Patrick Craine

Acedia: Recovering the 'lost' Capital Vice

The vice of acedia is perhaps the most complex of the traditional seven capital vices, and it certainly today is the least known. Even the name of the vice is caught up in the discussion. Today, our common name for it - ‘sloth’ in English, ‘paresse’ in French – simply does not capture the richness of the vice as it was conceived in the traditional theological sources. Yet, though the traditional sense of the vice is largely forgotten, the human reality and its effects remain very much present. In fact, it is considered by some the crisis of our time. Benedictine Fr. Jean-Charles Nault calls it “the unnamed evil of our times.” And Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, speaking at a retreat at the Vatican in 1996, said: “It seems to me that the deepest crisis in the Church today is that we no longer dare to believe in what God can do for the good with those who love him (cf. Rom 8:28). The spiritual masters traditionally call this torpor of mind and heart acedia.”[1] In this paper, I aim to account for the large discrepancy between the traditional view of acedia and our modern understanding. I undertake a survey of the main theological accounts of the vice, considering in turn Evagrius of Pontus, John Cassian, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas. I then consider our current view of the vice. As we proceed, we will discover how our shifting understanding of this vice reflects the wider cultural shifts of recent centuries.

[1] Christoph Schönborn, Loving the Church: Retreat to John Paul II and the Papal Household (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 56.