In an article in the Oct. 23 Globe and Mail about former Col. Russell Williams, “How a psychopath is made,” reporters Anne McIlroy and Erin Anderssen, write, “A growing number of (scientists) now see psychopathy as a neurodevelopmental disorder, one in which a combination of genetic and environmental factors, such as neglect or poor bonding with parents, lead to deficits in the brain. And if biology is to blame, can society hold the psychopath responsible?”
Only God can judge Williams’ moral responsibility for the cold-blooded murder of two women and his sexual assaults on others.
But Williams’ actions do fit another framework than that of a neurodevelopmental disorder. It is called the contagious effect of sin – how one sin leads the sinner to commit more serious sins, until he is caught in a downward spiral of growing impenitence.
Here is a man who broke into women’s houses and photographed himself wearing their undergarments. He progressed to violent sexual assaults on blindfolded women and then murdering those victims who discovered his identity. Williams’ downward spiral likely did not begin by his deciding out of the blue to start trying on women’s panties and brassieres. The full story likely began with lesser offences that grew into larger and larger ones.
It doesn’t matter if we know more details about this case. What we ought to know is that, if left unchecked, small sins gravitate to larger ones.
Adapting the reflections of St. Thomas Aquinas, contemporary moral theologian Germain Grisez describes four ways that venial sins lead to mortal sins. First, venial sins can supply new occasions for larger sins. By lying, for example, children can get to places with opportunities for grave sin; by acquiring wealth through dishonest means, adults can find greater scope for self-indulgence.
Second, enjoyment of a lesser sin may lead one to look for other sinful ways of heightening that pleasure. Perhaps Williams’ downward spiral fits in this category. Third, venial sins can put a person in a position where it is difficult to escape without committing a graver sin. A car crash caused by carelessness may tempt one to leave someone injured at the scene.
Fourth, small sins can lead one to establish goals that can be pursued by more serious sins. A desire for luxuries may tempt one to raise money through illicit means to buy those luxuries (Christian Moral Principles, 439-40).
Perhaps Williams’ crimes were the result of a neurodevelopmental disorder; perhaps they originated in minor sins that grew into major sins. If the latter, then he is not much different from the rest of us. It is easy to get trapped in the vortex of sin. We need to use all available means, especially the sacrament of Penance, to halt the expansion of our own sinfulness.