What if I told you that you could get ready for the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation by remembering the theme from Gilligan’s Island? You’d probably think I was crazy, and I am that, but there is a train of thought I’d like you to ride with me for a little while. Bear with me, please.
Sherwood Schwartz constructed the cast of characters for Gilligan’s Island to represent all part of society, and he did that. He also managed to prove images for the Seven Deadly Sins, whether he knew it or not. There’s several lists on the Internet of this lineup, and if you want to argue about my assignments in favor of another list, that’s fine, but here’s the one I use because I find it most helpful:
The Professor is Pride: a smart and capable man, proud of his gifts, ready with the facts of survival they need to know, ingenious at solving problems. He had a flaw that wasn’t explained on the series: in the midst of everything he came up with, why did he take only one try at fixing the boat? Perhaps Pride provided him a blind spot, like it frequently does for the rest of us.
Mr. Howell is Greed: obviously. He’s old money, an aristocrat who believes he has a right to his extravagant lifestyle, which he’ll pay for if he has to. And of course, rules are for other people than him.
Ginger is Lust: another obvious one. Even on the island, she looks good at all times, almost never wears work clothes. She uses her charms to get her way when she can.
The Skipper is Gluttony: once more an obvious one. A good old boy, someone you’d like to hang out with, of course, good hearted. He likes to enjoy life fully without thinking of the consequences.
Mrs. Howell is Anger: not so obvious. She’s not really Rage, but she’s quick to speak up when she’s upset, judgmental of everything and persists until she gets her way, or her husband buys her off. Fussy is probably a better description of her, but sometimes the persistent needling is a more common expression of that vice.
Mary Ann is Envy: obvious again. She wants Ginger’s glamour and magic, in one episode she’s out of her mind and thinks she’s Ginger, but doesn’t realize she’s too good hearted to use her charms as Ginger does. At times, she envies Mrs. Howell, the secure married woman, as well.
Gilligan is Sloth: a child-man who only wants to play, has no ambition, takes life as it comes and never looks far ahead. Yes, he does most of the dirty work on the island, but only because he’s forced to.
All right, maybe now the Seven Deadlies are etched in our minds, particularly if you grew up watching the show, but why? Most Catholic work on Examination of Conscience that happens before Confession focuses on the Ten Commandments. A lot of Christians of almost every denomination see it as the base of all just law, and try to follow this standard for their lives. At the end of this reflection, I’ll give you a little humor about putting the Ten Commandments in courthouses, because we have serious ground to cover. If you’re a person of integrity you won’t skip ahead to read it before you read what’s next.
I would say that although we need to keep the Ten Commandments in sight, we need to use the Seven Deadly Sins to examine our lives because the Seven make us look at our motivations. There are frequently ways we can rationalize our way around rules, find circumstance when rules don’t apply to us, or make up exceptions for ourselves, and it’s just as possible to do this with the Ten Commandments as with any national, state or local law. Our motivations are what get us into trouble: it’s possible do to the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason, and using abstract standards don’t help us find that. Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason can just as corrosive as an outright Sin. It can also bring us to a spiritual state of dry legalism: “I’ve only done what I had to, you can’t expect anything more.” I find no endorsement of that kind of legalism in Christ’s teaching, or in any other part of Scripture.
In ancient times, Sin was connected with sickness, and the Catholic approach to Reconciliation is medicinal rather than punitive. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a Sacrament of Healing with the Sacrament of the Sick. In the Baptism rite, the parents and sponsors of a child are challenged to keep the child free from the “contagion of sin”. Original Sin doesn’t work very well as a legal judgment, because how could a child be responsible for Adam’s transgression, but it does work as a hereditary weakness, a genetic disease that needs to be treated and cured in the end. Even after the washing of Baptism, the continuing care of Examination of Conscience and Reconciliation as follow up treatment makes sense.
Sin wears away our humanity, just as the Great Ring wore away the humanity of Gollum, Bilbo and Frodo in the Lord of the Rings. We think we can control the Dark Forces, but the more we use them, the deeper hold they have on us, and the more we are controlled. The articulation of the Seven Deadly Sins in the Middle Ages by people like Pope Gregory the Great and Dante Alighieri was a great spiritual discovery of the inclinations that can lead us wrong, and make us take our shortcomings seriously, without being able to hide behind a legalism or desirable outcome to cover up the disease.
Every Deadly Sin has a Virtue that treats it, that helps us reorient ourselves away from the particular sin. The list:
I know, I know, the virtues are no fun. If Sin didn’t feel good and wasn’t fun at the start, we’d all be saints, wouldn’t we? The problem is, after get into a bad habit, it becomes less and less fun as time goes by, we commit the same misdeed over and over again because we have to. As Sir Walter Scott said: “Oh what a tangled web we weave,/When first we practise to deceive!” It’s good to have a medicine chest for these ailments from the Great Physician.
In the 1987 movie Wall Street, the character Gordon Gekko expounds on the concept that Greed in all its forms is good, is what will move the Human Race forward, and will save any business and any corporation, especially the big corporation that is the U.S.A. The phrase “Greed is Good” has been quoted frequently since then, and I think it’s likely to be quoted a few more times in the near future.
As I see the injustice of society today, I believe it’s turning the Seven Deadly Sins, including Greed, into virtues. Some of them are relabeled in the process: Anger gets recast as Vengeance (and even Justice), Pride and Lust get remade into extensions of Self Expression and Self Fulfillment, Sloth into defending personal time and space, Envy into upward mobility, and Gluttony into “helping yourself to happiness”. Now there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with Self Expression, Self Fulfillment, Justice, and God surely gave us the sex drive for a good purpose, however, Evil usually has more success masquerading as Good than dressing up in a scary Halloween costume.
The Seven Deadlies all have an hidden effect on innocents. For example, Greed is about getting what we want without worrying about the cost to others, especially others we don’t know or care about; Lust is about turning another person into an object of our pleasure. Like I said before, the problem with all these remade vices is they diminish human dignity: both the dignity of the individual (like me) that blindly indulges their hungers without thinking of how it will affect them, and the dignity of others that is disregarded in the name of self service. Vices are corrosive, and no reinterpretation can take away that basic danger: Vices destroy us from within, and destroy our relationship with all Creation.
Christ calls us to serve others as He serves us. This isn’t easy to figure out, but that doesn’t excuse us from working on it. Any supposed Good that has no room for this philosophy of serving others and looking after the Common Good really isn’t Good or Virtuous, no matter how it’s said or how many people buy into it, whether they are religious or not. Our cure is to find our way back to Christ, to imitation of Christ, and using the Seven Deadly Sins as our examination is the best way I know to diagnose and treat the sickness.
Oh, and do you know why we shouldn’t put the Ten Commandments in courthouses? Posting “Thou shalt not lie” “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not commit Adultery” where lawyers and public officials practice their trade creates a hostile working environment. All right, it’s a bit harsh, but you lawyers and public officials have heard this one already, haven’t you? I’ve heard almost all the old priest jokes.