The Capital Sins: “Envy”

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.


Our sensitive appetite, that part of our nature that governs our physical feelings, directs our longing for the good things we lack. Our Catechism employs a very concrete example when it mentions our appetite’s turning us toward food when we are hungry, or toward warmth when we are cold. (CCC, No. 2535) Such desires are good in themselves because they protect us and insure our health. However, they can become sinful if “they exceed the limits of reason and drive us to covet unjustly what is not ours and belongs to another or is owed him.”


What is essential to understanding the Catechism’s teaching is its stress on reason and justice. Economists say, “no one will ever repeal the Law of Supply and Demand,” so markets exist that individuals may offer goods in exchange for the wealth and earnings of others. This is no more than common sense and experience demonstrate. But our moral training teaches we may not take the wealth of others by force, nor may we seek to triumph at the destitution of another.

In an earlier reflection, when we considered the Tenth Commandment, we discerned this commandment is one that governs our dealings with others, and our Catechism quotes the Roman Catechism, which admonishes

…merchants who desire scarcity and rising prices, who cannot bear not to be the only ones buying and selling so that they themselves can sell more dearly and buy more cheaply; those who hope that their peers will be impoverished, in order to realize a profit either by selling to them or buying from them…physicians who wish disease to spread; lawyers who are eager for many important cases and trials. (CCC, No. 2537)


What we should note in these words are their emphasis on the unjust desire of individuals to succeed at the expense of their neighbors, as well as their description of the sadness such individuals feel when a competitor excels at their expense. This sadness brings us face to face with the sin of envy.

St. Thomas Aquinas defines envy as sorrow for another’s good. (ST, II-II, 36,1) But lest we be led astray by the apparent simplicity of this definition, Thomas is quick to distinguish between sinful and non-sinful sorrow. The latter, non-sinful sorrow, includes fear that another’s good may do us some harm – something students experience when taking competitive examinations, or the reasonable fear a nation may experience if a totalitarian government assumes power.. Likewise, we may identify zeal, which causes us to long, and strive, for the spiritual goods others possess but we do not. Finally, St. Thomas considers indignation, something we experience when individuals receive good things or honors they do not deserve.


St. Thomas teaches that true envy occurs, when “…we grieve over a man’s good in so far as his good surpasses ours…because to do so is to grieve over what ought to make us rejoice, [namely] over our neighbor’s good.” Here we might profitably refer back, for a moment, to indignation, which is reasonable sorrow over others’ receiving honors or wealth they do not deserve. This is what the Psalmist laments when he cries, “I was filled with envy of the proud, when I saw how the wicked prosper.” (Ps. 72:2) Such indignation is justified; the sin of Envy, on the other hand, is opposed to the Virtue of Charity, which urges us to rejoice at others’ receiving the good things they deserve or have earned. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul reminds us the greatest of the theological virtues is Charity. (I Cor. 13:13) That envy should be opposed to the greatest of the virtues provides some insight into its gravity.


The 18th Century poet and playwright, John Gay, wrote, “Envy’s a sharper spur than pay,” which suggests envy might have a positive side to it. If so, Gay alone seems to have discerned it. From our earliest days, the Church’s theologians have identified envy as a fault derived from pride, and the source of several ills, among them tale bearing and detraction. The two are identical in their purpose, which is to lower an individual in the eyes of the world; they differ only in their means. Detraction is use of a public forum to belittle a person’s accomplishments – perhaps making jokes or demeaning comments in the individual’s presence. Tale bearing is private gossip by which one person secretly seeks to damage the reputation of another.

At the beginning of this reflection we remarked St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition of envy as sadness at another’s good, which the tale bearer certainly experiences if gossip and detraction fail in their effort to damage another person’s reputation. If, on the other hand, the efforts are successful, the sinner experiences yet another manifestation of envy, and that is joy at another’s misfortune. In either case, we see immediately that envy is altogether opposed to the charity that ought to characterize our relations with one another.


If we consider the pride from which envy springs, and the actions which envy begets, we see quite clearly that to commit the sin of envy is to isolate ourselves from the Body of Christ into which we were baptized. This is a frightening state, and St. John Chrysostom warned

…envy arms us against one another…If everyone strives to unsettle the Body of Christ, where shall we end up? We are engaged in making Christ’s Body a corpse…We declare ourselves members of one and the same organism, yet we devour one another like beasts.

The common image of Hell is undoubtedly a place of eternal fire. But in Dante’s Inferno, the closer the poet draws to the Devil’s own place of torment, the colder he finds the environment. This is because the closer he approaches Satan, the further he draws away from God’s charity. Compare this to the Scriptural image of Christ, which is one of light, an image we call to mind each Sunday, when we repeat the words of the Nicene Creed.

Thomas Merton said the saddest invention of the modern age was artificial light, because it allows us to ignore the difference between light and darkness. Light has become so cheap we take it for granted, and no longer consider its benefits. In fact, light bestows a number of gifts upon our world: it makes things bright, and it makes them warm. And if we have ever walked across an empty parking lot at night, we realize light also makes our world safe.


Compare this to the darkness of sin, the world Judas entered when he abandoned Jesus and his brother disciples, at the Last Supper. “And it was night,” St. John tells us. The night Judas entered was not simply a time of day, it was a spiritual reality devoid of the light, warmth, and safety of Christ’s love. If we look at Judas, we realize that committing sin does not merely distance us from one another in Christ’s Body; it isolates us from the safe and consoling warmth of Christ’s love. If we allow envy to blind us so completely that we persist in embracing our own perceived good over that of another, we are condemned, eventually, to find ourselves alone and cold, isolated in a solitary spiritual universe.


This is not the fate we were created for. Our Catechism reminds us

The economy of law and grace turns men’s hearts away from avarice and envy. It initiates them into desire for the Sovereign Good; it instructs them in the desires of the Holy Spirit who satisfies man’s heart. (CCC, No. 2541)

At the beginning of St. Matthew’s gospel account, we read, “[Jesus] taught them, saying: ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.” (Mt. 5:2) With the Beatitudes, Jesus intends his words to lead his hearers away from a disordered dependence upon material goods and the world’s honors. And he also intends these words for us. A large crowd listens to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but St. Matthew tells us Jesus addressed his words to his disciples. This means we ought to pay special attention, for whenever we find Jesus speaking to the disciples, he is speaking to us, the Church.


When we consider poverty of spirit, the first thing we need to remember is that Jesus commends poverty precisely because those economically deprived in this life have nothing to cling to except the promise that things will be better in a better world; Scripture condemns the rich because a spirit of irresponsibility often accompanies wealth. Cultivating a poverty of spirit is a remedy for envy because it helps us find the source of our true happiness in Jesus, rather than created things or honors. This is nothing more than Jesus urges when he warns, “whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33)


Poverty of spirit enables us to look beyond ourselves, and to embrace the many other members of Christ’s Body with whom we are called into union by our Baptism. Kevin Vost, author of The Seven Deadly Sins, writes that poverty of spirit restores the relations that ought to characterize this unity. To accomplish this end, he suggests “a kind of internal ‘three Rs'” when we are tempted to envy – “not reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic, but reaction, reflection, and resolution‘.” (p. 113)


Vost suggests we cultivate the first of these, reaction, by recognizing the initial stirrings of envy when we learn of another’s good fortune. To offset them, we should train ourselves to recognize what is taking place within us, and ask, “Is envy sneaking up on me?” Once we realize we are feeling envious, Vost says we are faced with a choice: the time is ripe to ask whether we will cultivate the negative feelings or crush them. Finally, we must take a look at our reaction. If we have allowed our feelings of envy to take flesh in some action that demeans another, or simply allows us to surrender to the sadness that we have not been so blessed as one of our neighbors, we must ask ourselves what we can do to set the matter aright here and now (the Sacrament of Reconciliation is an ever-present remedy) and how we might act differently in the future.


Poverty of spirit accomplishes another – and deeper – effect, and that is the proper ordering of our relations with God. Thus, our Catechism reminds us, “In order to possess and contemplate God, Christ’s faithful mortify their cravings and, with the grace of God, prevail over the seductiveness of pleasure and power.” (CCC, No. 2249) The more successfully we accomplish this mortification, St. Augustine encourages us, the more perfectly we achieve the union with God our Baptism calls us to.

There will true glory be, where no one will be praised by mistake or flattery; true honor will not be refused to the worthy, nor granted to the unworthy; likewise, no one unworthy will pretend to be worthy, where only those who are worthy will be admitted. There true peace will reign, where no one will experience opposition either from self or others. God himself will be virtue’s reward; he gives virtue and has promised to give himself as the best and greatest reward that could exist…”I shall be their God and they will be my people…” This is also the meaning of the Apostle’s words: “So that God may be all in all.” God himself will be the goal of our desires; we shall contemplate him without end, love him without surfeit, praise him without weariness. This gift, this state, this act, like eternal life itself, will assuredly be common to all.


In this, as in all things, our example is Jesus. One of our Church’s early writers (Basil of Caesarea, AD 329 – 379), pointed out that the teaching in the beatitudes is always preceded by an action, an action of Jesus, himself. Therefore, Jesus can urge us to poverty of spirit, because

…being rich by nature, since all the Father’s goods are his, he became poor on our account in order to enrich us by his poverty…it is he… who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave in order that we might receive gift for gift from his fullness.


And, of course, we have the example of Our Savior’s Blessed Mother. In his True Devotion to Mary, St. Louis de Montfort remarked, “I am speaking mainly for the poor and simple who have more good will and faith than the common run of scholars.” (p 26) The economic poverty which bests so many of the world’s peoples – and over which these individuals have no choice – forces one to see the world in very real, life and death terms.

Voluntary poverty, on the other hand, is closely allied to humility, the virtue by which we see everything we have, and everything we are, as God’s gift. Humility allows us to see ourselves as we truly are, in relation to God. To acknowledge our strength, beauty, talents and skills is no more than right – so long as we acknowledge God as their source. When she utters the majestic words of her Magnificat, the Blessed Virgin turns her back on the very hint of false modesty. “All generations will call me blessed,” she says, [for] he has “exalted the lowly.”


To be poor in spirit is to see – and rejoice in – all we are capable of, because of God’s action in our life, and the lives of those around us. Kevin Vost quotes Louis of Grenada, who observed this result

When you envy the virtue of another you are your own greatest enemy [but] if you continue in a state of grace, united to your neighbor through charity, you have a share in all his good works, and the more he merits the richer you become. So far, therefore, from envying his virtue, you should find it a source of consolation… [and] the profit of his labors would also become yours.

When we identify God as the source of our blessing, we have no need of envy. And we become free to rejoice in the gifts he has bestowed upon our sisters and brothers.

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