Catholicism: The glory of God and the horror of sin
In The best books Catholic Culture staff read in 2023, I recommended Scott Hahn’s and Brandon McGinley’s book Catholics in Exile. Today I remembered that on page 81 the authors included a powerful quotation from St. John Henry Newman on the Catholic view of the seriousness of sin:
[The Catholic Church] holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon 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 [, though it harmed no one,] or steal one poor farthing without excuse.
You can read this in context in Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, vol. 1, lecture 8, section 4. But my purpose is to give you the full context here and now, for this passage certainly shocks our modern ears.
It is possible, I think, to admit one sense in which Newman’s words are not quite perfectly true—the redemptive sense, in which God still desired to create the universe, and us in it, despite His certain knowledge that we would sin and His complete understanding of the price His beloved Son would have to pay for our redemption. In other words, because God Himself has chosen to redeem us through the suffering of Christ, the hope of redemption and salvation in one sense renders Newman’s remarks an overstatement. Christ can overcome even sin, and even serious sinners can be redeemed through their participation in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. This is why the Church has always referred to Adam’s sin as a “happy fault”.
And yet, as St. Paul reminds us, we have been bought at a price (1 Cor 6:20), and we ought never to underestimate that cost. This depends on a miracle of Divine condescension; it depends not on God’s justice alone, but on His mercy. Therefore, the Church agrees with God that it is better for each one of us to endure the most serious temporal suffering than to commit a single deliberate sin. In that sense, the quotation is absolutely and completely true. In making that point, the passage is not only rhetorically brilliant but has significant warrant in Christ’s own words: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6).
The great value of Newman’s words is that, given our tendency to ignore the horror of sin as an offense against God, they focus the mind wonderfully on that horror, dramatically challenging our human priorities. Even more telling, perhaps, is that immediately before the words quoted by Hahn and McGinley, Newman had set all this in the context of the proper purpose and business of the Church herself:
The Church aims, not at making a show, but at doing a work. She regards this world, and all that is in it, as a mere shadow, as dust and ashes, compared with the value of one single soul. She holds that, unless she can, in her own way, do good to souls, it is no use her doing anything….
Finally, in the remainder of the paragraph immediately following the initial quotation, Newman added:
She [the Church] considers the action of this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in their respective spheres; she would rather save the soul of one single wild bandit of Calabria, or whining beggar of Palermo, than draw a hundred lines of railroad through the length and breadth of Italy, or carry out a sanitary reform, in its fullest details, in every city of Sicily, except so far as these great national works tended to some spiritual good beyond them.
How many Catholics—even priests and bishops, and indeed each one of us—need to reflect again on these words today!
Now, having quoted all this, I find I have little else to say. Perhaps the remaining point is that nothing here suggests that we should not engage in works of material charity, for we are brought to God by the fullness of love, not only by spiritual but by corporal works of mercy, and it is the whole human person who has value, in both body and soul united. Barring any hasty misunderstanding along these lines, my point is as simple as it is direct: Newman’s words cannot be emphasized too much in a Church whose members at every level continuously find ways to excuse or even deny sin.
In other words, before either the Church or we ourselves should dare to undertake a single new plan or project, both the Church and we ourselves must grasp the truth of what St. John Henry Newman has written here: I mean the truth about the horror of sin in light of the glory of God.
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