Saturday, June 15, 2013

Let the Sun and the Moon Fall From the Sky

The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.
 St John Henry Newman
Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, Volume 1, Lecture 8

Reflection – I ran across this quote from Newman on Mark Shea’s blog, and immediately knew I wanted to blog about it. What a radical statement this is. What a horror, a detestation, an utter rejection of sin this entails. And how… utterly at variance with how most people, even most Catholics, I would say, actually think about the matter.

We are very quick, most of us, to excuse not only venial sins but grave ones, on the basis that to follow the moral law would entail suffering on the part of the person. We fornicate and commit adultery or sodomy, or tacitly approve these actions in others, because the worst possible thing we can imagine is to be lonely.

We cheat and steal, practice dishonesty in our businesses and work lives, horde the world’s goods to ourselves while others starve, or again tacitly approve these actions in others, because the worst possible thing is to be poor, and we must do whatever it takes not to be poor.

Lying, too – we tell lies to avoid suffering, embarrassment, or inconvenience, because what is the harm of a lie compared to those tremendous evils? What is the harm of any of this stuff—silly old moral rules!—compared to our temporal happiness, our prosperity, our immediate gratification of desire?

Newman is throwing down a tremendous challenge for us, then. Better that the sun and moon fall from the heavens and millions die in agony than one venial sin be committed! Wow. What do you all think about that? I am really interested in hearing from people, so much so that I just changed my comments setting so that people can comment unmoderated.

Personally, I think this is a matter of strict and unavoidable theo-logic. When we admit that any sin, even venial ones, weaken if not sever our union with God, and that (as I said yesterday) this union with God is the whole purpose of the entire cosmos, then it is clear that even a single venial sin is a more serious matter, with more riding on it, than any amount of events and calamities that are not sin.

So all of this is a grand and sweeping condemnation of and a pretty strong theological argument against the moral theory of consequentialism. This theory, which is the ruling operative ethical theory in society at large, is that when evaluating the moral status of an action we do not first look at whether this action is intrinsically good or evil, but on what the results of the action will be.

So if we see a bunch of results that are all rainbows and sunshine and happy happy joy joy—go ahead! Tell that lie! Steal that money! Sleep with that person! And if the results we foresee are all storm clouds and desolation and starving to death in a garret somewhere, well then, don’t let a bunch of old men in skirts tell you there’s anything wrong with breaking them rules! Do what ya gotta do, baby.

The fact is, of course, that the results of any single action we perform are like ripples in a pond, and we cannot foresee any of them beyond the immediate and obvious. Consequentialism fails as a moral theory right there, since the data one must use to evaluate morality is simply not available to us. But Newman goes much further, and argues that the consequence of a single venial sin, insofar as it is a sin, outweighs a universe of temporal benefits.

Of course, moral heroism, which we are all called to, says it is far better to starve to death on the streets than to tell a single lie or break even the least of the commandments of God. We just had this in the Gospel yesterday—if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off… better to enter heaven with one hand than hell intact.

Serious stuff, serious challenge, seriously controversial in our modern day of government surveillance, drone killings, torture, abortion, pollution, and sexual libertinism. (Notice how I include issues bound to offend both conservatives and liberals there!). So… what do you all think of that?


  1. Well, this certainly sparked some discussion in our house. We got past "Is this really what the church teaches?" fairly quickly. It's pretty obvious that it does: If the ultimate purpose of life is eternal communion with God, then any deliberate act of turning away from that must be so much worse than the worst affliction of body (or soul) permitted in the Divine Economy.
    The next part was much harder: Given that it is true, and we are "believers", do we really believe it? My thought is that the best measure of our belief is the degree to which we act upon it... which leaves me pretty much praying, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief."

    1. Yes, that's the rub for all of us - do we believe this? I must say I have little to boast of in that regard. It very much ties into the gift of the Spirit of Fear of the Lord, it seems to me. Not a panicky fear of sin, but such an apprehension of God's goodness, beauty, and love that we simply cannot countenance the slightest separation from Him in any regard. Only the Holy Spirit can bring us to that point, I think.

  2. The Blessed Cardinal is not yet canonized! :)

  3. When I first saw this quotation, it surprised me, but I also knew it must be true. It's a sensation that reminds me of Meno's paradox: I didn't know that truth but I knew enough about it to recognize it as true. I think you're right on about it.

    "Newman... argues that the consequence of a single venial sin, insofar as it is a sin, outweighs a universe of temporal benefits."
    Is that what you meant to say? It's not the consequence of the sin that is so weighty - we can be sure it is ultimately a good consequence since God permitted it - but the sin itself.

    I think you're right to connect this to fear of the Lord. We must keep remembering how much we deserve the extremest suffering and how dependent we are on undeserved mercy. If this truth is surprising to us it is because we have the spirit of this world instead of the Spirit of fear of the Lord. Reading the Old Testament tends especially to remind me why fear of the Lord is just and true.

  4. what we have here is a distillation of everything that is wrong with the faith mentality. It's treatment of the human as disposable matter, and it's fantasy of purity. A disgusting quote by an equally repugnant individual.

    1. Oh, pish posh. Nonsense, in other words. The reason sin--any sin--is to be resisted and rejected at any cost is precisely because sin--any sin--does incalculable harm to the human person. You may disagree with that, but that is what we believe and why we say what we do. It is not anti-human in any possible sense of things.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.