David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death www.hourofourdeath.org and writes for many Catholic publications, including a weekly column for the Catholic Herald. He has been editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things.
It's one of Newman's most notorious lines, and a claim I for one wish were untrue: "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."
He adds, in illustration: "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."
St. John Henry Newman's claim strikes the modern ear as too categorical, too harsh. It does mine, anyway. Can't we trade a few lies to keep a child from dying of leukemia? Wouldn't you shoplift a few small things to deliver the world from Covid-19? Do we really believe that sin does that much damage? Isn't there a tradeoff, a middle point, a compromise?
Does it really matter? So much of Catholic speech speaks of mercy and comfort, and for good reason. The Church does bring the world good news, tidings of great joy, the only real answer to the world's suffering. We are continually told that God leaps to forgive and cleanse us—but not so often are we told the reasons we need to be forgiven and cleansed.
It matters. Newman says with typical clarity what Christianity teaches and few of us want to admit. We tend to feel our sins closer to mistakes than to rebellions. And even if mistakes, small ones, booboos, that don't hurt us much. Like putting too much sugar in the brownies, when our sins can be mistakes like drinking one beer too many and driving off the road into a tree.
Newman makes inescapable how stark the choice is. Sin destroys and even little sins alienate us from God and from others as well. We might admit this to ourselves or in church, when we can be safely pious, but not in public. It's the kind of absolutism that makes the church feel not only unworldly but inhuman. The saint said it anyway.
Newman Doubles Down
Newman first said this in his book Difficulties of Anglicans and repeated it in his autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua—doubling down, as we would say.
He wrote it in Difficulties to explain why "Catholic countries happen to be behind Protestants in civilization." Or "mere civilization," as he puts it (revealingly) a few sentences later.
He argues that the church does something else, infinitely higher, because she recognizes the reality of sin in a way the world doesn't. "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." Then comes the sentences I quoted at the beginning.
It's what the church is and does, he explains. "Such is the Church, O ye men of the world, and now you know her. Such she is, such she will be; and, though she aims at your good, it is in her own way,—and if you oppose her, she defies you. She has her mission, and do it she will, whether she be in rags, or in fine linen; whether with awkward or with refined carriage; whether by means of uncultivated intellects, or with the grace of accomplishments." She brings us many temporal blessings, but "she is sent to seek the lost; that is her first object, and she will fulfil it, whatever comes of it."
In his Apologia, Newman uses the words as part of his explanation of the church's infallibility. "First, the initial doctrine of the infallible teacher must be an emphatic protest against the existing state of mankind. Man had rebelled against his Maker. It was this that caused the divine interposition: and to proclaim it must be the first act of the divinely-accredited messenger. The Church must denounce rebellion as of all possible evils the greatest. She must have no terms with it; if she would be true to her Master, she must ban and anathematize it."
This is what he meant in his notorious statement, which he then repeats. He adds: "It is because of the intensity of the evil which has possession of mankind, that a suitable antagonist has been provided against it; and the initial act of that divinely-commissioned power is of course to deliver her challenge and to defy the enemy."
The Horror of Sin
Newman spoke in Difficulties and the Apologia starkly, without softening the message, or even trying to explain it. He offers a challenge and defiance, not a selling point.
The average apologist would never say something so off-putting. I can't think of a priest or bishop, or popular writer, even, who would say this, at least as starkly as did Newman. I can't think of a similar passage in Chesterton or Ronald Knox or even C. S. Lewis, as much as he wrote about Hell. They speak about sin in ways that will make us sinners uncomfortable, but they don't shock us the way Newman does. Newman, as far as I know uniquely among writers of his sort, forces us to see and respond to sin as a horror.
He does it for our good. He's not the Victorian stereotype, reveling in the world's wickedness. He was a man who knew his own sins and where his only hope was to be found. He didn't offer a selling point, he insisted on the diagnosis that tells us we need to buy, like the doctor who has to convince a man in denial that he's dying and needs the operation. He will only do what he needs to do if he knows the danger he's in.
"All teaching about duty and obedience, about attaining heaven, and about the office of Christ towards us," Newman says in one of his Parochial and Plain Sermons, "is hollow and unsubstantial, which is not built here, in the doctrine of our original corruption and helplessness; and, in consequence, of original guilt and sin. Christ Himself indeed is the foundation, but a broken, self-abased, self-renouncing heart is (as it were) the ground and soil in which the foundation must be laid; and it is but building on the sand to profess to believe in Christ, yet not to acknowledge that without Him we can do nothing."
He makes the connection with our salvation clear in another of the Parochial and Plain Sermons. We fear to come before the Lord, knowing our sins, yet, he reminds us, we do so every time we pray. In praying, we put ourselves before the One who knows exactly how sinful we are. Only the Lord "will care for me, or pity me, or have any kind thought of me. . . . I know He is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity; but I know again that He is All-merciful, and that He so sincerely desires my salvation that He has died for me. . . . 'If Thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it! But there is forgiveness with Thee.'"
 Newman, Diff, 241 and Apo, 246.