Greed, envy, lust, wrath, gluttony, vanity – all are sins of Wanting, of non-virtuous desire. Sloth is a sin of a somewhat different sort, one of lack of virtuous desire. By examining these we may understand more complex varieties of sin.
To understand sin we need only recall the above discussion of the nature of heaven and hell. Those who allow themselves to be preoccupied with material desires become incapable of experiencing the bliss of heaven, and instead fall into the self-feeding torment of insatiable Wanting. They actively follow a path to hell. Those who simply are too lazy to develop virtue, who waste their lives merely earning a living and finding amusements to fill the dreary hours of their lives, also fail to develop the ability to experience the bliss of heaven. They may not be punished by the gnawing hunger of Want that the more active sins involve, but still they do not achieve the bliss of virtue. Both types of sin, if engaged in to excess without repentance and reform, involve a choice on the sinner’s part not to follow the only path that leads to divine bliss, the path of developing alignment with God. It is for this reason that they are sins. Thus, sins are not arbitrary rules that God has set up just for fun. Rather, sin is something that inherently, in the nature of things, prevents the mind and soul from focusing on virtue.
It is important to understand that sin is not a matter of making God angry by breaking the rules. God does not look down upon a rich and greedy man and think “he must be punished for that after he dies”, any more than a good parent would decide to punish their child for something years after the fact, when the punishment couldn’t any longer be expected to help the child to improve her behavior and avoid future mistakes. God does not have the angels taking names of teenage boys who see an attractive girl and think about having sex with her. Sin is a disappointment to God, not an offense. It is a disappointment because it is a distraction from the process of alignment with God. If the rich man remains so concerned with earning his next million that he cannot learn to find joy in taking time and wealth to help others, then he will fail to develop the habit of mind that leads to eternal bliss, and God will not be able to help him. If the teenager, after he grows up and his hormones calm down, still spends his days and nights looking for new and more extreme sexual gratification rather than finding true love and learning to regard sex as a way of giving pleasure and affection to his wife, then he will become increasingly obsessed with desires that cannot satisfy the soul. If a woman spends her whole life watching videos and staring at a computer screen to stave off boredom, she will never develop the ability to feel the joy and excitement that flows from love and virtue. God does not banish these people from heaven as a punishment for breaking the rules. They keep themselves from heaven by choosing paths that can only lead elsewhere.
This fact, that God does not become angry with us for sinning, but rather that we lead ourselves to unhappiness through sinning, makes it easier to understand the process of repentance and “forgiveness”. I have often heard people express puzzlement over the Catholic rite of confession. Their statements go something like: “Boy, Catholics have it good. You can be the worst person in the world, but if you confess it to the priest before you die and say a few Hail Marys it’s all okay.” In reality, confession and repentance are not that easy. Confession, for those who practice it, is not about revealing your sins to the priest. Rather, it is designed to force you to think about your actions and reveal your sins to yourself. Once you have reviewed your behavior and found your errors, the next step is to repent of the sins.
Repentance is not a matter of telling God that you are sorry. It is a matter of being sorry. Many parents will at some point have been through the following little drama. Brother hits sister, making her cry. Parent tells brother to say he is sorry, which he does. One minute later, brother hits sister again. Upon seeing parent’s look of displeasure, brother voluntarily says “I’m sorry!” Parent then explains to brother that just saying he is sorry isn’t enough, when obviously he wasn’t really sorry or he wouldn’t have done it again. This same simple understanding of the true nature of repentance applies to all sin. True repentance involves thinking about the nature of the action, realizing that it is wrong, and developing an intention to avoid doing it again. It is a process of moving away from sin and towards alignment with God. Without this sort of repentance, no amount of confessing or apologizing will do any good. Likewise, if the sinner truly does repent of his action, if he truly is sorry for what he has done and has resolved to improve, then no particular act of repentance or granting of forgiveness by a priest or anyone else is required to heal the soul of the sinner. The rite of confession is merely an aid to true repentance. Likewise, the acts of penance prescribed by the priest are not a form of reparations to God, but rather are a way to help lead the repentant sinner to further contemplate his error and strengthen his resolve to avoid repeating the sin. Unfortunately, too many people regard them as a form of payment for the sin, to be gotten out of the way before going and sinning some more, rather than taking the opportunity of the prayers to improve their resolve and make real progress in their alignment with God.
Can major sinners be redeemed? Yes, but it isn’t easy. It is hard to change a habit of mind. A person immersed in greed, lust, or vanity will have a very hard time getting away from those desires and finding pleasure in virtue. It is, however, possible, in the rare case that something happens to cause the sinner to make a real about face and realize the error of his ways. Is it fair that such a person, if he successfully repents and reforms, should be able to achieve heaven, just as a person who has been good all her life can do? Yes, for two reasons. First, again the main reason why sins are sins is not because they involve breaking rules, but rather because they involve a distraction from virtue. A person can be immersed in greed or lust his whole life without necessarily ever harming anyone except himself, so if he then succeeds in seeing the error of his ways and turns around to pursue active virtue, why shouldn’t he achieve bliss? Secondly, to the extent that the sinner has harmed others in his career of sin, if he truly repents and reforms he will suffer in his own mind in proportion to the amount of harm he has caused. If a wrathful person has gone about beating people up for years and does not greatly regret those actions, feeling real pain of heart for it, then he has not really repented and reformed. Thus, we should not think of the reformed sinner as going unpunished, for he will be punished in and through his own repentance. Indeed, if a formerly grievous sinner claims to have seen the light and adopts a serene and peaceful attitude, one may guess that his reform is far from thorough. Have you ever kicked yourself for days over some fairly minor insensitive or ill-conceived action of yours? Imagine how you would feel, as a normal good person, if you had committed the offenses of the grievous sinner; the truly reformed person will suffer at least that much from the arrows of his own conscience. Indeed, Dante envisioned purgatory, the afterlife waystation where some sects believe reformed sinners go before being admitted to heaven, as a place where the sinners rather gleefully jumped into searing fires of purification. Having truly repented, they are so aghast at their own sins that the pain of burning away the taint is a relative comfort. Don’t try this at home, of course, but Dante’s vision helps us to visualize how true repentance inherently pains the sinner in direct proportion to the degree to which others have suffered from his sins, which should satisfy our sense of fairness. Further, we can be assured that there is no way to get around this. Anyone who truly repents will feel that pain, and anyone who does not truly repent will not be saved.
This brings us to the distinction between sin and crime. People have often been tempted to make all sins crimes, but the two things are different. If a man steals a loaf of bread because it is the only way that he can feed his child, he has technically committed a crime but he has not committed a sin. His action does not lead him away from the path of virtue, for he is risking punishment out of love and concern for his child. If consenting adults choose to spend their evenings in a sex club pursuing their sexual desires, they are committing a sin but not a crime. By feeding their wants they lead themselves away from the path of virtue, but they are not hurting other innocent people. If a person, on a sudden whim, shoots someone dead just to see what it feels like to kill someone, then he commits a terrible crime but not – by the act – such a terrible sin. Since the action itself was short and impulsive, it was not a great distraction. The terrible sin came earlier, in developing the depravity of mind that made the murderer so concerned with feeding his own desires that he considers the satisfaction of a whim of his own more important than the very life of another person. Sin is internal, a process of inflicting harm on one’s own mind and soul. Crime is external, a process of inflicting harm on others. Crime can be controlled by governments through punishing and locking up offenders, though they should bear in mind that virtuous people rarely intentionally hurt others, and that investments in stimulating virtue may thus be very effective in lessening crime. Sin, on the other hand, cannot be effectively controlled by putting offenders in prison, for such punishment is unlikely to cause the misguided sinner to reform his mind and soul. The concept of prison as a penitentiary was never notably successful.
Understanding that sin is, in essence, distraction from virtue can also help in understanding a class of actions that are, for want of a better term, “sin-like” without being in themselves something we would think of as bad. Even the finest of emotions, such as the love of a parent for a child, can go wrong. The infamous Texas cheerleader mother is an example. She was obsessed with wanting her daughter to do well and get whatever she wanted. This obsession grew to the point where she tried to hire someone to kill the mother of her daughter’s rival for a position on the high school cheerleading squad, in the hopes that the death of the mother would cause the rival to be depressed and drop out of contention. Clearly, trying to have someone murdered is a crime. The more interesting fact here, though, is that the normally good impulse of loving and wanting to help one’s daughter had been warped into a sin-like obsession that was itself a bad thing. As far as the press reports revealed, she had no hatred for the intended victim of the crime, but her obsessive devotion to her child’s wants had the same poisonous effects as sinful, seething hatred.
How can you tell when this line has been crossed? To find the answer, we should recall the principle of connectedness. All actions must be viewed in the context of our place in a world filled with other humans and animals. Our devotion to ourselves, our families, and our friends must be evaluated in light of its effects on others. Charity begins at home, and it is right to spend extra effort looking after the people who, by virtue of being family or close friends, are your special responsibility. However, when serving the apparent interests of family and friends results in harm to others, the interests of everyone must be considered. God does not play favorites, and those who wish to align themselves with God must be willing to take that broader perspective. A mother who finds that she has great devotion to her child but no sympathy at all for other children has gone astray. A parent who fights for the unrestrained liberty of a child who has proven himself to be an incorrigible danger to other children has also gone astray; the parent should continue to love the child and try to help him reform, but should not fight for the child’s freedom to continue to harm others. We are all creatures of the world, and we must try to be good citizens of the world, promoting the web of good behavior that will help all of God’s children to have the best life possible.
If an act, viewed in isolation on the basis of its individual facts, would normally be seen as evil, then chances are that it is not any less so just because it is performed from a misguided surplus of family loyalty, patriotism, or religious fervor. Using a bomb to blow up a person on the street who has committed no particular offense is evil, even if that person happens to be a member of a religious group that has tended to treat the perpetrator’s religious group unfairly. The religious tribalism that underlies the act is sinful, and has taken the place of real religious devotion. A soldier who intentionally injures a noncombatant citizen of the enemy country acts, at best, out of a sinful excess of anti-foreign hatred that has dispossessed the type of good patriotic pride that causes other soldiers to be careful always to act with honor, even at danger to themselves. People who act as an accomplice to a criminal boyfriend or girlfriend act out of a sinful obsession that masquerades as love. All such obsessions are just as harmful as conventional sin in preventing alignment with God.
 For avoidance of doubt, I am not suggesting that Catholics not bother with confession. To the contrary, my point is that they should take the process seriously, and that persons of other faiths without this rite should seek an equivalent means of repenting and steering away from their sins. Also, in fairness, Catholic doctrine would dispute that the rite is not strictly necessary, noting that Peter was delegated power to forgive or not forgive sins. However, I believe this is a matter of how one views the nature of the delegation. One cannot think that God intended to give Peter arbitrary power to deny forgiveness to a good and truly repentant person on a whim, so one must suppose that Christ’s meaning was “Peter, you understand how true repentance works – if you and your followers say someone’s sins are forgiven, it means that they have done what is needed to repent and cure the sin.” Similarly, though the church may not say this, I think most Catholics would be convinced that if a man dies alone after confessing and repenting of his sins in the presence of only God, it will still work. Priests are intended to be a help, not an impediment
 In my own unsupported opinion, I think this is the reason why Catholic doctrine really puts a strong emphasis on having a priest perform the Last Rites and grant forgiveness. Even a mundane sinner, upon having her mind focused by impending death, may feel such anguish over her relatively minor sins that her soul will be heavily disturbed not only despite but because of her true repentance. The priest may calm this disturbance and help the soul to depart in peace.