Elizabeth Scalia is a prominent speaker, writer, and online media publisher. Formerly editor of the Catholic “channel” at the religion site Patheos.com, she is now English language editor in chief for the Catholic website Aleteia.org.
Scalia (who is not related to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia) is also a Benedictine oblate and the mother of two sons.
Her newest book — Little Sins Mean A Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us (Our Sunday Visitor, 2016) — zeroes in on those actions and habits that, if left unchecked, can grow into major obstacles on our path to heaven. Scalia spoke with Catolic Digest.
I’ve heard that this book was not your idea. Your publisher approached you to write on this topic, following the success of your first book, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life (Ave Maria Press, 2013). What was your initial reaction to that request, and what made you decide to do it?
My reaction then is the same as my feeling today every time I look at the book: “I have no business writing this, because I am a walking, breathing billboard of little sins.” It’s even worse now that the book is out; I’m still trying to beat back all my faults. It’s a most humbling sort of exercise. I’m extremely conscious of the fact that we live in a self-help world, so everyone expects that if you’ve written a book on combating “little sins,” you’ve managed to defeat them. That is not the case here. I am not Oprah wheeling a wagon of fat onto the stage to show my success. Then again, I take a little comfort in remembering that she too continues to struggle in that area. Our battles are lifelong, and my book tries to reflect that truth.
Your book is about venial sins. Why should we care about them? We are taught that we won’t go to hell over them. We are taught that confessing them is not strictly necessary, that the Penitential Rite at Mass, or even a private act of contrition absolves these sins. So what’s the big deal?
All of that is true, but the book demonstrates how these venial sins each have a connection to one of the seven deadly sins, and sometimes more than one. Gossip, for instance, can have one slithering root that emerges from pride, and another from anger, and still another from envy. Suddenly, the little indulgence in gossip (which we all do) shows itself to be a true avenue of destruction to the soul. Each of the sins discussed in the book gets traced back to the deadlier ones. So we need to be aware of venial sins, without becoming either scrupulous or neurotic.
Talk about the role of confession in overcoming these faults before they evolve into something more hardened and vicious.
Well, confession is so necessary, because the sacramental graces that come with Penance give real assistance in helping us to resist the urge to indulge in those little bad habits and venial sins we keep falling into, and it also helps us to remember those roots. Sin is like a chronic illness; confession is like the treatment we keep going back for to manage it and assist our recovery where recovery is possible. Thankfully, with God all things are possible, so in that respect going to confession is not just a discipline and a sacramental act; it gives witness to hope.
A unique feature of your book is that each chapter gives a new name to an old sin: Laziness becomes “Phoning It In”; anger becomes “Passive-Aggression”; gluttony becomes “Treat Yo’self”! A few of them don’t even seem, at first glance, like actual vices. For example, chapter four is “Clinging to Our Narratives Beyond Their Usefulness.” Could you maybe explain that one for us?
It’s really about attachment and how it ultimately ends up distorting our view of ourselves and how others see us. And it’s about the “good narratives” as well as the bad ones. You’ve met people who feel the need to introduce themselves by immediately telling you something negative or positive about themselves? We actually all do it, all the time. So it doesn’t matter if you were the most popular — or least popular — kid in school 30 years ago; what matters is what your life is today and what is being asked of you today. Everything hidden will be revealed in due time (see Luke 8:17, 12:2; Matthew 10:26). All we need to be today is God’s own today.
Much of your reflection on these various “little sins” comes from personal experience with them. Which “little sin” was the most satisfying to write about?
I think I had the most fun writing the “Gloominess and Griping” chapter. It might sound odd, but from the opening quote and the stories about my mother predicting the end of the world to me when I was 4 years old to the one about me terrorizing my parents about their own deaths, I just think it’s hilarious.
My poor late mother was fodder for some of the juiciest stories in the book, but in a way they helped me feel a fond connection to her and really miss her in a new way. The most difficult chapters were the ones on self-neglect (which forced me to look at myself) and also on the sins of omission — those things I had not done but perhaps should have. Those are very personal chapters. The whole book is, of course, but those were difficult to face up to.