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.