In October 2015, a young man opened fire on faculty and students at Umpqua Community College, just an hour south of my home in western Oregon.
After shooting and killing nine people and injuring several more, the assailant took his own life. How can or should we think about such acts of evil? I use the word “think” deliberately, because while the emotions of anger and anguish are natural and understandable, it is not easy to reflect on such horrific acts. Following the shootings, I had a discussion with some Catholics who expressed how difficult it was to talk to young people about what had happened in Roseburg, Ore. “They want to know why a good God would allow this to happen,” said one of them. “They are upset that God didn’t stop it from happening.” We can begin by acknowledging, as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the difficulty of the question, “Why does evil exist?”, and agreeing that “no quick answer will suffice” (No. 309).
But we must also insist that the mystery of evil cannot ever be explained through merely mechanistic analysis or by invoking medicinal formulas. In fact, such supposedly “scientific” approaches provide little insight and even less hope. Even in the case of mental illness — a sometimes hazy and unsatisfying term — there is the reality of the Fall and the damage done to one’s heart, mind and soul. There is also the distorted, twisted paths man can choose, if he so desires.
Each of us has a natural desire to be known, acknowledged and loved. This, too, can lead down dark paths, warped into the desire to be feared, powerful and in control of life and death. The latter is key, for anyone who freely takes an innocent life is also spurning God, the author and giver of life. We must ask: “What is free will? Is it a good thing?” Having free will means that we, as rational and moral creatures, can make decisions and act upon them. We instinctively know this is a good thing. But why? Well, if we cannot think or act freely, we are not truly human; we would be lacking in an essential way. Even in a culture increasingly detached from a Christian anthropology people believe personal freedom is a great good. As Christians we believe, “Endowed with a spiritual soul, with intellect and with free will, the human person is from his very conception ordered to God and destined for eternal beatitude” (Catechism, No. 1711).
Related questions follow: “What are good and evil? And how do we know?” Some atheists argue God cannot exist because God would not allow evil things to happen to good people. But why do they assume there are things such as “good” or “evil” when they believe the world and everything in it is the result of a mechanistic accident and humans are simply accidents, without a Creator or a transcendent end? Evil is the privation of a good. “A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together,” states the Catechism. “An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself” (No. 1755). “A thing essentially evil cannot exist,” argued St. Thomas Aquinas. “The foundation of evil is always a good subject.”
We recognize that evil results from man seeking a good through disordered, selfish and unjust means. We have a desire to be accepted, but hurting others because they haven’t accepted us is wrong. The statement by Aquinas might startle us, but only because we fail to comprehend that evil is the warping of the good.
If God forced us to do only good, would He be God? Would we truly be “good”? No, of course not. Since God is love — free and total gift of self — He does not coerce. We really are free to reject both Him and authentic love. Which means we are free to pursue goods in a way that is unjust and unloving. When man rejects God, man also rejects man. That is what we saw in the horrible actions in Roseburg.
The mystery of evil is daunting, but “there is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil” (Catechism, No. 309).