Angelo Stagnaro has taken on a hugely ambitious task in his 450+ page book titled A Modern Sinner’s Guide for the Third Millennium. Yet, the breadth of undertaking makes sense when you see that it is a modern understanding and reworking of Venerable Louis of Granada’s original ‘A Sinner’s Guide.’
Venerable Louis de Granada was an influential and beloved Dominican preacher and writer of the 16th century. His Sinner’s Guide is a classic Catholic spiritual work; written for the common man, yet a major influence on some of our greatest saints like Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross and Saint Charles Borromeo.
Stagnaro has indeed followed in formidable footsteps and does so admirably. Most important for the reader, the length of the book should cause no anxiety. It is not a cover-to-cover read, but a true guidebook, a valuable directory of sin – what sin is, what kinds of sins there are, how they are manifested in our times and how we can work to avoid them. And despite the guilt-inducing subject matter, A Modern Sinner’s Guide for the Third Millennium is quite an engaging and even enjoyable read as Stagnaro writes with compassion, humility – “my expertise in writing this book is that I have been, and still am, a spectacular sinner,” he says – and refreshing flashes of humor. The book is timely. In an age that has forgotten that sin is an objective thing – as Stagnaro says, “atheists and other secularists deride the term” – nonetheless, “living without values is a sure ticket to self-destruction.”
The Modern Sinner’s Guide outlines the seven deadly sins and then explores the sins pertaining to each of the Ten Commandments, but with some interesting modern developments. For example, under the deadly sin of anger, Stagnaro talks about the nature of anger and hatred, with subsections on gossip and Schadenfreude. To describe the latter, Stagnaro makes use of current cultural references (as he does throughout), in this case, the popular animated series The Simpsons:
In one Simpsons episode, Lisa, angry at her brother, Bart, managed to feel a modicum of pity for his lowly state. She said, “It’s amazing how I can feel sorry for you and hate you at the same time . . . the Germans probably have a word for it.” The Germans, being master wordsmiths, actually do have a word for it: Haßliebe (pronounced: hassliebe). This may not be as well-known to Americans, but another German word is much more popular in English. Once learning of it, one becomes instantly ashamed and worried that they themselves might be guilty of it: Schadenfreude. This is the shameful joy we experience when we delight at the misfortunes of others. When we think about the emotional and spiritual damage we do to ourselves when we enjoy another’s hardship, it is clear that this is completely unacceptable. One of the worst aspects of Schadenfreude is that the emotions it engenders in the soul can turn to even worse sins such as envy and anger. After all, bad feelings become bad thoughts and bad thoughts become bad actions.
The section based on the Fifth Commandment (You shall not kill) is in itself a stand-alone primer on the sins of the culture of death. The discussions are interesting and sometimes unexpectedly thorough. For example, in the section on suicide, after the sin itself is described, we have an explanation of instances of indirect suicide, which can be “heroic self-sacrifice:” Stagnaro points to Saints Damien of Molokai, Maximillian Kolbe and Edith Stein. But he also points out when indirect suicide can be “other than altruistic,” like purposefully refusing to leave a burning building or provoking an armed soldier or police officer into using lethal force (suicide by cop).
What really stands out in this part of the book is the section on abortion as Stagnaro names and refutes (often with many outside sources) 119 top pro-abortion myths. There is so much good, logical information here that I can imagine it could be used to both educate and arm Catholics on how to advocate for the lives of the unborn. Here is one myth, #37, the refutation of which gets hardly enough notice: “Pro-abortionists are law-abiding, compassionate, peace-loving, nonviolent people . . . unlike Christians.” Stagnaro refutes this, in the passage that follows, writing specifically about abortion providers and whether this myth describes them:
Putting aside the 43 million children killed as a result of the legalization of abortion, which can hardly be considered compassionate, peace-loving and nonviolent, the number of abortion providers who are violent felons is staggering, in particular considering how few there are. The Abortion Crime Report, published by California Right to Life offers a list of newspaper articles about abortionists who have been convicted of murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, torture, kidnapping, rape, theft, medical fraud, stalking, death threats, bombing, reporting falsely reporting bomb threats (and falsely blaming pro-lifers), sex crimes, conspiracy, drug crimes, property crimes, medical crimes and stalking among dozens of other crimes. The report of pro-abortion violence lists 2297 incidents of pro-abortion violence and illegal activities. The source for much of the information came from the Medical Board of California, which is responsible for licensing and bringing disciplinary action against state physicians. To this number, we should add the 347 women killed by legal abortions since 1973.
In another contemporary twist, Stagnaro identifies the new seven deadly sins, which include environmental pollution, eugenics, drug trafficking and consumption. There are thought-provoking discussions on some of our modern age’s most contentious and problematic issues.
A brief review cannot comment on the majority of a work such as this, but one more section I will highlight as tremendously useful is The Art and Science of a Good Confession. Because after all the talk of what sins exist and how they can destroy, the great truth of our faith is that we can be completely forgiven – if we make a good confession. Preparing for a good confession is an essential tool for spiritual growth and health, and the exercises provided here, along with the encouragement to trust in God’s forgiveness, is a sign that God’s mercy is an essential part of the message of The Modern Sinner’s Guide for the Third Millennium.
– Maria McFadden Maffucci, Editor, Human Life Review.