Sandy Hook and Evil
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
January 2013

Human persons are rational creatures. Our ability to reason is one of the gifts of God that makes us created in His image. We are problem solvers.

Our capacity to solve, however, is limited by our fallen state. We cannot create a perfect society. Ultimately, the questions raised by the Newtown shooting are theological because they concern the existence of evil in our world. Even if we might find answers through Revelation, we are incapable of creating a solution that eliminates all evil.

Recognizing this truth does not mean that we should resign to evil and never try to create a more just and peaceful world. God made us problem solvers for a reason. The appropriate response of a Christian lies between resignation and hubris. We are obligated to work for what a better society while recognizing our limits as human persons.

These are important lessons to remember when addressing any issue, but they are particularly crucial when responding to events as shocking as the killings in Newtown, Connecticut.

Proposals to prevent similar incidents in the future have ranged from decreasing access to guns to increasing the presence of guns in schools, from reforming our mental health care system to putting prayer back in public schools. Some of the proposals might crop up during the North Dakota legislative session. Others are certain to appear in the U.S. Congress.

Before looking at some of these proposals, we should get a few things straight. What Adam Lanza did at Sandy Hook Elementary was evil. It cannot be explained away as solely the consequence of biology, psychology, economics, family situations, or laws. At the same time, Adam Lanza himself was not evil. A person’s act can be evil even if the person is not.

By most accounts, Adam Lanza suffered from a mental illness, which was the case for the perpetrators in most of the recent mass shootings. He might have lacked the mental capacity to fully appreciate what he was doing. Only God will know the truth. What we do know is that mental illness distorts a person’s sense of reality and impairs their cognitive abilities.

For that reason we should exercise caution when trying to find a grand cause for Lanza’s actions. Yes, we live in a culture of death where killing children by abortion has become acceptable by many. Yes, our schools and public places have been forcibly secularized. We should not, however, be so bold to claim that these trends directly caused the killings in Newtown. Such claims rest on the assumption that Lanza acted rationally, which we know is unlikely. Putting prayer in public schools and respecting unborn human life may help create a better society but, short of knowing the will of God in His providence, we cannot say they would have stopped Adam Lanza.

So what can we, as humans, do to try to prevent another such incident? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, drawing on statements by the Vatican and its own past positions, has called for legislators to:

1. Support measures that control the sale and use of firearms;
2. Support measures that make guns safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children and anyone other than the owner);
3. Call for sensible regulations of handguns;
4. Support legislative efforts that seek to protect society from the violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons including assault weapons;
5. Make a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime.

The proposals concerning guns are controversial and differences in regional and cultural attitudes toward guns will make federal legislation difficult to achieve.

Confronting mental illness should be less controversial. A serious commitment, however, will require insurance reform, changes in attitudes, better government services, and striking a balance between those who fight all forms of civil commitments and those who would use institutionalization as a solution to problems that could be better addressed in community settings.

Let’s hope that serious attention is given to improving our attitudes, policies, and options when it comes to caring for those with mental health needs. As the bishops wrote in their response to the Newtown shootings: “There is no shame in seeking help for oneself or others; the only shame is in refusing to provide care and support.”