The seven deadly personality disorders

With lust relabelled ‘sex addiction’ and gluttony turned into an ‘eating disorder’, it’s no wonder Catholics are unsure about the seven deadly sins.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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They used to be called the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy, pride. They were deadly because they led to spiritual death, and thus to damnation.

Now, some theologians are not sure where to hold the line on sin, or even, indeed, if there is a line to hold. In our touch-feely therapeutic world, the idea of a ‘mortal sin’ that condemns the sinner to Hell comes across as a bit too final, even unreasonable. Today, the notion of personal guilt, which underpinned the idea of the seven deadly sins, seems only to exist in a caricatured form. Western culture can only make sense of the act of sinning as a symptom of some regrettable psychological disease. Behaviour that was once denounced as sinful is today discussed through the language of therapy rather than the language of morality. The old deadly sins tend to be looked upon as personality disorders that require treatment, rather than transgressions that deserve punishment.

In such a climate, is it any surprise that moral entrepreneurs in the Catholic Church want to re-brand sin, and have decided to cobble together a shopping-list of new no-nos for the twenty-first century consumer? Modernisers in the Catholic Church believe it is easier to make people feel guilty about their impact on the environment than about committing one of the seven deadly sins. They think religious institutions might recover some of their credibility if they reinvent themselves as the promoters of ecological virtue, keeping a close check on the eco-sins of polluters. The environment features prominently in a new list of modern sins drawn up by the Vatican. According to Vatican official Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti, environmental pollution is one of the most dangerous ‘new sins’, alongside genetic manipulation, excess wealth, drug trafficking, morally debatable experimentation, inflicting poverty on people, and violations of human rights.

Girotti’s sins occupy a different moral plane to the seven deadly sins. His list was thrown together as part of a public relations exercise. The invention of new sins through a brainstorming session reveals much about the Church’s opportunistic attitude to doctrinal issues. Traditional sins were part of a moral universe that focused on the relationship between human beings and God; the new updated list is a cultural statement about what is ‘acceptable behaviour’.

The most striking thing about the new list of sins is that it reverses the moral relationship between Church and society. Historically, the Church’s mission was to provide teachings that could offer moral guidance to society. In recent times, however, the Church has been forced on the defensive – and now, instead of converting people to its moral outlook, it has started to absorb many of the fashionable secular values of our times. Of course, religion has always adapted to new conditions. But today it does not simply adapt; it takes its cue from the secular imagination rather than from the divine. The new sins are good examples of secular values that the Church has co-opted in a desperate bid to stay relevant.

For some time now, the Catholic Church and other Christian churches have been painfully aware of how difficult it is for them to exercise moral authority. The Church often appears uncertain and defensive about moral issues. So, for example, protesters have threatened to cause a stink during the proposed papal visit to Ireland unless Pope Benedict XVI agrees to meet people who were sexually molested by priests. Here, the victim of abuse, rather than papal authority, lays claim to the moral high-ground. In many parts of the Western world, Catholic officials have been forced to ban priests from having private contact with children, in response to pressure and public mistrust. A powerful sense of moral defensiveness, combined with an awareness that its teaching seems out of touch with the modern world, means the Church finds it difficult to assert its authority with any conviction. As a result, many churches feel increasingly uneasy about preaching the seven deadly sins to their flocks.

The Catholic Church seems to believe it can revitalise its relationship with its worshippers and the public by preaching the virtues of environmental responsibility instead. Reportedly, the Pope plans to use his first address to the United Nations to warn the world about global warming and to promote ‘saving the planet’ as a moral duty for all Catholics (1). The Pope has actively tried to associate himself with green issues. And now we have, from the very heart of the Vatican, the proposal that sin itself should be closely linked to environmental awareness and responsibilities.

However, it is not only the Vatican that is questing for a new, modern moral framework. Almost immediately after the Vatican published its new list of modern sins, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church in the United States announced that they were going to start taking the issue of climate change very seriously. Some Baptist leaders claim their conversion to environmentalism is the outcome of divine revelation. In reality, like Girotti, they want to make sure that they remain connected to the cultural mood of our time.

That Vatican modernisers and Southern Baptist preachers have ‘seen the light’ on green issues is a testimony to the extraordinary influence that environmentalism exercises over contemporary culture. At a time when traditional institutions find it difficult to connect with popular concerns, environmentalism is still able to communicate ideas about human responsibility through appealing to a sense of right and wrong. Moreover, the environmentalist ethos has succeeded in reinventing the idea of human guilt – no longer for wrongs against God or against other human beings, but for wrongs against nature. However, it would be wrong to see environmentalism simply elbowing traditional sin aside – the idea of sin, and the notion of moral responsibility that underpinned it, has been steadily eroded and degraded over a long period of time.

Emptying sin of its moral burden

Secular societies have always felt uncomfortable, morally, with the idea of the seven deadly sins. The Enlightenment replaced the notion of sin, which is deemed to be an offence against God, with the idea of crime: an offence against other people. But secular rationalists still shared with religionists a belief that individuals are responsible for their wrongdoing. Since the latter part of the twentieth century, however, we have felt estranged not only from any religious universe, but also from the idea of moral or individual responsibility, and thus we find it difficult to describe aspects of human behaviour as ‘sinful’. Today, it seems there are no longer sinners; there are only addictive personalities.

Consider lust. Those who would once have been labelled lustful are now described as ‘sex addicts’ in need of therapy. Gluttony has been transformed into food addiction: apparently, gluttons no longer gorge themselves; they are simply suffering from one of many eating disorders. Some in the addiction industry insist that compulsive eating is a psychological disease with a proveable biological cause. Alternatively, gluttony is looked upon as a disease that we call obesity.

Anger is deemed by some to be the most powerful emotional addiction. New conditions such as ‘road rage’, ‘computer rage’, ‘trolley rage’, ‘golf rage’ and ‘air rage’ suggest that the disease of anger can afflict individuals in any number of diverse settings. The therapeutic lobby claims that the solution to the condition of anger is to undergo stress- or anger-management therapy. So-called addictions to certain emotions are often given the medical label of ‘impulse-control disorder’.

Meanwhile, avarice and envy have been recast as the inevitable outcomes of our modern consumer society, and are also sometimes diagnosed as impulse control disorders. Apparently, ours is an addictive society which compels individuals to be envious of one another. ‘Spending addiction’, ‘shopaholism’, ‘compulsive gambling’ and ‘affluenza’: all are represented as diseases comparable to alcoholism and drug addiction in their detrimental impact on the sufferer.

Sloth has been medicalised, too. The creation of conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome invites people to make sense of their lassitude through a medical label. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder provides an all-purpose explanation for why some people are reluctant to focus or to concentrate. And today, sloth apparently does not necessarily have to be a wholly negative condition. Some forms of sloth are celebrated as antidotes to our overworked, stressed-out, consumption-crazed culture. Hard work is often described as a risky enterprise today; apparently you risk contracting ‘workaholism’ if you take your job too seriously. The notion that work makes us ill has given rise to a positive endorsement of slothfulness: in France, a book titled Bonjour Paresse (Hello Laziness) became a bestseller in 2004, shifting more than 35,000 copies in its first few weeks of release.

And finally, we come to the sin that the Church once considered to be the most deadly of all: pride. Of all the old moral sins, pride is the only one that has been completely rehabilitated as a good thing. That is why pride is never diagnosed as a disease. These days, virtually every social and psychological problem is blamed on low self-esteem. The solution to poor educational performance, teenage pregnancy, anorexia, crime or homelessness is apparently to raise the self-esteem of the victim. In our self-oriented world, society continually incites people to take themselves far too seriously, to be proud of everything they do and everything they are, no matter how minor or accidental it might be. Far from a sin, pride has become one of the prime virtues of our time.

In recent decades, the deadly sins have been transformed into personal afflictions. That is why the invention of ‘eco-sin’ represents such a remarkable development in modern society. It is its successful rehabilitation of the idea of human guilt that makes eco-sin so attractive to the Vatican and other religions. However, eco-spirituality cannot compensate for the loss of traditional moral authority, since it is not founded on an appreciation of the unique role of the human and on the moral responsibility to develop human qualities. On the contrary, this is a form of sin that is fundamentally misanthropic and directed against the free and full exercise of the human imagination. Indeed, in castigating the ‘human impact’ on the planet, eco-sin calls into question the very capacity of people to act as morally responsible agents and to shape the world around them. Such a moral outlook is even more confused than the theology of the Dark Ages. At least they had Heaven and Hell; all that is on offer now is carbon…

Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terrorism: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown has just been published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi said many religions are now in search of eco-salvation. Brendan O’Neill preferred calls to ‘Bring Back God’ over eco-pious Christmas sermons. James Heartfield thought Environmental polemicist George Monbiot’s book Heat was a secular version of Kingdom Come. Michael Cook explained how Australian bishops were taking the ash out of Ash Wednesday. Or read more at spiked issue Religion.

(1) ‘Pope to make climate action a moral obligation’, Independent, 22 September 2007

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Topics Politics


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