A Brief Catechesis on Mental Illness and Violence

The first written catechism of the Catholic Church, known as the Didache, and dated somewhere in the first century A.D., begins with a sentence of great clarity. It should be memorized: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.”

Discussions of the recent mass murders, first in Aurora, Colorado, and again in Milwaukee, Wisconsin confound us. Do these perpetrators simply not know they picked the wrong way? How could they not know? And if they knew it was the wrong way, how in the world can they will to do evil?

Our inner syllogism is a valid one. If a person a) doesn’t know that he is doing wrong, or b) knows he is doing wrong but wishes to do it anyway, then c) there is something wrong with his knowing. We expect the natural process of knowing to involve acting reasonably and willing a good outcome. Something seems to be disrupting the natural flow of things. That something must be either material, such as mental illness, or immaterial, such as demonic possession.

Committing the Error

But let’s back up. We already committed the error when we said that serious crime indicates something “broken” inside, that if not for the intrusion of a foreign thing (a demon or a chemical) this person would have remained pure, would have developed into a virtuous character. This is not true! The disturbing incidences present a good occasion for us to review basic Catholic anthropology. Who are we and why do we do the things we do?

In the Catholic faith, human nature is recognized as good. We are made in the image of God to possess, each of us, a rational intellect and a free will. Every Catholic must remember that these are immaterial powers that are separate from our brain, subsistent in the human soul. This is surprising to many of us, but it’s true. There is no “thing” inside the brain that we call intellect, just as there is no thing inside the stomach called a digestion. These respective processes are facilitated by physical systems like the cerebral cortex, or the stomach, but they are not coextensive with the physical.

To claim otherwise would be a category mistake, analogous to the teenager who after going on a tour of a university asks, “I saw a library, a registrar, a dorm, a cafeteria, and a bookstore, but where is the university?” The university is not just another “something” among the buildings. It is the integration, the organization, and the purpose of all of these buildings, the rules that bind them. Catholics know this. Some highly educated people don’t, as when they search for the gene that makes us believe in God or makes us altruistic. God is the author of the whole genome; it is thus irrational to conceptualize him as a part of the genome.

The Consequences for Mental Illness

A person can’t lack an intellect or will because these are not part of the body. They are powers of the soul and the soul is undivided. Does mental illness take away the intellect? No, it cannot. Does mental illness remove the will? No. Does demonic possession seize control of the intellect and will? No. Satan does not, and cannot possess the soul; only the material part of a person. Our intellects and our wills are sovereign gifts of God.

Aren’t handicapped children often born lacking intelligence? Be very careful here. I have focused in my career on working with people who suffer from profound intellectual and developmental disabilities. I can assure you, I have not encountered a single person in this community who lacks an intellect, or lacks a will.

These lovely children tell jokes. They use metaphors. They interpret novel situations and navigate them successfully. These are the signatures of intellect and will. People with mental disabilities can do things which mechanical robots — built by the smartest mathematicians and engineers in the world — cannot do. The problem solving of developmentally disabled children is done in a halting, tentative fashion, to be sure, just as the running of a person with a neuromuscular disease is halting and tentative. The intellect and will are present. The body does not fully cooperate.

So we are all born in the image of God with immaterial gifts of an intellect and a will. Nonetheless, we are born into human bodies possessing natural resources, strengths and weaknesses, including mental illnesses such as major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder. Our biological resources and our learning history do indeed cause us to develop faster or slower, to have an easier or a harder time.

The artist can only work with the raw material at hand. One can build a stronger bridge with steel than with wood, but both are bridges. What one lacks in strength, the other has in beauty. One can sculpt a life with both a high IQ and a low one. The latter requires an exceeding amount hard work and lots of do-overs, but both such lives are intelligent. Consequently, a person who suffers depression must work much harder to enjoy the consolations of life, just as the lucky ones who do not suffer depression have to work harder to know how to console others.

It seems unfair that we are born with such different lots in life.

The Leveling Factor: Our Human Nature

The Judeo-Christian tradition has always recognized a powerful leveling factor that far outweighs the natural variability among us. It is an article of faith that just as all men and women are born with both an intellectual soul, similarly all men and women are born with an inclination toward vice. We are more similar to one another in our proclivity to sin than we are different in biochemistry.

So we are born into a common human nature. By the Sacrament of Baptism, original sin is remitted, but the inclination to sin remains; that inclination is called concupiscence, the inclination toward error, through which we become inordinately attached to things of this world, to our own desires, to our narrow point of view. This is no surprise to any child psychologist.

The great Jean Piaget showed us that cognitive development radiates from the body outward. A child at first knows only from their ego-centric perspective. Every child first believes that everyone else sees the world literally from his own standpoint. Speak to a child on the phone, and smile as he asks, “Do you see the rabbit outside? See it?” As the child grows, he develops the ability to conceptualize a perspective outside his own. Here he comes to recognize other people as like himself, and he comes to recognize that others might appreciate being valued, loved, and respected.

A very few individuals reach the highest stage of knowing, being able to take the formal perspective, what philosopher Thomas Nagel aptly calls “the view from nowhere.” This is the ability to conceptualize the world from the most general aspect, from a God’s-eye perspective. It is the ability to take a hypothetical stance. This is a difficult stance which recognizes that one’s own suffering, the desire to give something away, to “offer it up” though personally painful, might serve the greater good of the community.

Still, not surprisingly, most individuals as adults remain in a strongly ego-centric perspective. Our intellect and will are itching to achieve great things, but we are bogged down by a perspective we find very difficult to shed. Church teachers have said that our fallen nature disposes us to four vices that contrast with the four corresponding cardinal virtues. In our fallen state we are disposed to ignorance, anger, fear, and desire. The opposing virtues are prudence, justice, courage, and self-control.

Our default state is ignorance, our task is prudence. Our default state is anger, our task is justice. Our default state is fear, our task is courage. Our default state is desire, our task is self-control.

So What Causes a Man to Commit Mass Murder?

We are finally in a position to put some of these pieces together and ask once again: What happened during those awful mass murders? The way of death and the way of life. I hope it’s obvious by now that I would caution that we don’t go from zero to possession, or zero to mental illness quite so fast. The way of death is mundane, it is commonplace. It is to succumb to the fallen nature that drags us down. It is to surrender to ignorance, anger, fear and desire.

According to Catholic teaching, to surrender to our inclination toward evil intensifies that very evil. Psychologists can vouch for the snowball effect observed in impulse control issues such as chronic anger, drug and alcohol abuse, or fear of  certain situations. There is a recognizable spiral directed by those self-fulfilling consequences. Successfully avoiding a feared situation reinforces our desire to avoid it, causing us to avoid it again. Breaking out of this spiral is one of the most difficult things a person can do.

At the spiritual level too, sin begets sin. There are stages of demonic influence, obsession (attacking a man’s body from without) and possession (assume control from within), but in the end, the demonic spirit can only seize control over us when preceded by a willing cooperation with evil. We welcome the personal habits that dispose us to evil. We say “yes” to them with our free will. The good news for every single person who suffers from mental illness or surrenders to spiraling vice, is that every human person has the power to say “no” to these choices too. The bad news is he can only say “no” right up to the moment of death where he is pulled into the pits of Hell.

Devolving into vice weakens the will and disposes us toward greater obsession with vice itself, disposing us to be seized by the spirit of evil itself. Thus, because very person has an intellect and a will, the person possessed by a demon has an indirect role in that possession when he fails to rise up to the life of virtue that he knows in his conscience is the life to which he is called.

Conceptualizing Mental Illness

Does mental illness make it harder to live this life of virtue? Of course it does. Does it cause mass murder? No, the person suffering from mental illness merely has a heavier load. Mental illnesses are biological and chemical disorders that impede the otherwise good and normal immaterial powers of the intellect and the will, in the same way that muscular dystrophy impedes one’s will to run fast. This is a significant conceptualization.

Conceptualizing mental illness in this way, I have long argued that Catholics must accept psychological treatment and medication as consistent with Church teaching, as humane interventions, as a corporal works mercy. Just as a prosthetic leg might help a man with a birth defect walk again, so too anti-depressants serve a prosthetic role in mitigating a barrier which causes us at times to be unable to think clearly, or to give in to despair.

What about the statistically normal among us? Do they have it easy? Consider the everyday evils, say, of texting while driving, or driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Consider the school bully who drives a child to suicide. These are normal people who failed to confront their natural proclivity toward laxness. I love the opening of the novel The Great Gatsby:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’

The irony, of course, is that protagonist Jay Gatsby had everything a man could want, and still managed to live a life of self-absorption.

In closing on a hopeful note, be reminded that the Catholic faith teaches us to develop the natural virtues daily and habitually, to strengthen our mind and our will to dispose us toward wisdom. The Catholic faith prepares us for supernatural grace which perfects our virtues in ways we could not do by ourselves. May we all keep striving in this vale of tears; may we resolve to be more merciful to the most vulnerable among us. With God’s grace, we will prevail.


Jeff McLeod has a PhD in quantitative psychology from the University of Minnesota where he studied under some of the brightest philosophical minds from the Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science. He is an adjunct professor of psychology in the graduate school at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. His full time job is that of a psychometrician and research statistician in the standardized testing industry. He comes from a very large Catholic family. He and his wife of 20 years are grateful for their two extremely talented boys.