Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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March 8th, 2009

Do Women Sin Differently Than Men?

Recent comments in the Vatican newspaper raise questions



There’s a new study out from the Vatican: Seems men and women confess to different sins. The most commonly confessed sin for women is pride, while for men, lust and gluttony rule the confessional. Men’s desire for food is surpassed only by the urge for sex.

This analysis is based on a study of confessions carried out by Father Roberto Busa, a 95-year-old Jesuit scholar, and backed up by Vatican theologian, Dominican Father Wojciech Giertych. Recently, Monsignor Giertych told reporters for the Vatican newspaper (and, subsequently, the world) that men were more inclined than women to pursue pleasure.

“Often the most difficult [sin] men face is lust, and then comes gluttony, sloth, wrath, pride, envy, and greed,” Monsignor Giertych told L’Osservatore Romano. “For women, the most dangerous is pride, followed by envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and lastly, sloth,” he said.

It’s unclear how this dataset of sins was compiled, but as a social scientist my eyebrows shot up pretty quickly when I read a BBC News piece suggesting that Father Busa had collected lists of sins during confessions he had heard over a period of months or years. Did the priest himself interpret each person’s sins and rank them under specific categories? Or were they asked to take a brief survey about the nature of their sins upon leaving the wooden box? (I’m picturing an exit interview like you might have on Election Day as you leave the polls… but a whole lot more invasive.)

The short answer is that we don’t know how the study was compiled. Nor do we know the sample size, which is very important: If we’re talking about the confessions of 10,000 people, that’s more interesting than the confessions of three nuns and a priest from the parish next door. Nor do we know how the rank ordering of sins by gender was done: How many more women confessed pride, listed in the #1 slot, compared with how many confessed lust, the sin listed in the #4 slot. All we know is that the Vatican stands behind the findings. So let’s take this step by step:

  1. Why the Seven Deadly Sins? The Seven Deadly Sins, formulated by Gregory the Great in the sixth century (and popularized by that 1995 gory movie, Seven ), is a list of temptations of the flesh and spirit: pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, lust, and of course, gluttony — temptations to be overcome with a strong spirit and prayer. So while none of these are good things to do, there are many other bad things that we might confess to that aren’t on this list. And those, apparently, weren’t tallied by this survey.
  2. Are women actually more “proud” than men? So women confess pride more often. Might it just be that women are more likely to think that their feelings of pride are sinful, whereas men think their feelings of pride are well-deserved and normal? My previous research has shown that women often downplay their accomplishments, because they feel culturally compelled to present themselves as demure and “sweet” — not strong and successful. This kind of socialization effect will carry over from the classroom to the bar to the confessional; it’s the way we are taught to operate. So a woman who gets an “A” on a test and thinks she’s da bomb for doing so might feel a twinge of guilt about her excitement, whereas a man would not.
  3. Are men confessing to lust because they are conditioned to do so? I give talks to college students about dating and marriage, and you might be surprised that in the Q&A sessions, it’s the guys who do most of the talking. The men are quick to talk about their desire for a late night booty call to be answered in the affirmative, and what a “hook-up” really means in their circle of friends. After one such talk, it occurred to me that many think they are cool, attractive and more masculine for “confessing” those thoughts. I’m not saying that men are more lustful than women; I wonder how much our social conditioning impacts what we think to confess.

Here’s an idea for some future research: Give a few potentially sinful scenarios to men and women. Is there any gender difference in the “sin factor” assigned? Do women think it’s more sinful for someone to brag about an accomplishment than men? Do men think it’s more sinful to eat a tub of Ben & Jerry’s than women? Let the sin experiments begin!

Share your thoughts in the comments box below… this is prime fodder for debate and conversation!

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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    Why does it list greed under sins for men, but not for women? Surely women commit sins of greed too?

  • Pat

    Interesting that the women dont want to accept they are prideful–Isnt that a sign of it in itself? I think women dont believe their sins are their fault so other sins arent confessed to. Recently read research that promuscuity is now higher among women than men. We still however think men seduce women into something they really wouldnt do.

  • Irish

    I believe that women also struggle with lustful thoughts. Obviously, men engaging in sexual relationships are doing so with a womem sometimes or men. I might add from a woman’s point of view, that women may be less likely to confess this sin for it’s in their mind not acceptable for them to feel that way, lustful. I might add a friend of mine herself seemed to be struggling with sexual addiction and when she confessed this to her priest she said she thought he would have a heart attack for she taught in a Catholic School. His perception was the same,
    this is not an issue for women.

    The best time for someone to stop any addiction is before they become habituated to it. Also there is some controversy if there really is such a thing as sexual “addiction” or if this is an excuse to continue to engage in this behavior. However, some studies show the opposite as usual.

    Irish BSN,

  • Tony Fey

    It seems to me that the Catholic Church has somewhat of lopsided view sexuality. Nothing is ever mentioned about how women look at men.Priests try to tell me that women don’t struggle with lustfull or impure thoughts,or masterbation. But the women I have been around have the same lustfull thougts men do.

  • Fr. Jeff Belger

    Okay, so this topic is nearly 3 month stagnate. I would like to see it resurrected. I don’t keep a tally sheet in the confessional, however I do see patterns as far as guys go. By no means does it affect every guy who comes into the confessional, but a good percentage struggle with addiction; particularly sexual addictions. “I know it is wrong, but I cannot seem to stop.” is a constant refrain.

    It would be great if you could shed some light from the social sciences on sexual addictions. Or point me to previous articles you have posted.

  • Stacy

    Women and pride? That really surprised me. I thought that was more of a male thing. I’m surprised gluttony didn’t score higher on the female side, considering how diet conscious women are. UNLESS, they register their diet consciousness as vanity and that got grouped under pride?

  • Harrison

    “Might it just be that women are more likely to think that their feelings of pride are sinful, whereas men think their feelings of pride are well-deserved and normal?So a woman who gets an ‚ÄúA‚Äù on a test and thinks she‚Äôs da bomb for doing so might feel a twinge of guilt about her excitement, whereas a man would not.”

    I’m kinda confused. Since when did the Church teach that feeling something was sinful?

    I don’t believe its theologicaly correct to confess feelings in the confessional. We confess guilt, which is a result from a immoral choice. Its acts of the will, not feelings that make our actions evil. This idea of feelings being immoral sounds extremely rigid and off. Feelings contribute to our desicions but that doesn’t make them bad. Thats like saying hunger is evil cause it causes me to overeat. Or feeling tired is evil because it makes harder to overcome laziness. Anyone else agree here?

  • johanna

    Thanks for your analysis Christine – much more measured and thoughtful than my original (more visceral) response. :)

  • Jarrad Venegas

    Excellent article Christine! I’m adding a link to our Confession 101 videos.


  • Mike

    We should notice that the data indictates that men and women confess these sins but it does not say whether these sins are actually sins. Some women may in fact confess pride but may simply be downplaying their accomplishments. A good confessor would be able to point out that her behavior in this instance may indeed not be sinful at all.

    So while women may confess pride–they indeed may not be committing that sin at all. The same with male confessions of lust which may just be natural feelings of attraction at time that someone interprets too scrupulously. Hopefully, the priests doing the compiling (which is dangerously close to breaking the seal of confession in my opinion) were able to tell the difference.

  • Christy

    I do indeed wonder how this “data” was compiled. Did he keep track (which seems like a very unethical thing to do – even if you’re not recording names)? Did he just make a random guess based on his memory of confessions he’s received (completely unreliable)? And, well… what would the purpose be of keeping track of this anyway? I’m thinking that a “sin survey” filled out with informed consent just seems like a better idea.
    The “findings” do seem like logical conclusions. But who knows? Maybe the priest is projecting his own gender bias into his data?

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