The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
The Baltimore Catechism lists seven “capital” sins as those which most blatantly present obstacles to our ability to trust God’s love. The term “capital,” as used here, comes from the same root as “captain,” which is a useful image of how temptations work. Beyond choices on a flow chart, each temptation acts like an enemy captain determined to undermine our loyalty to God. These “captains” subvert our trust in God by introducing resentment, jealousy and doubt to our daily doings. In theory, any temptation we name might be an agent of such things, depending on the circumstances. Even innocuous or essential items can subvert our love of God if viewed or used wrongly.
At any rate, these are the capital sins (or, chief temptations leading to sin) as listed in the Baltimore Catechism:
We now look at each temptation as viewed through the lens of living with autism.
Pride. Most of us are familiar with “pride” as a positive statement of celebrating our gifts. As embodied by social movements, pride is a way to showcase the best of who we are, as we are. However, we are vulnerable to two detrimental mindsets: competition, and focus on strength. The first can be avoided if we agree that every person has gifts worth celebrating — even those who do not share the particular views, attributes or talents we celebrate in ourselves. Unless we recognize that everyone has something valuable to contribute, we turn celebration into competition. “Pride” done right is about our gifts, not superiority. Secondly, we must include our weaker and less developed areas in presenting our gifts, lest we fall victim to the mindset that our worth comes only from our strengths - or worse, that we must minimize or camouflage our weak spots. Finally, we can find ourselves reluctant to celebrate others because of their strengths (jealousy) or because of their weakness (doubt). In all things, let our “pride” be in God’s designs and not our own desires.
Covetousness is the habit of looking unhappily at ourselves and resentfully at the gifts of others. Thoughts like these are common temptations and not sinful unto themselves; it is in entertaining them, and acting on them, that sin comes in. We are especially vulnerable when conditions are hard, when people are unkind, and when exhaustion sets in. When we find ourselves depleted, marginalized or overlooked, it seems all the more unfair that others are favored. Why are some people more easily accepted? Better able to function? Better liked? Temptation is ripe when we focus on the status of others. The antidote is remembering that social capital is an illusion of perception, not a reflection of our objective worth. Opinions change like the wind. Our value is constant. If we can persevere through fluctuations in opinions, we are less likely to wish for more than what we are.
Lust is a word we most associate with sexuality. However, it applies to anything we wish to take for ourselves, without giving anything in return, for our pleasure alone. In the throes of a craving, resentment, jealousy and doubt can sharpen the sense of scarcity while our focus (possibly even fixation) drives us to act. Lust underlies most addictive and predatory behavior, whatever the gratification may be - food, money, sex, power or social status. We resent the craving, we are jealous of anyone who has what we want, and we doubt anything else can satisfy. Lust is the opposite of trust, and the opposite of love. Lust not only harms the other, but the powerful rush of gratification sets up habits which are very difficult to change. The antidote is actively cultivating gratitude for what we have, trusting that God will provide what will bring us true joy over the long term, not just momentary pleasure. As lust develops by habit, so too does this mindset of gratitude.
Anger A sin? Not by itself. Anger is a human emotion, and part of our design by God. Anger is a useful and essential part of relationships and moral development. How else could we express outrage against aggression or violations of human dignity? Anger is a signal of wrong, a stir to corrective action and a protection against harm. Anger only becomes sinful when it is the product of resentment, jealousy and doubt. Dissatisfaction with what we are, or focus on what we are not, is more rooted in fear than justice. It may feel the same as useful anger, but the object of such resentment ultimately is God and His designs conflicting with ours. An honest look can tell whether or not we are drawing closer to God or departing from Him in our moments of anger, and that will determine if it is useful or sinful.
Gluttony is the temptation to take more than we need. It goes back to scarcity, which is rooted in doubt. Some of us genuinely struggle with knowing when we are satisfied and when we are not. Autistics in particular can have a tricky time moderating things that feel good, especially as they provide periods of relief to our perpetual anxiety. Sometimes we genuinely need others to suggest where healthy limits are so that we concretely see the cutoff between just enough and too much of whatever we enjoy — be that food, drink, music, screen time, reading, and anything else that delights us. A quick rule is: if our joy lingers after we stop, it’s more likely to be healthy than if putting it down makes us fret about craving more.
Envy is the temptation to resent other people’s happiness. When we are anxious and exhausted, it is challenging to see others at rest and not feel anger or hopelessness at our own condition. Autism is not for the faint of heart, and gratitude when our very bodies feel constantly under siege can be a long shot. How, then, can we counter this temptation? One thought is to remember that nobody is ever perfectly happy. In the same way our own struggles are often invisible, others also struggle unseen with their own hidden needs. It is important to remember that we are not losing the race if someone else is where we want to be; we simply are not there yet. Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves these things hour by hour.
Sloth. Given this word’s association with laziness, we need to make the distinction between willful inactivity and actual, legitimate conditions under which autistic people are called unproductive. Lack of energy is a reality among autistics for numerous reasons: the drain of social demands, decreased muscle tone, variances in blood pressure and metabolism, migraines, connective tissue anomalies and chronic pain, just for starters. These are actual physical, cognitive and neurological conditions associated with autism and have nothing to do with our character. In fact, most autistics, if asked, will express the wish for more energy and the ability to do things on par with the rest of our communities! Sloth is the choice not to act when action is needed and we are capable of acting. It is up to each one of us to know in our hearts and minds what our capability is - and to be honest with ourselves in making these decisions. When we live congruently within our abilities and our limits, we have nothing to fear... and, we can (hopefully, politely) dismiss unwarranted criticism with a clear conscience.
The capital sins are by no means the last word on right and wrong, nor do they contain everything we need to consider when examining the morality of our own behavior. However, if we see these as some of the more common gateways toward seeking pleasure before seeking God’s design first, they make a useful starting point.
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak