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Our seven deadly sins

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Every plugged-in Catholic has got to have heard by now of the "new seven deadly sins," a list constructed by Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti. They are "genetic modification, carrying out experiments on humans, polluting the environment, causing social injustice, causing poverty, becoming obscenely wealthy and taking drugs," according to the Telegraph. With all due respect to the monsignor (and monsignors are due a lot of respect), I don't like that list. "Deadly sins" should be something that destroys the soul. The original ones actually pretty well cover it for the modern West -- they are timeless, which begs the question of whether a new list is even worth writing.

Begged question or not, I've decided to write one. Here is my list of seven modern vices that could be called deadly because they destroy the soul and hurt the people around it. My list is of insidious sins, ones which the devil uses to seduce people away from God without their even noticing. All are sins against charity.

  1. Pornography. It warps one's view of the sacred gift of sex, making it into nothing but an act of self-gratification. It presents sex partners as mere vehicles to that gratification.

  2. Character assassination. Any person who has been the victim of gossip, backstabbing, office politics, and other ruination of reputation might say that the experience is like dying a little death. Those who engage in character assassination often continue blithely through their lives, as their actions erode at any virtue of charity they may have, until they find they cannot even remember the last time they practiced Christian love.

  3. Dangerous driving. I have first-hand experience with the destructiveness of road rage. Drunken driving, too, is a grave sin against the fifth commandment ("You shall not murder"). Since driving patterns become habits that are very hard to break, this sin qualifies as deadly to those who engage in it.

  4. Celebrity worship.

  5. Xenophobia. The immigration debate in the U.S. is a good example of how this qualifies as a deadly sin. Many anti-immigration voices call illegal immigrants "aliens." I have even heard one commentator routinely refer to them as "criminal aliens." No term could be more dehumanizing than "alien," which in modern culture brings to mind images of extraterrestrials. This attitude is contrary even to the term "Catholic Church," since "catholic" means that God's love applies equally to all people, foreign or not. God told Moses, "You shall not oppress an alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt." (Ex 23:9) Losing empathy destroys the soul.

  6. Consumerism.

  7. Birth control. (I'd love to see a church official dare publicly to call that a deadly sin)

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Christ the healer


I've been avoiding posting today because I don't want to post anything on Good Friday that's not faith-related, and I didn't have anything profound enough to say for this solemn day. But I read a couple of other bloggers' posts (Jen and Simcha) and decided that what I write does not need to be profound.

Mood swings have been my reality the last couple of weeks, and earlier today I was in a downward one. Lying morosely in bed after a nap today, I stared about the room thinking dark thoughts, when my eyes fell on the crucifix above the bedroom door.

That corpus looking down on me seemed to say, "You don't have to suffer this. I did it for you."

"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (Jn 15:13)

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Conquering a sinful habit

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When it comes to faith, my writing style tends toward explication -- some would say pontification. I have the heart of a teacher.

But it's also a lot easier to be intellectual about faith than to examine my own heart. To be honest, I find it difficult and confusing, even after some 25 years since I learned what an examination of conscience is. Deliberate, conscious sins -- the big incidents -- are easy, but finding the little habits, the assumptions, the selfishness, that's hard. These aren't even day-to-day sins; they're minute-to-minute sins. Reading about St. Francis of Assisi, my confirmation saint, helped me become aware that they are there, but they are hard to see. To make things worse, new ones like to sneak in. I have to always keep my guard up.

What makes this really challenging, though, is the flip side: it's easy to go too far, to think of a thing (a habit, say) as being sinful when it isn't. Scrupulosity is a sly poison. And when you have a sinful habit, and you are praying and trying as hard as you can and you still keep slipping up, how much guilt do you bear?

I don't know the answers, but I have learned a thing or two (the hard way) about breaking a sinful habit. I used to struggle with my driving habits. That's a nice way to say that I used to be a serious road rager.

I yelled and cursed, I made rude gestures, I cut people off, I refused to let them pass me. I absolutely could not stand it if another car got in my way. I thought I was a better and faster driver than everyone else, and if someone passed me, it was like a challenge to my supremacy. It even put a strain on my marriage, as my husband didn't like to be in the car when I was driving (and I didn't like to let him drive because he was too slow and meek).

When I felt that anger coming on while on the road, I used to try everything I could to suppress it. I prayed, only to have a curse fly out in the middle of the prayer; I took deep breaths, only to hit the accelerator to keep from being passed; I tried to distract myself, only to have my attention jerked back to the offending car.

I would break down in tears of guilt after every serious episode, and they happened at least every other trip.

God answers our prayers in ways we don't anticipate. (After all, if we were smart enough to know what to do, we wouldn't need his help.) Mine was answered while reading the blog Waiter Rant. (I can't find the post in the archives despite all my mad skilz with Google.)

Waiter had written about driving home from work one night and getting into a conflict with another driver. He described the feeling, very familiar to me, of fury welling up as the other car whipped aggressively past him. And then he wrote that a new thought suddenly popped into his mind: "I don't have to win."

Reading that was like seeing the clouds part after forty days of rain. Was that the solution to my problem? I tried it out. The next time I got angry on the highway, I remembered Waiter and said to myself, "It's okay. I don't have to win." And the SUV zoomed past, and I didn't win, and nothing bad happened. It was true: I don't have to win!

I wasn't cured overnight, but by changing how I thought about other drivers' behavior, I changed how I reacted. Instead of trying to smother my anger, I was not getting angry at all. Instead of feeling personally attacked (yes, attacked is how I felt) when another car tried to "win" on the road, I felt content to choose to let that driver win.

I don't think I would ever have figured out by myself that I had to change my thinking, rather than my behavior. God is so willing to tell us what to do when we open our ears to listen.

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My Puzzle Fix

If you know what Dell, Penny Press, and GAMES Magazine are, you are a puzzler. And you have got to check out my new site, My Puzzle Fix. Every day I post a free pencil puzzle, never before published (I know, because I write them all myself). You can just work the puzzles for fun, or you can compete with other puzzlers.

Please let me know what you think of the site. I hope you enjoy it!

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Making Moral Decisions 101

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In his personal journal earlier this week (a locked post, so I am not linking to it), an atheist friend mockingly posted about the new seven deadly sins. A rather snarky conversation broke out in the comments among several people of an anti-Catholic bent. Sister Mary Martha did a good job with her commentary on the story itself, but I want to address one of the remarks that appeared in the journal. Since it was a locked post, I will keep this quote anonymous.

I guess the argument is that, if you're not sure whether it's a sin or not, you offend God by running the risk. It might be a sin, but you don't care; you're ignoring the question entirely, and even God can't stand to be ignored.

I was annoyed by the assumption that blindly faithful religionists don't devote any intelligent thought to this issue. In fact, any well-catechized Catholic (sadly, a rara avis these days) can provide the answer. (In all fairness, the comment was in regard to an unfortunately worded quote by the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary.)

When in doubt as to whether something is a sin or not, we can arrive at the solution ourselves with confidence that we are not offending God. He asks we do only two things:

1. Follow our consciences.
2. Make every effort in good faith to form our consciences according to his teachings.

Of course, many people have a firm grasp on #1 while wholly ignoring #2. It should be obvious that we need to form our consciences, though; after all, even the worst criminal can twist his malformed conscience to justify his evil acts.

Formation of conscience can include referring to the Catechism, asking priests and other catechetical authorities, and generally remaining well-informed on Catholic teaching on those issues that cause us trouble.

Although lots of rules can be specified for any particular moral question -- rules upon rules, until we are drowned in scrupulous rules -- a basic, organic approach, a "rule of thumb", is these two steps. This is what I follow. Step two is the ongoing work of a lifetime, and that preparation is what makes step one work.

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What is intuition?

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It's a common theme on Star Trek: The Next Generation: Commander Data, the android who aspires to be human, is baffled by a phenomenon of psychology that we take for granted. In at least one episode he wonders about "intuition" -- what, exactly, is it?

We all know what it is — intuitively. But how might one describe it to an android? Or to an anthropologist on Mars? How about this:

Intuition is the phenomenon of unconsciously synthesizing available data with memory and experience to arrive at a conclusion.

I wonder and ponder* about intuition a lot because we dynamic attention types† are said to be intuitive. (I would say that is true about myself, although it's an observation based on intuition, so I don't have a list of concrete examples.) I suppose the idea is that because our attention is constantly shifting, we have a much larger pool of available data, memory, and experience to go on, compared to static attention types.‡

I have an intuitive approach to both science and faith, which may explain why I find it so natural to integrate the two.

What do you think about intuition? How would you define it? What would you give examples of it for the edification of androids?

*Side observation -- those words don't rhyme even though they look as if they should.
†A term I invented to refer to those of us with the poorly-named condition "attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder".
‡My term again, for people variously called called normal, neurotypical, and farmers.

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A statement of purpose.

When I started this blog, it was with a firmly experimental attitude. I knew that to be relevant, I had to choose a niche, but I wanted to explore before committing. So here I have done investigative journalism, shared policy opinions, described my personal life.

Now, I feel I am ready to commit. I want to focus this blog on an old passion of mine, the relationship between science and faith.

There are many Catholic blogs out there, and they are far better done than anything I could do. There are science sources all over the Internet. By dedicating my blog to uniting real, honest science with orthodox Christian religion, I hope to be less redundant.

If there is a particular science topic that you, readers, would like to see explained in the context of Christian faith -- or a particular aspect of Christianity that you cannot reconcile with science fact -- please comment here, and I will do my best to devote space to your comment here.

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Foucault pendulum

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I visited the Houston Museum of Natural Science recently. Near the west end of the exhibit halls is a Foucault pendulum. It is an enormous brass ball with a delicate finial at the tip, depending from a tower reaching storeys above the rest of the building. Its stately swings above the polished floor appear to remain in a plane, but due to the angular momentum of the rotating earth, its path precesses in a ring. Traced on the ground, that path would resemble not a single line endlessly retraced, but a flower with countless narrow petals.

A half-dozen or so visitors surrounded the pendulum. We could not perceive the tiny course changes between swings, so to demonstrate the effect, the exhibitors had set up a ring of pegs just inside the limits of the swing. As the pendulum precessed, its finial periodically toppled a peg.

We could see the finial passing just millimeters from the next peg. I pulled out my digital camera and photographed each pass, hoping to catch the moment of the peg's fall. More visitors appeared, and excitement rippled through us each time the pendulum swung past its target. I switched my camera to video mode and tried to record the fall, but the batteries died, and all around people groaned with me. Now each approach drew a breathless gasp: would the peg fall this time? Now the finial seemed sure to touch it; now the peg wobbled; we all held our breath. As the pendulum swung again, its point lightly brushed the peg, and we cheered noisily as it tipped.

Throughout the experience I was sharply aware of its incongruity in the 21st century. Wonders are routine now. No respectable action film lacks CGI effects. Any event we want is at our fingertips on YouTube; any natural phenomenon is a search away on Wikipedia.

Yet we at the museum crowded around the giant pendulum and its literally mundane movement, captivated by the tiny drama of the effects of the rotation of the earth. And when the peg fell, we cheered.

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