THE SEVEN CAPITAL SINS
Fulton J. Sheen
(Alba, 2004, 108pp, soft cover, $15.00. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Prolific across a variety of media, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was the epitome of orthodox evangelisation in his time, and achieved remarkable success in bringing the richness of the Catholic Faith into the lives of ordinary Catholics around the world.
In the lead up to Easter, 1939, Sheen delivered a series of eight addresses which were broadcast across America's NBC radio network, correlating the Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross with the Seven Capital Sins. These sermons, still acutely relevant to the Church and its faithful today, have recently been collated and published in the form of a neat paperback volume entitled The Seven Capital Sins.
Books today are rarely given such forbidding titles, and it is hard to envisage a prospective reader to whom such a title would seem appealing; certainly it cultivates an expectation that fire, brimstone, doom and gloom might feature prominently within the volume's brief 108 pages.
This is unfortunate, because, in spite of its title, this is a remarkable book of considerable value in today's Godless world.
The book does indeed reflect on the Seven Capital Sins, dedicating one chapter in turn to anger, envy, lust, pride, gluttony, sloth and covetousness. But more than on the sin, Sheen's focus is centred on the sinless Christ, whose redemptive life and passion provide for us the perfect example, and the means by which we too are called to overcome sin and to live lives of virtue in pursuit of our heavenly home.
Each of the chapters begins with one of Christ's seven last 'words' - his final utterances at Calvary. The author then proceeds to demonstrate how these final utterances make perfect and specific reparation for each of the Capital Sins. In reparation for the sin of anger, for example, Sheen directs us to Christ's prayer for his executioners: 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'
Of all the moments in the history of creation, Sheen suggests, this moment most warranted the wrath of God, and yet Christ, the innocent victim, knowing the imperfect hearts and minds of his assailants more perfectly than they knew even their own hearts and minds, provides a perfect example of forgiveness.
Sheen goes on to use Christ's example to explore the ways in which we, who are not innocent, are called to cultivate His redemptive virtues in our own lives, and in so doing, to overcome the temptations of sin. Here the author's astute awareness of the workings of the human heart is laid bare. He deftly shows how sin, to which we imperfect beings are naturally inclined, while obviously impeding our pursuit of paradise in the next life, also fails to deliver happiness in this life.
He exposes the finite and limited satisfaction which sinfulness delivers to the human heart, whose yearning is for the infinite and the perfect. He shows how the human tendency to make life-long goals of the attainment of wealth, power, and pleasure, leads only to misery.
Indeed, Sheen's analysis of sin, and of the things of this world, presents them in a refreshingly objective light: our persistence in their pursuit seems silly and irrational under the author's discerning eye. Far from wallowing in despair at the sinful state of the modern world, Sheen leads the reader to the paradoxically cheerful conclusion that the way to happiness is the way of the Cross, which although challenging, is nevertheless simple and unencumbered by the cares of this world.
What's more, he illustrates in the volume's final chapter that walking the Way of the Cross presumes that we are walking with Christ, such that we can surrender all of our cares and worries to Him, whose burden is light. To walk without God, on the other hand, places the burden of happiness and security on our own frail shoulders. Subject as we are to forces of nature and society far beyond our control, Sheen suggests that even with all the power and riches in the world, without God we can never be truly at peace.
Readers familiar with Archbishop Sheen's work will also be familiar with his eminently fluent style of writing; The Seven Capital Sins is no exception. Thoughtfully argued, and drawing instructively from Scripture, the lives of the saints, Church tradition, and a wealth of theological study, this work is testament to the depth of faith and knowledge which were the hallmarks of Archbishop Sheen's ministry.
The chapters are short, and liberally sprinkled with practical examples that enable the reader to recognise at once the relevance of the author's message in his or her own life. In this way The Seven Capital Sins would be an excellent companion to personal prayer, in addition to being a fascinating analysis of the roles played by sin and virtue in the pursuit of happiness.
It is interesting to note that the sermons on which this book is based were delivered in 1939, a time which Sheen notes as being characterised by a fiercely anti-religious sentiment among the prevailing social and political movements of the period, as well as by a general decline in the awareness and acknowledgment of the reality of sin; these characteristics are enjoying a dramatic renaissance today.
Whereas in 1939 anti-religious sentiment emanated chiefly from the doctrines of militant communists and fascists, today it is the product of unbridled capitalism and dogmatic scientism. It is difficult, then, to sufficiently emphasise the relevance of a work such as this in today's society. In fact, we may take heart in the recognition that the longevity of Sheen's work testifies in no small way to the authenticity and orthodoxy of its message.
Tim Cannon is a research officer with the Thomas More Centre, North Melbourne.