Who’s to Blame for Human Depravity?

If ever you find yourself about to be eaten by an alligator, or sat upon by a hippopotamus, it is probably not a good idea to appeal to the better angels of their nature in hopes of securing your release.  In the first place, there are no better angels lurking about the animal world, nature never having gotten around to inscribing beasts with rational souls.  In the second place, they are behaving exactly as denizens of the jungle and swamp are supposed to behave, which is why your destiny may well be their dinner.  What else can one expect of creatures so utterly unlike us that neither the image nor the likeness of God will ever be found in them?

The light of reason illumines only creatures of sense and sensibility, to use the language of Jane Austen; so give it a good and brisk workout from time to time.  God intended the exercise to flood the mind with all that elevates us above the animals.  However cute the cocker spaniel, or cozy the koala bear, their hearts will never soar beyond the stars, nor respond with tender mercy to the anguished cries of the poor.  But our hearts may well be moved to do so.  Yes, and free to refuse as well.  And in that refusal we see unmistakable evidence of that terrifying compliment, citing a lapidary phrase out of C.S. Lewis, paid to us by a God who takes so seriously the freedom he confers that he is willing even to run the risk of men spitting in his eye.  If to be free is to have the capacity for making wise and virtuous choices, pursuant to an end far beyond mere appetite, it is at the same time the right to lose oneself in sin and damnation.

This is not a truth of peripheral importance to the Christian faith.  Of every man made by God, Lewis reminds us, we must say, This also is Thou: neither is this Thou.  What can that possibly mean but that man, even before his bearing the mark of Cain, bore the image and likeness of God.  And that the resemblance is not anything we can possibly erase; that even in choosing to go to hell, we shall carry the connection with us straight into the pit.  “Simple faith leaps to this fact with astonishing ease,” says Lewis.  “I once talked to a continental pastor who had seen Hitler, and had, by all human standards, good cause to hate him.  ‘What did he look like?’ I asked.  ‘Like all men,’ he replied.  ‘That is, like Christ.’”

Which brings me to the case of Ariel Castro, whose conviction last week for the kidnapping and abuse of three women held captive for ten years in his Cleveland home, will put him behind bars for the rest of his life, plus another thousand years thrown in for good measure.  Followed by, who knows, perhaps an eternity in hell.  So is he no better than a beast?  A wild animal for whom the sufferings of three helpless human beings meant nothing at all?   For he appears to have taken obscene and protracted pleasure in such pain and humiliation as he was able to inflict over and over again.

“These people are trying to paint me as a monster,” he complained after a trial at which no end of evidence was found to suggest something along those very lines.  “I’m not a monster.  I’m sick.  My sexual problem,” he told the world, “it’s so bad on my mind.”

And yet he would insist on the essential normality of his life.  Despite high levels of porn, endless masturbatory fantasies, escalating violence and rape, Castro refused to see himself as other than “a happy person inside,” whose home environment could hardly have been more harmonious.  A regular churchgoer, his neighbors tell us.   As for the sex he forced upon them, that too turns out to have been a hoax.  “Most of the sex that went on in the house,” he explained, “and probably all of it, was consensual.”

Where does one begin to parse the depraved state of such a man?  Well, for starters, by not calling him a beast or a monster.  But a man whose plunge into the depths of savagery reminds us of those standards of right and wrong, decency and compassion, that apply equally to every human being on the planet.   No sentient creature is exempt from the constitution of being.  Because, once again, even the most wicked among us are made in God’s image.  Redeemed, too, by the Blood of the Lamb.  Strip all that away, removing the very template of the Godhead graven into the soul of everyman, and you have no reason to complain of its defilement.  Once you pull the rug out from under any standard of moral judgment applicable to all, the ground beneath gives way and, all at once, you find yourself powerless to condemn the excesses of evil and despicable men.  The reason we do not curse the animals when they kill us is because they are not accountable for their atrocities.  In fact, they haven’t committed any.

“We talk of wild animals,” writes Chesterton in his wise and inimitable way; “but man is the only wild animal.  It is man that has broken out.  All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability of the tribe or type.  All other animals are domestic animals; man alone is ever undomestic, either as a profligate or a monk … it is exactly where biology leaves off that all religion begins.”

So where do we locate the problem of evil?  Is there anyone out there truly responsible for the evil that leaves mis-shapen the moral universe?  Whose train wreck is this?  Will the profligate ones please step forward?  A civilized people mustn’t be held hostage to those who prefer killing other people to the observance of the moral law.  What, after all, is the root meaning of religion—re-ligare—but that one’s life be bound back to a point of origin beyond the self.  Uproot that principle and what you are left with is the triumph of the imperial self, the self-centered-self, what Cardinal Newman called “the outlaw conscience,” whose exercise enables one to spread carnage and chaos everywhere.

Do we really want to provide a pass allowing the bad guys to avoid having to face the consequences of the evil they do?  Of course not.  But only if we begin by locating the problem squarely before the twisted minds and wills of those who do evil, whose deeds of darkness only the most abject moral idiot would seek to mitigate or deny.  It is the only tenable position one can take when confronted with evil.  Whether on a colossal scale  (Adolph Hitler, for instance, our all-time favorite hobgoblin); or in the case of Mr. Castro, whose wickedness, while hideous in every way, was at least confined to a single dwelling in Cleveland, Ohio.

The origin of evil, therefore, is to be found in the resolution of those who seem determined on doing ill to others, or to themselves, or to God.  And it is the only sustainable position one can take.  Why?  Because, as Chesterton tells us, “in referring evil back to the wrong use of the will, it declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will.  Every other creed except that one is some form of surrender to fate.”  And were we to fall into the trap of nobody taking blame for anything, we would once more find ourselves in a pre-Christian world, where dark and chthonic forces hold sway.  Where the only mantra that matters is the exculpatory cry—The devil made me do it!   Yet only he would be the winner in such a world.  Nor would it be a victory that any one of us would care to celebrate.   

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

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  • Steven Jonathan

    Ariel Castro and Jerry Sandusky both find themselves “victims” of their “sexual problems.” Modernity has been in divorce proceedings from that unbearable complement from God “free will” for generations. The furies are judging this one and the people are likely to win. No longer are depraved humans responsible for their choices, there are other culprits, the universities and public schools are expert witnesses that testify on behalf of depraved humanity that denies free will, the human soul and the doctrine of the fall.

  • poetcomic1

    This degraded wretch evil? I wouldn’t presume to judge. THIS is what evil looks like:. Google: “bishops dancing”.

  • Alecto

    All too true, but the miracle is the resilience and courage shown by his victims. Those women are a testament to the strength and nobility of the human spirit. I hope someday he is able to acknowledge his evil acts and repent for them. I hope the entire industry which conceives these monsters (yes, they’re monsters) is obliterated. Let us pray.

  • DonnaRuth

    What a fine, thoughtful essay! What is troubling in relationships with others is that one can be conversing with a thoroughly likeable, intelligent, responsible acquaintance or neighbour, but when the conversation comes around to hot-topic morality and/or faith issues, this person reveals him/herself to have abandoned logic, reason and sensibility. As the conversation progresses, it becomes more apparent that Christian logic is lost on this soul. We try to remind ourselves we are looking at the face of Christ, made in the image and likeness of God; at the same time, we are puzzled this person and so many others (who have been baptized) are not responding to the love and grace God showers on them. We are not to walk away from these conversations, as they are potential moments for seed planting, but as time goes by, it seems to me that there is a greater need for Catholics to soak the ground with intense, committed intercessory prayer and fasting.

    • slainte

      The Rosary, in particular, is a very powerful prayer as Our Blessed Mother seeks to lead all to her Son especially those who are lost and confused.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Ariel Castro is directly the result of the American Catholic Church suppressing Humanae Vitae.

    • John200

      Dear Ted,

      You may vent your frustration with the American CC, the American bishops in particular, and I will join you. They advance disgraceful propositions and resist the simple, time tested, orthodox beliefs of the faithful whom they are supposed to lead. I am with you on all that.

      But Ariel Castro is not the direct result of anything that has to do with this Church. The causal chain is much longer than proposed, and has multiple branches. The first cause is an opponent of God’s Church, one who started life as an angel, one who hates the Church, and who hopes it falls to pieces so he can scoop up the pieces.

      You and I would be the pieces if he were to succeed.

      • Alecto

        And to that I would add, Castro circa 2013 is a direct result of the choices made by Castro circa 1968-2012.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          And THOSE choices, were influenced by a significant lack of preaching on the topic of the mortal sin of lust in general.

  • Coffie

    Thank you, Dr. Martin … wonderful article. The horrific Castro crimes exemplify the evil consequence of addiction; in this case sexual addiction but true of others as well. The addict’s brain literally loses capacity to reason if the addiction is allowed to progress without correction. That’s why addiction is the devil’s favorite means of destroying souls. Once a person’s reason is completely removed, which is always the case in advanced stages of the the addictive process, all hell breaks loose. What is frightening in today’s secular culture of death and sex is that the same addiction that turned a sad, lonely, sick man into an insatiable sociopathic monster of sorts, is being regularly offered to young and old alike through the hedonistic air waves of TV, film, radio and internet viewing and listening, and the glossy pages of movie star porn on a daily basis.

  • Adam__Baum

    As bad as this case is, it is notable only in its spectacularity. It’s heartening only that this has met with universal indignation and disgust, unlike the mass slaughter of innocents, which occurs on a daily basis, with not only practiced indifference, but boisterous advocation.

    We should not think it unique. Young women are not only held captive for the gratification of monsters, but bought and sold for such purposes away from the attentions of electronic media, in seedy and foul parts of the world.

    Of course it’s not always involuntary. Does Kim Kardashian ring a bell?

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  • Marie Dean

    Superb article and love the GK quotations. Put this link on my blog. The denial of personal responsibility has been lost because of relativism and the denial of natural law..Thank you.

  • vma

    Perhaps Professor Martin would write an article about how mental illness comes into all these horrible crimes, if he knows. Does evil, freely chosen, lead to mental illness, the other way around? Are the mentally ill no more responsible than animals that do harm? I’d so appreciate some solid direction in this regard as the “line” seems to be so easily blurred.