SPECIAL SERIES: The Seven Deadly Sins
Envy: viewed within an adult context
As Ian Elmer pointed out a few days ago, Catholic theology has moved away from a 'legal model' of understanding the moral life and sin. One might wonder though how much that is understood by either that small and still dwindling population that continue to populate the pews — or, for that matter, that much larger and growing population of the baptised who no longer populate the pews?
I agree with Ian that at its authentic heart, Catholic theology has moved a long way from the sort of understandings that were still being instilled in us in the years preceding the Second Vatican Council. Despite the fervent endeavours of a small rump that seems continually trying to take us back to the pre-Vatican II mindset, I do carry within myself a deep sense of thankfulness for where we are at today.
I do not pick up a sense though that the Seven Deadlies are old hat, or no longer relevant to life. What Ian, and the authentic Church, endeavours to point to is that our understanding of what constitutes moral behaviour or goodness has shifted. The business of "being saved", or even of just "being in a state of grace", is understood in a dramatically different way today than it was understood in the past.
In my take I'd like to focus on envy as a way of endeavouring to understand this. I do not write as some theological expert but as a struggling journalist and writer endeavouring to understand what the Church, what society and what God might be trying to say to us about these things.
A starting point...
To me the starting point to such enquiry is always that foundational question: What is the ultimate meaning of our lives? Or to put it as a series of questions in more colloquial language: What are we doing here? What is the purpose of our lives? What's the point? What's the objective? Where are we trying to go to? What's this final state (of grace, or being) that we want to end up in?
The faith mindset that I was brought up in seemed to postulate our relationship with God as something akin to the relationship a small child has with its kindergarten teacher. God is seen as the fount of all knowledge — and all the rules as to how life is meant to be lived. The kindergarten teacher, and God, were the ones who had to be obeyed without any questioning or discussion about the meaning of either the knowledge that it was in the purview of the teacher to be transmitting, or the rules as to how life was to be conducted. Within this mindset the ultimate purpose of life was presented as a "quest for salvation" or "heaven". The achievement of this objective was brought about by unquestioning obedience and behaviours that might be described colloquially as "sucking up to the teacher" or "sucking up to God". If we were a good (i.e. obedient) child we would eventually be rewarded with "the elephant stamp" or "glitter star" of salvation, or the everlasting bliss and party offered by the prospect of heaven.
Within this mindset an important underpinning of the thinking was that there were also a whole host of things that were classified as naughty or bad. We were not to engage in these activities or behaviours and if we did we had to expect to be punished. To pick up on the expression Peregrinus introduced into our conversation the other day, the life objective then of salvation was presented as a "dualistic" and pretty black or white endeavour of expressions of loyalty and social conformism to please the teacher — and God — and, at the same time, endeavouring to constantly demonstrate that one was not engaging in the list of proscribed activities. ("Ma'am, ma'am, look at me! I'm not picking my nose, using naughty words, teasing or stealing like Billy Bloggs in the corner over there!")
It is understandable that within this mindset the Ten Commandments were largely presented as negative commentaries on life — and, much earlier in human history, from these had developed notions like the Seven Deadly Sins. Again these were presented more as proscriptions on natural behaviours rather than as prescriptions that might help guide us to more holistic thinking and heavenly, or God-like, behaviours. While it is true that there was also some teaching on the virtues of life, the overwhelming emphasis seemed to be on a negative and patronising attitude on the part of the teacher, and God, towards the struggling human person.
In this mindset we were not encouraged to think of ourselves as comparable to God in any way. Rather the emphasis tended to be on our un-God-like aspects and the comparison tended to be one with the Devil and sinful side of our nature rather than the noble and angelic side.
Let us take envy as the example.
Rather than repeating the reading I have done in researching this article I will provide links to the principal articles and a brief summary of the arguments.
Wikipedia provides a good starting point. As well as providing an overview on the Seven Deadlies it also provides detailed pages looking at envy and the related vices of jealousy and malice. Here's the overview though from the Seven Deadly Sins page...
Envy/Jealousy (Latin, invidia)
If you can stomach a more academic paper on the subject of envy I also recommend a page on the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website which carries an interesting albeit lengthy discussion on the subtle distinctions between envy and related vices such as jealousy and resentment.
Coming back now to consider this in the light of the kind of mindset that characterised the Catholicism of my youth — and which seems is the Catholic mindset that a vocal but over influential minority would seem to want to take us back to — envy was not so much presented as some generalised shortcoming an individual might have to deal with as a series of specific "sins". Particularly in our teenage years we would see plenty of examples of envious behaviour in the classroom and schoolyard. From memory all "sin" was basically presented in this manner. And that fitted very well with the mindset of rocking up to confession with a tick list of specific, and quite particular "sins" we may have committed in the previous week or month since our last confession.
What's the alternative to all of that?
At its very best, and when sectors of the institutional leadership are not bending over backwards to pacify the vocal minority that want to write Vatican II out of our history, the thinking, intelligent Church today presents a far more sophisticated picture than the one I have endeavoured to paint above.
Our relationship to God today while still presented in the context of a familial relationship of child to parent, it is not so much presented as infant child to grandfatherly parent but something that might be better understood as the relationship of a healthy, balanced, mature adult child to its parent. God is not presented as some Being whom we suck up to in the hope of reward and out of a sense of fear of being punished if we are not making the right noises that will pacify the scolding and cold personification of God as Judge and Policeman. Rather we are encouraged to think of ourselves as "made in God's image" and our prime task in life is to work through that range of human tendencies (i.e. as opposed to specific and "tick list" sins) that tend to distance us from our ability to be like God or "holy" – that word which sounds quaint in today's context and is, I submit, badly misunderstood because of its association with saccharine-sweet, pietistic childish behaviours of the era which is passing.
Our life mission today, and again I submit this as my interpretation and understanding of what the intelligent, adult Church is endeavouring to say to me (and us), is not one of seeking to suck up to God in the hope that "we'll do all the right things and not make any mistakes" that will earn us the reward of Eternal Salvation (and not the punishment of Eternal Damnation). In that view our faith development largely ceases at around the time we leave school and the rest of our lives is basically presented as a business of "social and spiritual conformism" endeavouring to keep all the rules and not make too many mistakes while constantly trying to proclaim our obedience and loyalty in the hope that our behaviours will single us out from the crowd and catch God's eye when push finally comes to shove and God is directing the traffic to the right and left of his chair.
Rather the relationship we are encouraged to develop with God is one that a mature, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually "balanced" child is encouraged to have with their parents in its adult phase. God is viewed in this picture not as some remote and cold "judge and policeman" ever watchful for when we might stuff up but God is instead to be viewed as a friend, mentor, and guide who is there to encourage our self-development, our independence, our abilities as critical thinkers, and our capacities to achieve our full potentials as human individuals.
So how might we view envy, or any of the Seven Deadlies, within this context?
I submit — and again I invite consideration of this as the personal opinion of a writer struggling to understand these issues both within his own personal life and within the broader context of what we (the Church community) are endeavouring to say — I submit, we are not viewing envy, or any of the seven deadlies in this more mature view as so much a series of particular sins or transgressions. Rather we see that our overall human character is flawed. All of us tend to be generally envious of one another to a greater or lesser extent. It is this general impediment that continually holds us back from both the fullest relationship not only with our neighbours but with God's Godself.
Our challenge in life is not so much one of making an "examination of conscience" in order to be able to have something to say in a confessional — to impress the priest who happens to be hearing the confession. Rather our "examination of conscience" is an on-going process where we are constantly endeavouring to identify in our being those "voices" which stem from within our own ego and emotions that prevent us seeing, or hearing, our neighbour for who they really are or what they are truly endeavouring to say. Ultimately it is those same voices which impede us in hearing or, more precisely, discerning the guidance the Holy Spirit offers to us for our personal spiritual growth and human ennoblement. It is a human tendency that we all want to "better" our neighbour and stand a little taller even if in our own eyes only because we managed to somehow diminish them in some measure. At other times in our relationships with others we are trying to suck up to and get our neighbours to love us or respect us not on the basis of our innate and deep spirit-directed talents but from shallower wants that are rooted in the emotions and ego rather than our spirit. Envy is related to all of that stuff. And, let us not kid ourselves, unless we have already gotten ourselves into the state of being described as 'heaven', we are all engaged in it to a greater or lesser extent.
To end this personal commentary could I refer you to the commentary that is provided in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this particular subject of envy. It is probably the best coverage you will find anywhere of the very best of Catholic thinking on this vexing subject. You can actually read it all in a few minutes online without leaving your computer. Here is the link to Article 10, The Tenth Commandment available on the Vatican's own website.
For my own conclusion I'd like to select from the Catechism two quotes, one attributed to St Augustine – which treats the negative aspects of envy – and a second from St John Chrysostom – which invites us to consider the positive alternative to envy that draws us both closer to our neighbours and closer to God.
St. Augustine saw envy as "the diabolical sin" and the Catechism quotes him as saying this about it...
"From envy are born hatred, detraction, calumny, joy caused by the misfortune of a neighbor, and displeasure caused by his prosperity."
St John Chrysostom asked...
"Would you like to see God glorified by you? Then rejoice in your brother [and sister]'s progress and you will immediately give glory to God. Because his servant could conquer envy by rejoicing in the merits of others, God will be praised."
Bibliography and further food for the journey:
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