What could possibly be more unwanted as 2010 gets under way than a thumb-sucking reflection on — of all things — the Deadly Sin known as sloth?
In all likelihood, just about nothing; many thoughts are elsewhere. Rocked by the same economic woes as everyone else, and faced for years to come with a political administration that remains astonishingly hostile to the life issues, much of Catholic America lies temporarily spent and despondent. Meanwhile, conservative America, this faction’s accustomed ally, is flat-out moribund, a gross object for dissection, with a thousand gloating obituaries buzzing daily around its head.
Other signs of exhaustion abound. The country’s people, it is widely believed — including by them — are overworked, the more so as they navigate churning financial waters. Even the better-off are said to labor constantly, and at night visions of Blackberries dance in their heads.
Truly, have any people ever worked so much, or as far removed from the sin of sloth, as we Americans today?
Yet show me a sin, deadly or otherwise, that you think is furthest away at any given time, and I’ll show you something breathing just over your shoulder with a pickax under its coat.
In truth, the signs of sloth are everywhere in our lives. “Our technology and our gadgets have freed us from most drudgery,” as Henry Fairlie observed in his rich study, The Seven Deadly Sins Today (University of Notre Dame Press, $20), “and what do we do with the time that is now available to us? We turn inward and become utterly absorbed in ourselves.”
All the more prescient, Fairlie penned these words in 1979 — long before every home in America was to acquire what has become for many a virtual shrine to sloth at any given hour, namely an Internet connection in the kitchen or living room.
Consider also the critical role of sloth in our modern sexual disarray. The unprecedented rates at which pornography is devoured in states red and blue alike may be more commonly associated with the Deadly Sin known as lust. But pornography owes much to sloth, too. Pornography and sloth between them have induced in some men a state that their ancestors would have thought impossible: It has rendered them too lazy for real sex.
And sloth plays a similar supporting role in other aspects of our moral disorder. Defined from St. Thomas Aquinas on down as “the desire not to be troubled by what God wants,” sloth obviously dictates the shortcut of artificial contraception, for example, at least as much as lust does.
It is sloth that whispers into our willing modern ears, telling us to postpone marriage and childbearing till our careers are solid and we’re “financially stable.”
Sloth is the voice confiding that other forms of human “union” — i.e., those without the rigors of real marriage — will be easier on us no matter what the Bible says. And it is sloth, finally, that seduces us into shirking the public consequences of believing just what we believe — that tells us we should just give up, go along and get along like the rest of the folks, and put up with the fiercely held untruths of our time.
The recent revival of atheism also owes a hidden debt to sloth. How often is the refusal to attend religious services really a result of high-minded principle — and how often instead an unwillingness to get out of bed on Sunday morning, to leave the Internet for no apparent purpose for even one hour a week, or to be bothered in any way at all from doing what “I” want to do with “my” time?
One suspects that sloth is similarly helpful to the spread of secularism itself. Faith, after all, is more like a muscle than an instinct; it is only by exercising that most people can even begin to learn how to use it. Yet straight-faced instruction about religion by militant unbelievers who wouldn't know a tabernacle if it fell on them couldn't abound more.
“Sloth,” says the Pocket Catholic Catechism in a particularly useful reminder to our times, “becomes a sin when it slows down and even brings to a halt the energy we must expend in using the means to salvation.” Translation today: “Business as usual,” sloth’s comfortable traveling companion, may just have to go.
So where does this possibility of actually having to bestir ourselves leave American Catholics? For laypeople, how about getting off those couches and Internet connections long enough for, say, daily Mass? For those in the public eye, how about ignoring what’s said in the papers and on “Campbell Brown” and in the blogosphere — especially in the blogosphere — and instead just slugging the arguments out as best we can?
And speaking of the public eye, maybe our bishops and archbishops could forgo that easy and coveted state dinner, that tres charmant next white-tie event in honor of this one or that one in our new administration, so long as the executive branch brings such brio to the destruction of the unborn. In these and a hundred other small ways, maybe meditating on sloth will be a first step out of the hole we’re all in. What’s the alternative, after all — being too lazy for salvation? As bad as things may look now, it’s hard to get more pathetic than that.
Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, contributing writer to First Things and author of “The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism,” forthcoming from Ignatius Press. This column was adapted from a series that originally appeared on The Catholic Thing (www.thecatholicthing.org).
Sloth By Another Name (sidebar)
Sloth of the spiritual variety is often known by the name acedia, from the Greek word akedeia, meaning indifference.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that acedia “goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God and to be repelled by divine goodness” (No. 2094).
“The spiritual writers understand by this a form of depression due to lax ascetical practice, decreasing vigilance, carelessness of heart,” the Catechism goes on to explain in No. 2733.
“Diligence overcomes difficulties, sloth makes them.” — Benjamin Franklin
“[Sloth is] a sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good.”— St. Thomas Aquinas
“The diligent hand will govern, but the slothful will be enslaved.”— Proverbs 12:24
“The soul of the sluggard craves in vain, but the diligent soul is amply satisfied.”— Proverbs 13:4
“Thou seest how sloth wastes the sluggish body, as water is corrupted unless it moves.”— Ovid