The Reality of Evil
Fourth Day of the Novena in Honour of St. Anne (St. Anne’s Church, Hamilton, Ontario)

Woe to those who plot evil, who lie in bed planning mischief

When I was 18 years old, I decided to hitchhike to Nashville, Tennessee. I was a bluegrass banjo player, and I figured Nashville was the place to be. That trip was the turning point in my life. I got a lift from a Catholic priest from the Archdiocese of Washington D. C., and it was his joy and love for the Eucharist that convinced me that I need to return to the Church of my childhood. That priest became my closest friend over the years. But on June 8th, 2000, he was brutally murdered. He didn’t show up to say Mass the following morning, and when his housekeeper went to look for him, she found him dead in his room, stabbed a number of times. It was front page news for weeks, and the anti-Catholic Washington Post never spoke more highly of a member of the clergy. He was a very beloved priest.

But I remember about a year after that reading an article about him, and in the article a forensic psychologist, a leading expert on the criminal mind, made a remark about his killer that caught my attention. So I ordered one of his books. His name is Dr. Stanton Samenow, and what is so interesting is that what he argues flies in the face of the conventional wisdom on the origin of true criminal behaviour. He shows that children are not hapless pieces of putty, shaped by their environment, but are rather active agents in the shaping of the environment in which they find themselves. Criminals are what they are as a result of their free and self-determined choices, and not as a result of a poor upbringing or bad environmental conditions, or biological factors. They are free agents.

It was early on in his career that Dr. Samenow discovered that he was being manipulated by the criminals he was interviewing during the course of his research, being fed the answers that the prisoners believed he wanted or expected to hear. It was this discovery that led to a complete paradigm shift in his thinking about the nature of criminal behaviour; in other words, he gave up the Freudianism on which he was nurtured.

He points out that for too long parents have been blamed for the criminal behaviour of their child. This has led to all sorts of undeserved suffering and feelings of guilt on the part of so many parents of criminal children. He writes: “Sociological explanations for crime, plausible as they may seem, are simplistic. If they were correct, we’d have far more criminals than we do. Criminals come from all kinds of families and neighbourhoods. Most poor people are law-abiding, and most kids from divorced parents are not delinquents. Children may bear the scars of neglect and deprivation for life, but most do not become criminals. The environment does have some effect. For instance, it can provide greater or fewer opportunities for crime to occur—greater or lesser deterrence. But people perceive and react to similar conditions of life very differently. A family may reside in a neighbourhood where gangs roam the streets and where drugs are as easy to come by as cigarettes. The father may have deserted and the mother may collect welfare. Yet not all the children in that family turn to crime. In suburbia, a family may be close emotionally and well off financially, but that is not enough to keep one of the youngsters from using drugs, stealing, and destroying property. In an area where firearms and drugs are readily available, most residents choose to use neither. The criminal seizes upon opportunities that others shun. More critical than the environment itself is how the individual chooses to respond to whatever the circumstances are.”

In his book Inside the Criminal Mind, he writes: “Despite a multitude of differences in their backgrounds and crime patterns, criminals are alike in one way: how they think. A gun-toting, uneducated criminal off the streets of Southeast Washington, D. C., and a crooked Georgetown business executive are extremely similar in their view of themselves and the world. …all regard the world as a chessboard over which they have total control, and they perceive people as pawns to be pushed around at will. Trust, love, loyalty, and teamwork are incompatible with their way of life. They scorn and exploit people who are kind, trusting, hardworking, and honest. Toward a few, they are sentimental but rarely considerate. Some of their most altruistic acts have sinister motives”.

What Samenow and other experts like him argue is more in accordance with the fundamental principles of the Judeo-Christian understanding of the human person. For we believe that the dignity of the human person is rooted in the fact that we have been created in the image and likeness of God, and this means in the image of knowledge and love. The human person has a mind and a heart, an intellect and will, unlike the brute animal whose knowledge is limited to sense perception and whose behaviour is determined by instinct and sense appetite. We don’t speak of the moral character or moral identity of brute animals. Human persons, on the other hand, have ‘character’, which is a moral identity. We determine ourselves to be a certain kind of person, which is our character, by the moral choices that we make.

People often confuse character with personality. We don’t really determine our personality. So many of our personality traits have been inherited and determined by our environment. But character is entirely ours. In fact, it is more intimately our own than anything else we might possess.

A person can have a lousy personality, but have great character. He can be dull, perhaps a bit cantankerous, but have the character of a saint, ready and willing to lay down his life for you in an instant. On the other hand, a person can have a very dynamic personality, but have depraved character. He could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In fact, the most depraved sociopaths usually have very charming personalities. The typical psychopath can make you feel like you are the most important person in the world at that moment, but in their mind, you have no intrinsic value. You are only valuable to the degree that you are useful to him; you have no more value in his eyes than a mosquito.

Most people are very deceived about evil. Most of us deny it, in fact. As a result of the influence of the Behaviourist school of psychology, a large percentage of the population tend to reduce it to something in the criminal that he has no control over, such as his own DNA, or environmental factors outside of his control. If that is the case, the free decision to commit evil does not exist. And thus, moral evil does not really exist.

I believe the reason why so many tend to deny the reality of evil is fear. If we can convince ourselves that evil is rooted in a person’s neural biochemistry or in environmental conditions, then it means there’s a possibility we can eventually control it, with an increase in social programs and thus higher taxes, or further scientific research, thus higher taxes to pay for increased funding.

Evil is frightening. But if the human person is a self-determining agent, which is what free will means, if he has a free will which cannot be compelled—since to compel a will that is free is a contradiction—, if the human person has the dignity of free will such that he is able to determine his eternal destiny by the use he makes of that free will, then evil is not something we can control, and that is a frightening prospect.

Now please keep in mind that I’m talking about the criminal mind, not mental illness. I minister to a number of patients who have killed people close to them, but who were found not criminally responsible, because they suffer from a mental illness—they had psychotic episodes. That’s very different from the criminal who is not mentally ill. To reduce criminal behaviour to mental illness is a mistake that is rooted in fear.

But divine revelation is very clear and unambiguous: “Woe to those who plot evil, who lie in bed planning mischief. No sooner is it dawn than they do it—their hands have the strength for it. Seizing the fields that they covet, they take over houses as well, owner and house they confiscate together, taking both man and inheritance.” Or consider today’s Psalm: “For the wicked man boasts of his heart’s desire; the covetous blasphemes and spurns the Lord. In his pride the wicked says: “He will not punish. There is no God’. Such are his thoughts. His mouth is full of cursing, guile, oppression, mischief and deceit under his tongue. He lies in wait among the reeds; the innocent he murders in secret.”

If evil is not real, then Christ’s victory is not real either; for Christ came to defeat evil. He came to defeat the Evil One and his Kingdom of Darkness. This was something man could not accomplish. And Christ defeated evil by allowing evil to have its way with him. He would enter into death in order to inject it with his eternal and divine life. He would allow himself to be defeated, in order that human failure could become a means of success—for it is only by acknowledging our own poverty and radical powerlessness that we discover the power of Christ.

It is true that those who love evil see the world as a giant chessboard and others as pawns in their own little game, but it is not possible to defeat God in a game of chess. The reason is that you cannot beat someone who knows every move you are going to make, and who has known it for all eternity. And God not only knows what move you are going to make, He is the absolutely First Cause of every movement in existence, of whatever kind. Nothing moves without God’s initial causality, even the movement of the will. The will cannot move unless God moves it. The mystery here is that God moves the will without determining it to this or that option. We do that on our own, and that’s the mystery of free will. But in order to determine myself to evil, I still depend on God’s First Existential Causality. And so, to return to my point, you cannot beat God in a game of chess if He knows from all eternity what move you are going to make, and if He is the First Cause of that movement. That’s a very consoling thought.

And so although the reality of evil, rooted in free will, is a frightening prospect, if we see it in the light of God’s providence, all fear vanishes. The victory has been won. God is so powerful that He defeated the evil one by dying, by allowing Himself to be defeated. That’s how powerful God is. He is unlimited power. He is omnipotent. It is up to us to decide what side of that chess game we want to play on: the winning side, or the losing side.

Although the victory has been won, the game is still being played. God loves a good game, especially chess. And what those who love evil fail to understand is that although everyone in their lives is their own personal pawn, to be used and exploited according to their whims, we are all God’s pawns in the larger game of His divine providence. It is immoral to use another as a means to an end, because human beings are created equal, and to use another is to violate that requirement that we treat others in a way that respects their status as equal in dignity to ourselves. The evil among us are absolute egoists; they have made themselves the very center of the universe, and everyone else is relegated to the periphery, to be valued only to the degree that they are useful. But God alone is the center of the universe, and most importantly, He is not our equal. So God does no injustice in using us as His pawns. In fact, to be used as His pawn is to acquire a greater dignity, just as the donkey that Christ rode in his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday acquired an inconceivably greater dignity as a result of being so used by Christ. God alone can use us without violating our dignity as free and intelligent creatures. Whatever free choices we make, He incorporates them into His providential plan, which ends in His victory.

Think of an orchestra. Imagine some rotten kid who wants to get in and spoil the harmony of the piece, so he grabs a stick and starts pounding on a drum, or takes symbols and clashes them together. Because God is eternal, all knowing, and omnipotent, He can take that pounding on a drum and that clashing symbol and arrange it, fit it in to its proper place so that it contributes to the overall harmony of the piece, enhancing the beauty of the whole composition.

God is outside of time. He is not subject to time. We can never put one over on God. He is prior to everything. No matter what those who belong to darkness choose to do, God is in control. The victory is His, it has already been won, and Christ said: “I have given you the power to tread upon serpents and scorpions and the full power of the enemy.” He has given us that power over evil by giving us the flesh and blood of his Son, that we might abide in him, to carry the cross that he gives us to carry, a cross by which you and I will defeat those in our lives who plot to destroy us. Amen.

Next Page: The Lord Dwells in Deserted Places
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