You would think calling a psychotic gangland death cult that brutally rapes women and mutilates bodies "animals" would not be very controversial. But Trump derangement can make people do quite strange things.
Much of the media (including big-timers like MSNBC and the New York Times) falsely reported that Trump's remark about MS-13 referred to "undocumented immigrants" in general and people (some disingenuously, some in actual ignorance) reacted emotionally and hysterically, with the typical denunciations and cries of "SHAME!" that usually accompany Trump saying things. Once they were called out for their lies and the record was set straight, the leftist penchant for always doubling down made for some spectacular displays of self-wreckage.
Bluechecks from sea to shining sea began to make the pedantic point that "actually, even MS-13 are still humans, not animals." Many Democrat politicos joined the chorus. Some jesuitical (and actual Jesuit) Christians also declared the innate dignity of every human being, even the most sinful, and accused Trump of heresy. Many strict atheists and evolutionists suddenly forgot they believe humans are quite literally nothing but animals, and became true believers in the "divine spark" that animates each individual human. "Dehumanizing immigrants is very bad but if Trump didn't do that, well, dehumanizing psycho-killers is also bad, ok!?" The prospect of Democrats running on a 2018 platform that includes sympathy for MS-13 as a major plank had Republicans across the country salivating.
The supposed theological owns were the most insufferable and, ironically, the most indefensible to come out of the fracas. Fr. James Martin, SJ, offers up the prototype response:
Fr. Martin has himself a christological conundrum on his hands, however. Christ himself, on various occasions, referred to certain humans as "dogs" (Matt. 15:27), "swine" (Matt. 7:6), and "snakes/vipers" (Matt. 23:33). So if it were true that it's a sin to call anyone animals, as the good Jesuit claims, Christ would have sinned—which is, of course, a blasphemous claim.
But the case is worse for Martin and the masses of liberals making the same argument. Not only did Christ use such metaphors and rhetoric on occasion in order to make a point, it is absolutely a fundamental teaching of the Church that the Fall (and subsequent sinning) increases humanity's kinship with irrational beasts; the passions drag us down from the spiritual realm to the material and bestial plain. All humans are in this condition, of course, and are in some sense beastlike in our sinful behaviors, but some are more mired in it than others. This is why the prodigal son of the parable goes and wallows with swine in slop: this is an image of the degradation he has brought on himself through sin, making himself like a brute beast, seeking only the gratification of base passions (eat, sleep, sex).
St. Maximos the Confessor, in his humility, uses some striking animal metaphors and language reminiscent of the prodigal's wallowing to describe his own sins: "to say nothing of myself, who slithers upon the ground like another serpent, in accordance with the ancient curse, feeding on the earth of my passions, and wriggling about like a worm in the rot of bodily pleasures."1
It's completely theologically sound to refer to the practitioners of some especially heinous sins—lots of murder, raping, and bodily mutilation fits the bill, I would think—as animals. This is precisely what they are making of themselves. It is, of course, also true that they haven't literally destroyed their humanity completely (the possibility of redemption for even the worst sinners and criminals is obviously a core tenet of Christianity), but the use of this language and metaphysical framework to describe the condition of fallen and sinful man is found all over the place in the Christian tradition, both in Scripture (2 Peter 2:12; Psalm 73:22) and the Church fathers.
St. Athanasius, for instance, in his On the Incarnation of the Word, states that in the Fall man became "brutalized" and "led astray by demoniacal deceit" and asks rhetorically, "what was the use of man having been originally made in God's image? For it had been better for him to have been made simply like a brute animal, than, once made rational, for him to live the life of the brutes."2 Without the redemption wrought by Christ in the Incarnation, in other words, the Fall makes man worse than an animal.
Commenting on Psalm 140:1-3 (in which the evil man is likened to a "serpent" with "the poison of asps under his lips"), St. John Chrysostom says "Sacred Scripture assigns the names of wild beasts to human beings, rational creatures that they should be, in the event of their lapsing into evil and falling prey to irrational passions."3 Wow, Sacred Scripture, just wow, don't you know about the innate dignity of every human being??
Dehumanization is indeed a bad thing. But sin is what dehumanizes, not noticing sin and pointing it out. The dehumanizing agent, in this case, is MS-13 themselves and yes, they absolutely should cease their own dehumanization. Trump and all sane people, on the other hand, should continue noticing it and pointing it out.
As a society in decline, becoming ever more progressively driven by our sinful passions and desires, we are becoming more bestial. Given this fact, the trend of veritable pet-worship—a new golden calf—prominent especially in some of the more decadent parts of the country, can be understood not as the proper care and respect humans are called to show to animals, but as a felt kinship with them and a corresponding alienation from other humans. This can also be seen in very aggressive forms of veganism and its proliferation (not simply opposing the conditions of factory farming or legitimate mistreatment of animals, which are often quite bad). I'm sure we all know people who are livid about whale-hunters and Sea World caging orcas, but rather indifferent about abortion and other human atrocities. As society becomes more atomized, as children become more despised, we create ever more cat-ladies and pit-mommies, with the devoted owners taking on the characteristics of their pets: human-indifferent aloofness and human-devouring viciousness, respectively.
In a secular, worldly, scientistic, and materialistic culture, it's hard to see what is so bad about being called an animal in the first place, though. It's a simple truth, not only for MS-13, but for everyone else. Watching the frenetic ping-ponging between narratives—where one second man is a lofty and set apart special creation, and the next nothing more than a slightly smarter chimp—is enough to give a cracka whiplash.
It's only Christianity that credibly declares the fundamentally mixed constitution of man in our present state: created in the image and likeness of God, as the priestly mediator between heaven and earth, and called to eternal glory, on the one hand, yet fallen and wretched, capable of great evils and utterly wicked apart from our cooperation with grace. And in this latter capacity, worse than beasts in that we will our own degradation whereas they merely act according to their nature. Each reality exists to varying degrees in each human, and each can be amplified or degraded, according to the activity of the will as it responds (or doesn't) to grace. This is the Christian teaching, not that all men are naturally angelic and have no affiliation with the irrational beasts whatsoever. Rather than their usual immanentizing of the eschaton, progressives are attempting to immanentize the Garden for a change.
As our unstable, schizophrenic, liberal-empiricist culture tries to decide whether man is an angel or an ape, Christianity steps in with the solution: men can become more like God (and thus become more truly man as he was created to be), or we can become more like beasts, and even worse—more like demons.
St. Maximos the Confessor, trans. Fr. Maximos Constas, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Response to Thalassios, p. 74. ↩
St. Athanasius the Great, On the Incarnation of the Logos, ch. 13. ↩
St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Psalms, Wesselschmidt, Q. F. (Ed.). (2007). Psalms 51–150 (p. 391). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. ↩