A Reader Sez Something Profound

“The devil does not care about killing the children as much as he wants to make murderers out of people.”

One of the things that has increasingly troubled me, not only about the abortion struggle, but the religious liberty struggle, has been the tendency of Christians to talk as though the first death is the worst thing there is. It generally tends to get expressed in term something like “How can you sit there in your ivory tower fretting about theological abstractions like consequentialism when we are talking about persecution and even death!”

The New Testament seems to me to turn this all on its head in a rather striking way: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). For Jesus and the early Church, the issue is not the bodily death of innocents, it is the death of souls that is the big danger. The main tragedy of abortion or the persecution of believers, by this calculus, is not that innocents die, but that the guilty go to hell if they do not repent.

We don’t think that way. Indeed, most people laugh to scorn Newman’s remark that “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 wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.” I wonder what would happen if we did think that way.

It was, after all, what we would today call a venial sin (pinching an apple) that destroyed our race’s relationship with God.

Of course, this is the sort of thing that is toxic for the scrupulous to think about and I would urge any reader inclined toward scrupulosity to hear these words: “This is not directed to you. You are not the problem. Don’t take up yet another burden that is not yours to carry. Give it back to God.” But for the rest of us, may I suggest that a recovery of the sense, not of guilt, but of what our real priorities are supposed to be would go a long way. The point is not “feel guilty about every stupid little thing”. It is that avoidance of sin really is more important than saving of skin. The biggest tragedy in a murder is not that an innocent dies, but that a man is made worthy of the everlasting fires of hell. The victim was going to die sooner or later, no matter what. But no human being *needs* to go to hell. If they do, it is a eternal loss and the ultimate tragedy.

  • ivan_the_mad

    That is an exceedingly powerful quote from Newman, and a very revealing post. There are many teachings of the Church which I know and to which I assent with my intellect, but they are sadly not graven on my heart. Now and again I will read or hear something that happily changes that. This is one of those times. Thank you.

    • Kevin O’Brien

      Ivan, I’m glad that quote and Mark’s post struck you as they did. But we’ve all been quoting that same Newman quote for the whole two years of this debate. One of the things that’s been so frustrating about this is that the things we say and the people we quote are simply and routinely ignored.

      • ivan_the_mad

        I don’t doubt you, Kevin, and can sympathize with your frustration.
        But in my case it’s unread rather than ignored; I have for some time constrained my use of the Internet in general and social sites in particular. This blog is the only Catholic blog I regularly read and in whose discussion threads I participate.

  • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

    That comment about the devil wanting to make murderers of us was brilliant. I’ve been thinking on much the same lines recently, and it’s spot on. (It’s not spot on because I’ve been thinking it … I’m just … oh, whatever. I think he or she was absolutely right.)

  • Fr. Denis Lemieux

    The Newman quote is one I hadn’t heard – I’m going to swipe it for my blog! (I’ll h/t you, of course). Very true, very confronting.

  • Jared Black

    That’s how I saw this on the religious liberty front from the beginning: the real threat was never that some Christian organizations and individuals would suffer loss at the hands of the State. The real danger is that some would compromise their faith in a bid to avoid that loss. A year and a half into the HHS mandate fight, and battle fatigue http://www.patheos.com/blogs/yimcatholic/2013/06/for-catholicism-or-casuistry-i-choose-the-former.html is predictably setting in.

  • kmk1916

    I was reading the story of Moses to my little one the other day and was thinking about how I have read about people pointing to the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt as proof of a brutal God. It is difficult to reconcile this and other actions particularly in the Old Testament (like the entire 2 households being swallowed up by the earth during the 40 days in the desert because the men didn’t come to the meeting! Yikes, their entire households?!), even knowing that none of us are innocent of, initially, Original Sin, and then of course our particular sins later on.

    When I heard in a sermon that the plagues were some of the gods that Egyptians worshipped, and then thought about Jesus descending into Hell for those 3 days in the grave, I figured that all of those who died tragically in the Old Testament (and of course throughout all history) do have access to the truth, whether Jesus collected them from Sheol, or whether they accepted Christ later on (or Baptism by Fire or Desire, etc.).

    I think that God was trying to shake the Egyptians out of their complacency and their false worship of those gods, as well as allowing the Israelites to leave, and did not deny an opportunity for salvation for any “invincible ignorants” in the Old Testament as well as those in post-modern America–He did love ancient Egyptians, too, didn’t He? That remark from Newman applies to them as well, right?
    If I am way off base, honestly, please someone let me know–I want to get it right in case my kids or someone else asks me!

  • tedseeber

    It also has, I’m sad to say, absolutely no political value in a secular country that denies that sin exists, let alone a devil, heaven, or hell.

  • Nicholas Escalona

    Great to call more attention to that quotation. I don’t see much value in thinking of Adam’s sin as anything but archetypally mortal, though.

  • Kate Cousino

    This ties in with something I keep saying: that we need to remember that, in spiritual warfare, our earthly sparring partners are not the foe, but rather they are the battleground (and sometimes the casualties).

    Newman’s quote is a good reminder that not only the souls of our opponents are the battleground, but our souls are as well. When we sin ourselves in order to drag our opponents into sin, then we succeed only in delivering a victory to the Enemy of Mankind.

    The most awful thing is not that innocent children die. The most awful thing is that men and women kill them, and that other men and women hate those men and women.

  • Newp Ort

    Late term abortion is no more killing than knocking out a fertilized egg with a drug, but stabbing a 8 1/2 month fetus in the neck with scissors…it’s put in perspective very well by this post. Thanks, Mark.