Deadly vs. mortal sins

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

John Tucker, Harrisburg, Pa.

A. Here’s a reply from Msgr. Charles Pope: 

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.