forth the so-called “Easter duty” of confession followed by reception of communion once a year during the Easter season. Because life everlasting depended on it, anxious parishioners wanted guidance in making a worthy confession. They were directed to the Ten Commandments and the Seven “Deadly” (Mortal) Sins.
Artists took up the task of familiarizing the citizenry—many of whom were illiterate—with the list. Frescoes and canvases terrifyingly conveyed the ugliness of these vices and their just punishments. Chaucer incorporated the Deadly Sins in his Canterbury Tales and Dante defined the tiers of purgatory with them.
While his seven social may not come trippingly off the tongue, Pope Benedict XVI undertook a rewriting of the Deadly Sins for the modern world: environmental destruction, genetic manipulation, obscene wealth, creating poverty, drug trafficking, immoral use of science, and violations of fundamental human rights.
• The Capital Sins: Seven Obstacles to Life and Love Gerard P. Weber (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1997)
• “The Seven Deadly Sins” series from Oxford University Press