The Personalist Project

A propos of more than one of our on-going discussions, friend Scott Johnston points me to this archived Touchstone article by Leon Podles, author of a more-than-sobering book about the clerical sex abuse scandal. Podles argues that common distortions of Catholic teachings have led to a general misunderstanding of anger and its right uses in the moral life—a problem that came to head in the scandal but extends well beyond it.

Mark Serrano confronted Bishop Frank Rodimer, asking why he had let his priest-friend Peter Osinski sleep with boys at Rodimer’s beach house while Rodimer was in the next bedroom: “Where is your moral indignation?”

Rodimer’s answer was, “Then I don’t get it. What do you want?” What Serrano wanted Rodimer to do was to behave like a man with a heart, a heart that is outraged by evil. But Rodimer couldn’t; his inability to feel outrage was a quality that had helped make him a bishop. He would never get into fights, never rock the boat, never “divide” but only “unify.” Rodimer could not understand why he should feel deep anger at evil, at the violation of the innocent, at the oppression of the weak.

Podles goes on to show that this anger deficit is at serious odds with the views of great Catholic theologians and moral philosophers:

Wrath is a necessary and positive part of human nature: “Wrath is the strength to attack the repugnant; the power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul,” wrote Josef Pieper. The lack of wrath against injustice, he continued, is a deficiency: “One who does good with passion is more praiseworthy than one who is ‘not entirely’ afire for the good, even to the forces of the sensual realm.”

Aquinas, too, says that “lack of the passion of anger is also a vice” because a man who truly and forcefully rejects evil will be angry at it. The lack of anger makes the movement of the will against evil “lacking or weak.” He quotes John Chrysostom: “He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but the good to do wrong.”

My sense and sympathies are generally with Podles here.
I think it’s undeniably true that we Christians are taught to feel guilty about our anger and to suppress it to a fault—to the serious detriment of ourselves and our communion. The idea that anger is bad and negative—a sign of moral weakness and lack of virtue—is so strong and widespread that many Christians feel justified in dismissing the claims and testimony of anyone who expresses anger on the grounds of that anger alone. Rather than attending to what the other is saying and asking the question whether it is true, we shake our heads in sorrow over his lamentable “anger issues”. I have seen it again and again, including from prominent Catholic leaders.

But I cannot go as far as Conrad Baars—the great Catholic psychologist also cited by Podles—when he claims that feelings are “outside the realm of morality and guilt” (cf. Born Only Once, p.97). It seems to me rather that a right integration of anger into the moral life will involve not just discernment about what to do with my feelings, but about whether or not those feelings are justified by and proportionate with the moral reality before me. If they are not justified and proportionate, they are blame-worthy—something to apologize for and correct.

Comments (4)

Teresa Manidis

#1, Oct 12, 2009 12:33pm

“He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but the good to do wrong.”

Insights like these show St. John Chrysostom to be the enormous Father of the Church that he was, and are as applicable today as they were back in the year 400.
The lack of horror, the lack of repugnance, indeed, the lack of wrath exhibited by Bishop Rodimer is this axiom fleshed out in real life, an ‘unreasonable patience’ taken to its extreme but logical conclusion; here you have a clergyman, probably at one point a holy man, a good man, at least - doing nothing in the face of blatant evil.  And maybe he became that way gradually, bit by bit, piecemeal, making concessions, ‘selling out’ slowly over time - but he became that way, nonetheless, so much so, in fact, that, after so many years of compromise, perhaps (and it’s terrifying even to think it, but perhaps) he honestly meant it when he said he didn’t understand, ‘What do you want?’, for he had grown that accustomed to acquiescing, to surrendering, to being submissive in the face of sin. 

It brings to mind those words attributed to Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Oct 13, 2009 6:43am

I was just reminded of this passage in Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics):

The person who is angry at the right things and towards the right people, and also in the right way, at the right time, and for the right length of time, is praised … The deficiency—a sort of inirascibility or whatever it is—is blamed, since people who are not angered by the right things, or in the right way, or at te right times, or towards the right people, all seem to be foolish For such a person seems to be insensible and to feel no pain. Since he is not angered, he does not seem to be the sort to defend himself; and such willingness to accept insults to oneself and to overlook insults to one’s family and friends is slavish.

Scott Johnston

#3, Oct 14, 2009 1:10am

Katie, I agree exactly with your modification of Baars.

Some here may be interested also in a blog post by an Orthodox priest (who writes a blog popular among the Orthodox, Glory to God for All Things) in response to this same article of Podles.

He is critical of the idea of “Good Anger” in practice, while not denying its possibility in theory. I made a few comments a ways down toward the bottom of the lengthy discussion thread.

The major issue from Fr. Stephen’s point of view is that it seems in today’s world no one engages anger without sin. He stresses charity and meekness and kindness. He even says that he sees plenty of anger at work among the clergy—but never the good sort. So, he seems to imply that we should seek to avoid anger at all costs because we don’t seem able to exercise it without serious sin being enmeshed with it.

I think he has a point to some extent, but he goes too far and essentially throws the baby out with the bathwater.

I tried to make the point in my comments on the thread that simply because a human passion is often used wrongly in a given culture is not a reason to do away with it altogether. And then I made an analogy to chastity. Just because sexual attraction is so often allowed to degrade into lust is no reason to give up hope altogether on any pure and righteous use of eros. Throwing out eros altogether would be an overreaction that actually denigrates human dignity and diminishes human life and culture. Similarly, throwing out anger altogether cuts something out of human society that is needed in a fallen world. We should have the confidence in the possibility of grace purifying and transforming the human soul in such a way that anger might be used in a good way.

The way in which Fr. Stephen speaks of anger brings up another related issue. Does one need to be at a great height of sanctity before certain virtues can even begin to be practiced? It seems to me that Father believes something like this. That there are some virtues so difficult and fraught with danger, so easily and quickly and with such accelerating force pouring over into terrible sin, that only if one has tremendous sanctity should you even attempt to exercise some virtues (such as righteous anger).

While there is a grain of truth to this, I believe such attitudes are too cautious. Perhaps I say this only because I am not holy. But at least in my present state, it seems to me that one can begin to practice even dangerous virtues with caution and careful examination after-the-fact. We often act with mixed motives that are not yet pure. But, is it possible ever to attain the ability to act with something near to complete purity except by trodding a path of gradually increasing the proportion of perfection to imperfection?

So, for example, with anger. Perhaps, with prayer and openness to grace, and accountability to others, we might on one occasion (where good anger would be appropriate) act with 60% pure and 40% impure motives. Then on another occasion with 80% pure and 20 impure, and so on. Over time with frequent self-examination and confession, in the context of a prayerful life and a life close to the Eucharist, one might be able to control and restrain inappropriate or selfish or spiteful anger, while also growing in ability to marshal righteous anger when it is called for.

It doesn’t seem to me to be the way the spiritual life works that as a person is perfected by Christ that some few especially passion-filled virtues must be placed into a locked box for a long duration and not touched at all until some particular plateau of grace is reached, and then at such point it is unlocked and those especially dangerous virtues engaged.

This being said, I do think that particular individuals because of their own personal histories of having long twisted certain passions in themselves (e.g. anger or eros) do have to tread especially cautiously with these passions as they open themselves up to being healed and redeemed by Christ. Prudence here is very important.

But it seems to me there would be a difference between my approach and Fr. Stephen’s in this, in that I would allow that souls formerly wounded in regard to their use of a certain emotion may carefully, under grace, perhaps after some time of a cleansing fast from such, with the help of other prudent and wise persons, gradually and carefully re-appropriate the use of this passion back into their lives at some point before they have reached a Mother Theresa level of sanctity.

I’m not sure, but is the above contrast kind of like the following difference? Consider training for the high jump. One approach sets the bar high and then trains without using the bar until one day you just try to attack and conquer it at its high mark. The other approach sets the bar low, and gradually raises it as you continue to jump, working up your ability as you raise the bar until one day you can jump it at the highest point. Which approach is more in keeping with the reality of human nature, including the development of spiritual strength?

And perhaps I could stretch this analogy further with benefit. Some people are gifted by a combination of physical make-up and mental attitude to be able to reach elite high-jump status with the right training. Others will never be anything close to Olympic high-jumpers. But, everyone could learn to jump higher than they can today with training and effort over time.

I do not intend by this to reduce the spiritual life to mere human effort; not at all. Only with grace can we even begin to exercise supernatural virtues, much less grow in them. But nonetheless, our real human cooperation over time is a necessary component. And this human side of the interplay of nature and grace as a soul increases in supernatural virtue is not entirely unlike the training of an athlete. (Indeed, ancient Christian saints used the idea of an athlete in training fairly commonly. Some of the early Dominicans spoke of being “athletes” for Christ.)

How does each person find that delicate point at which, for him, one may begin to emerge from a prudential period of primarily drawing back from the use of a certain passion, to a period of cautious re-engagement of it under a new dispensation of beginning to live as a new man—a soul continuing to be healed and transformed by grace, humbled, yet not without hope of what is possible in Christ?

Scott Johnston

#4, Oct 14, 2009 2:28am

it seems to me that one can begin to practice even dangerous virtues with caution and careful examination after-the-fact. We often act with mixed motives that are not yet pure. But, is it possible ever to attain the ability to act with something near to complete purity except by trodding a path of gradually increasing the proportion of perfection to imperfection?

As I mull over my words here I find myself questioning myself: is anger perhaps in a special category in this regard? Are there some people, because of an especially bad personal history with sinful anger, who can only go so far in trying to exercise anger in a good way, and thus for the sake of their souls must stay away from it altogether whenever possible? I’m open to this possibility.

Perhaps it is the case that while some souls have a gift to be able to use righteous anger in a pure way, others, for various particular reasons, have to shy away? Maybe righteous anger is meant for some and not for others to put into practice? Is this a crazy notion? For example, I do think it may be true that by disposition there are some men who would never make a good military general (who would otherwise be qualified) because they could not restrain themselves from a kind of rage against an enemy in the heat of battle that would render their use of reason compromised. There are other men who perhaps have a sort of vocation to such a thing—an ability to be calm in the heat of battle even while possessing a great capacity for righteous anger to be expressed at the same time, giving them both clarity of thought and tremendous energy in the chaos of battle. I do think while such things can be increased, there are limits to how far natural gifts of this sort can be improved by training. Perhaps there are some few with greater potential for using righteous anger without sin, who thus have a vocation to leadership positions where they might exercise such gifts for the common good of their community.

And this, in turn, brings up for me another related and important topic: the close relationship between natural and supernatural virtues and between the growth of natural and supernatural virtues.

As I studied virtue (natural and supernatural) at the Dominican House in moral theology classes, one of the things that was very intriguing and clarifying to me was learning something about how St. Thomas understands the relationship between these two basic categories of virtue.

An overly simplistic view (and not correct according to St. Thomas)—one that I think is often a default sort of understanding for many Catholics—is that natural virtue gets you to a certain point. Then, supernatural virtue takes over and from that point on it is supernature “building” upon nature (i.e. “grace building upon nature”). Sort of like laying bricks to construct a wall. The first ten rows, say, are brown, and represent natural virtue. Then, rows 11 and higher are red, and represent supernatural virtue. The latter continues building upward, taking up where the other left off. Or, like a relay race where one racer (natural virtue) hands off the baton to the next racer (supernatural virtue). The transition from one to the other is such that there is a clean demarcation line in between—a nice, neat borderline between them. One hands off to the other in a way that you can point to it and say, “there is where one ended and the other began.”

Wrong—according to Aquinas. This is not how it really works. Grace comes in and infuses, permeates, transforms, what is already there in natural virtue. They continue on together, intertwined and enmeshed one into the other. One Dominican professor liked to use the analogy of food coloring. You have a container of water. Then you add a single drop of coloring (i.e. grace). The water does not become something else. Yet, it is permeated throughout by the color as it spreads through all the water in the container. However, when you look at it, you cannot observe a clean demarcation or break between the water (i.e. nature) and the coloring (i.e. grace). They are completely intermingled once the grace has been introduced and just a little bit of stirring taken place. Now, the grace might be a little or a lot (or gradually more over time). But the point is that the nature and the grace are very closely allied to each other and ought not be thought of in a compartmentalized way.

The amount of water might be analogous to the amount of natural virtue. The natural and supernatural virtue are closely related, while still being of a totally different nature—yet not clearly distinguishable once they have been brought together.

An example. Let’s take courage (as the natural virtue) and fortitude (as its supernatural complement). Using the water image, say a person has built up one gallon’s worth of courage. Then, he converts, is baptized and becomes a practicing Christian. He now has one gallon of an intimately close mix of courage but now infused with a new color it did not have before—the color of fortitude. The amount of natural virtue effects the operation of the supernatural. The supernatural is not caused by the natural, but it is enabled to work upon a broader field by the larger presence of the natural. If there were one-half gallon of natural courage to start, there would be one-half gallon of fortitude-infused courage after grace came in. Likewise, if there were two gallons at first, and so forth.

The water cannot make itself red. That must be supplied into it from without. But, the more water there is in the pot, the more of it there is to become the new color red when the color is added. And similarly as virtue is increased. A person in grace grows in natural and supernatural virtue in a such a way that they both grow in an intertwined fashion, each being like a stepping stone for the other (but without the natural ever being the origin of the supernatural).

So, it is not accurate to say grace “builds” on nature as though one stops at a certain point and then the other begins. Rather, grace infuses (transforms) nature thoroughly without destroying it or covering it over. (You can still see through colored water; but you see through it in a new way). The nature persists and the amount and character of it remain essential to the way in which the infused, new supernature can be enacted.

Sorry if this is too much moral theology 101. I do think this is a key issue underlying any discussion of how we Catholics should understand any particular virtue (e.g. righteous anger), especially in regard to said virtue’s proper use and increase.

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