Sloth: The Misunderstood Sin

If you ask someone what sloth or slothfulness is, they’ll probably talk about idleness or laziness. They might think about the animal called a sloth and of its slow ponderous walk or the animated cartoon sloth in the film Zootopia. They probably would not be thinking about sin.

I don’t normally think about sin at all, at least, not in the theoretical or ecclesiastical sense. Recently, though, I have been doing exactly that because my niece, who is taking a photography course, was assigned the task of picturing three of the seven deadly sins. She asked her friends for some ideas on how this might be accomplished, and I realized that I couldn’t remember them all, so I looked them up in Wikipedia.

Sloth from Thowra_uk via Flickr

These sins are “deadly” because, according to Catholic doctrine, they are fatal to spiritual progress. They impede progress because each of them is thought to give birth to other immoralities. This idea has been around for several hundred years, but was written down in Greek, in the form of eight sins, by a fourth-century monk and subsequently translated into Latin, which is why we know about them.

The seven deadlies, as you may remember, are lust, greed, sloth, envy, pride, wrath, and gluttony. The ones I had forgotten were wrath (fierce anger) and envy. In finding this out I discovered that a long time ago there used to be nine, not seven. The two they cut out or rolled in were acedia (dejection) and vainglory (unjustified boasting).  In AD 590, Pope Gregory added the sin of envy and rolled vainglory into pride. He also rolled acedia into tristitia (despondency) and called them sloth. That’s where I think we began to have a problem.

The sloth they were thinking about back then was a spiritual sloth, not a physical laziness. Spiritual sloth was evident in believing spiritual tasks to be too difficult.  This could lead to despair, which caused a kind of spiritual detachment. Sloth was about apathetic listlessness or depression.  The sinful part of that depression was the failure to take joy in the goodness of God. Now we know differently.

Depression via pxhere

Depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is a medical illness that “causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home.” Overcoming depression was once thought to be an act of the will, but today we know that depression is not something you can talk or pray yourself out of.

If Catholics want to keep physical laziness, such as not wanting to do the dishes or clean up your room, as a deadly sin, that’s one thing. But they need to accept that it isn’t the same thing as spiritual sloth, and neither is the same as depression. So, I would suggest, if I were Catholic and if I had some influence over these things, that they either change the name of sloth to something else or add another deadly sin to cover the failure to take joy in the goodness of God.

But, since I’m not a Catholic or any kind of Christian, I really think they should do away with the deadly sins altogether. It seems to me that all of them are manifested in people who would benefit from more love and acceptance. That is what Christianity is supposed to be all about, so that should be a fairly straightforward fix, right?



  1. Interesting, I’m not a Catholic either but it concerns me too that they probably have this as a misinterpretation or a fault… In fact, I think Catholics have a lot of faults towards Christianity.

    1. There is so much to know and understand in any religion that interpretation of texts is a minefield! I wouldn’t normally step into it, but I came across this interesting detail regarding sloth quite by chance.

  2. I remember reading that to the Catholics, despair was a sin. I think that is very sad, sad for the poor people looking for guidance in a very bad time of their lives

    1. I did not know that, Barb. I agree that identifying despair as a sin would likely cut a person off from the support they need. I suspect that individual Catholics are a lot more empathetic than the doctrine suggests.

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