Saints and Sinners — Are We Who People Say We Are?

Jeff Cunningham
Jun 4 · 7 min read

“I owe much. I possess nothing. I leave the rest to the poor.” — Rabelais

The best things in life come in sevens like Snow White’s dwarfs or the colors of the rainbow. Unfortunately, so do the worst like rolling a seven the first toss in craps or the biblical concept of sin. You can count them: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. My old editor at Forbes, Jim Michaels, whom Warren Buffett said was the best of any magazine, told me what people enjoy most is reading about are the seven deadly sins. Dante drove the point home.

But the bible was not the source of the seven sins. It would take hundreds of years for Pope Gregory I to express them in their current memorable form and that is why we still speak of them nearly 1500 years later. He even had a tagline, “thou shalt not.” After having so much luck with sin, Gregory recruited the opposing team, the seven virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. It could be said Gregory was an inveterate laundry list maker.

Gregory (also called Gregory the Great) was a renaissance man before that time came. He inspired the church liturgy with poetry and championed music in the mass, helped the poor, converted the Anglo-Saxon pagans in Britain, and was canonized by the church. If you consider for a moment the effect Christianity had on England and by extension its adoption in the new world we owe it to Gregory. But it was his belief about sin that carries the most resonance. The Pope firmly believed the purpose of virtue is to be an antidote to sin like water is to fire. His finding that like fire sin represents a deluge (Pope’s love flood analogies) of otherwise acceptable behaviors is a highly important concept.

Gregory’s definition of sin was not very different from what Alan Greenspan felt drove the 2000 era economy to the brink, irrational exuberance or a surplus of animal instinct. Economists and Popes believe that in moderation, sins are okay. Eat a balanced meal and Gregory would say nice going. Scarf down five cheeseburgers with fries and you are living in sin. You may also need a new pair of pants (shopping is known to make us forget about our sins). He borrowed his theories from the Greeks . The words nothing in excess are inscribed on the Temple of Apollo dating from the 4th century B.C. (Greek: Meden Agan (μηδὲν ἄγαν).

Today, however, sin is no longer too much of a good thing. A single bad thing once in your life or even the accusation of a bad thing, and we are not talking about murder, but the act of saying something someone else finds offensive or that someone alleges you said is enough to put you on the road to perdition. Transgress a social justice boundary and the unspeakable tortures of the Grand Inquisition will be visited upon you.

When fame is currency, the very act of blaming or shaming provides useful weapons in the arms of your opponents, and they know it. As with all firearms, some people have great skill in using them, and we tend to call this type of person a journalist. As a result, they have bequeathed sin’s natural bedfellows, cancel culture, outing, and de-platforming.

Mother Teresa accompanied by children at her mission in Calcutta, India 05/12/1980 (Getty)

“I’m not a social worker. I do it for the church.”

— Saint Teresa

Even Mother Teresa sinned, although it took a helpful journalist to point this out. Douglas Robertson of the Independent wrote: “Mother Teresa wasn’t saintly — she was a shrewd operator with unpalatable views….”

Her sin was shrewdness. Pope Gregory forgot that one. Do we have to recalculate eight deadly sins?

When she started the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa recruited 13 members. By the time she finished, there were over 4,000 worldwide whose efforts help people in great suffering and distress. An old African proverb says it takes a village, but it also takes a shrewd operator, let me add, sinfully shrewd.

The world picks extraordinary people to take on big challenges. Because most of us are not nearly as dedicated or talented, our reaction is jealousy and we wish to deny their fame. Perhaps it is jealousy? For example, another famous journalist, Christopher Hitchens, traveled all the way to the Vatican to argue in front of the Pope to deny her Sainthood. Hitchens has made a career out of playing “devil’s advocate” against Teresa. That is not an expression in his case, but a canonical right of the church which has come down to us in the form of that famous wedding question no one ever answers, “do any here have an objection?”

Hitch, as he is called by friends, of whom Teresa was not, testified that “Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor.” How did he come by this stunning insight? Because she had dared say that “Suffering was a gift from God.”

When pressed about her purpose on earth Teresa said, “I’m not a social worker. I do it for the church.” Hitchens found this unspeakable. He flew (first-class, I might add) to challenge her beatification and redefine the meaning of virtue vs. sin. He failed in this effort, thankfully, but it leaves the feeling that n if you think you have enemies, wait until you qualify for sainthood.

What isn’t a mystery is that we judge lives by output rather than inputs, which was Hitchen’s myopic problem. He wanted her to do good things for reasons that he believed were good, rather than who cares why just watch what she accomplished. This is an impossible situation. If we define good by what someone else believes, we end up robots. For example, if someone invents a vaccine does it matter if she was trying to come up with better dog food? Does that make the vaccine less effective? Less good? The point is that luck or circumstance plays a large role in how we are motivated and why we do what we do. If you are a journalist your definition of a good deed is likely to be quite different than if you tend to lepers in remote parts of the world, and your opinion is like a billboard, something that reduces the value of empty space.

Compare, for example, Mother Teresa and Al Capone. clearly, it is impossible to compare them, right? So let’s begin with an obvious question, what turned one into a Saint and the other a sinner? Or is the question unfair?

Al Capone’s Chicago soup kitchen provided three meals a day during the Great Depression. (Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

“Some call it bootlegging. Some call it racketeering. I call it a business.

— Al Capone

We know, for example, that Capone ran soup kitchens during the Great Depression to help the unemployed, while history makes it clear Teresa cared for the poor. And like Saint Teresa, Capone was a devout Catholic and an organizational genius who shaped a vast ecosystem. Yes, they both had a vision, but it was based on the view from their perch. Their similarities seem absurd but there you are.

Al Capone at the Chicago Detective bureau as Public Enemy №1, 2–26–31. (Wikipedia)

Now, if Capone were up for sainthood, you can bet a battalion of journalists would be on hand to testify against him.

A life sentence for tax evasion does not quite capture the sinfulness of the reputed murderer of 400 members of opposing gangs that he committed or caused. At the same time, while most of his victims were thugs (who are we to judge) including a few corrupt prosecutors, some innocents got caught in the crossfire. The movie, The Untouchables, in which Robert De Niro plays Al Capone taking a baseball bat to the head of one of his men at a dinner party, was based on an actual incident on May 7, 1929. So the chance that the Pope will canonize Capone or commemorate Saint Al’s Day is thin.

Now that you have the evidence, ladies and gentlemen of the jury were Capone and Teresa dutiful souls caught up in different circumstances, or were they driven to achieve different goals because of their innate goodness or evil.? How are we to assess sin or virtue if the facts are so relative? Hitchens would be out of a job.

More narrowly, would Alphonse Gabriel Capone have been a humanitarian had he spent his life with the poor in Calcutta? Would Mother Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu have become a gangster if she grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of Italian immigrants, and was pressured to join New Yorks’ Five Points Gang (although it is quite unlikely she would be a bouncer at a brothel)?

As we all know, Capone was imprisoned by age 33, and Mother Teresa was beatified in 2003 for curing a woman’s tumor, which of course, the woman’s husband denied (as you’ll discover, life doesn’t get easier because you are a saint).

History’s judgment is clear, and there is no debate about who the victor was. Mother Teresa wins hands down. Capone was the biggest loser. But what is under scrutiny is both performed a role according to the dictates of their time, status, and inclination, better than anyone around.

The question is worth pondering not just because we all face the same quandary at various points in our journey, the kind that can take our life into the stratosphere or follow an illusion that brings us to a hard landing. I have studied men and women who had it all and appeared to throw it away in one careless toss of the dice, land in prison or lose their livelihoods because of a single fatal mistake. Why does this happen to people who should know better? Many will blame this on moral character but as we have seen there was nothing clear about Capone’s immorality, and Teresa did not always act out of moral certainty. In any final analysis, simple it may sound, our fate hangs on making the right choice at the right time and one that society will say we did the right thing.

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