Greg Erlandson

Greg Erlandson

One of my favorite criticisms of the church is that it is fixated on sex. “Why is the church so obsessed with what I do in the bedroom,” I will be asked with great seriousness.

I find the observation hilarious because I watch TV, read books and go to the movies. And guess what? Our society is unbelievably obsessed with sex. Religion is no longer the opiate of the masses. Sex is.

The pornography business is bigger than the NFL, NBA and baseball combined. It is so omnipresent that children are discovering it before their parents ever get around to having “the talk.” If the statistics are to be believed, masturbation would appear to be our real national pastime.

But it isn’t just porn. Check out almost any HBO “cutting edge” series, and you can be guaranteed that it will be graphic and sex-drenched. It’s Hollywood’s secret sauce, and network television, like a middle-aged hipster at an orgy, gamely tries to keep up with its winking jokes and quick peeks.

People still find it possible to blame “the church” both for society’s obsession and society’s dysfunction, but the truth is that the days are long gone when religious-inspired puritanism held sway over the imaginations of generations. Like the sign in the store says, you broke it, you own it. The same goes for society and what passes for sexual ethics.

Today, the church is primarily reactive, trying to keep up with a society that is, if anything, practicing its own kind of perverse puritanism. It is when one does not buy into the suppositions and prejudices of our liberated age that people can get huffy and condemnatory.

The high physical, social and moral costs of lust are clear enough, but the church has always taught that there are seven deadly sins, not one. It wasn’t lust that entered the Garden of Eden. Some understand Adam and Eve’s first sin is to be sexual, but that is not what the church has taught. Rather, pride goeth before the fall.

I am not sure that most Catholics today can name the other six deadly sins. A frustrated priest I know once said that even for those Catholics who go to confession, sex is virtually the only topic raised.

What happened to all the other sins, he asked plaintively? Have we all become so perfect in every other area of our lives that lust is all we have left to confess?

Here’s a quick review: The other six deadly sins are gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and pride. Hmmm, methinks one or two of these may still be relevant.

Gluttony goes far beyond overeating, though that’s a place to start. “Greed is good,” the movie says, and one need only look at the widening income gulf and the culture of flashy consumption to see that avarice still leads a lot of us by the nose.

There is much to say about sloth — which is about much more than lying about watching TV — and envy, which leads to gossip and is more akin to murder than chitchat. Anger, alas, is practically a political virtue these days.

It is pride, however, that kept Satan in his icy dungeon at the lowest depths of Dante’s hell. Pride is what we put on a pedestal, and pride keeps us from recognizing any of the other sins in ourselves.

Truth be told, we are not different from our forebears, and there has always been more to sinning than just lust. Today our obsession distracts us from what may really ail us.

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Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at gerlandson@catholicnews.com.