Deadly vs. mortal sins

Question: I get confused when I hear about the seven deadly sins. Does this mean there are only seven mortal sins?  

John Tucker, Harrisburg, Pa.

Answer: No, there are more than seven mortal sins. There are certain sins that, by their nature, are always sinful (ex toto genere suo), such as the intentional murdering of the innocent. There are other sins that are generally always mortal (ex genere suo), presuming sufficient knowledge and full consent of the will. But there are also innumerable other sins, which, while not grave in themselves, may become mortal due to circumstances. For example, gossiping or lying may sometimes pertain to small matters. But they could also become mortal if a person commits them knowingly and freely, and if such actions bring harm to others. 

Your question likely arises out of a bit of confusion caused by the expression “the seven deadly sins.” This expression refers to seven sinful drives that give rise to other sinful actions. Traditionally, these seven drives are: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. 

To add a bit to the confusion, the seven deadly sins also go by other titles, such as the seven capital sins or the seven cardinal sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to them as the seven capital sins and says they are called “capital” because they engender other sins or vices. The word “cardinal” has the same connotation, coming from the Latin word cardines, meaning “hinge.” Hence, other sins swing on the hinges of these sinful drives. The ancient Greek Fathers referred to these seven drives as logismoi (or thoughts). Still others of the Fathers referred to them as the passions. 

As your question shows, confusion can arise by calling them the “deadly sins.” Hence, it may be more helpful to refer to them as the seven capital sins, as does the Catechism. Nevertheless, the term seven deadly sins remains in widespread use, but it must be understood as distinct from mortal sins.

Lenten Sundays

Question: I was having a friendly debate with my brother about whether or not we must observe our Lenten penance on Sundays in Lent. He says no. But if we don’t count Sundays, wouldn’t what we gave up be less than 40 days?  

Arthur Graham, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Answer: As to what is required regarding Sundays, the answer depends on you. Giving up something for Lent (other than meat on Fridays and fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) is not required, but only encouraged of the faithful. Personally, I find it difficult to give up something on an on-again-off-again basis, so I prefer to give it up for the full duration of Lent. 

As far as the notion of 40 exact days, this is problematic, since if you count the actual days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, there are actually some 44 days. And while some try to make the math work by subtracting two solemnities that often occur in Lent, etc., the ultimate fact is that we are not dealing with an exact 40 days.  

Perhaps then, Lent is best seen as a period of approximately 40 days and we are advised to enter into it not as lawyers or timekeepers, but more as disciples making a journey with the Lord, from Ash Wednesday to the Easter Vigil. 

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com . Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.