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?