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Anger and Virtue

  • EDWARD P. SRI

For some readers of the Gospels, Jesus might appear to be offering two contradictory messages about anger.

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On the one hand, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus compares the punishment for anger with the judgment facing murderers: "You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment" (Mt. 5:21â22).

Yet in Jerusalem, He Himself seems quite angry at the Pharisees as He pronounces a series of woes on them, even calling them children of hell: "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves" (Mt. 23:15). What are we to make of these apparently conflicting passages about anger?


Crime and Punishment

As a passion, anger itself is neither good nor evil (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1767). It can be noble if it is directed toward maintaining justice and correcting vice (Catechism, no. 2302). One can think of anger as a passionate desire to set things right in the face of a perceived evil. In the sense of noble anger, it is not about "getting even" with a person who may have hurt us, but about protecting one's own good, the good of the community, and even the good of the person who inflicted the injury.

This seems to be the kind of anger Jesus has in His confrontation with the Pharisees in Jerusalem. It is His last showdown with His chief opponents, who have rejected Him as Messiah and are about to bring Him to His death. In order to show very clearly how dire their situation is, Jesus – out of great love for the Pharisees – sternly warns them of the deadly path they are pursuing. If they persist in their rejection of the Son of God, they will be closing themselves out of the very kingdom Jesus wants to offer to them, and they will lead many of their followers with them. If Jesus did not truly love the Pharisees, He would not warn them of the eternal punishment toward which they are heading. Jesus' anger is thus rooted in love – in desiring what is best for them – as He intends this clear warning to lead them to repentance.

Being angry about the right things and in the right way is virtuous. But avoiding anger at all times may be a sign of weakness. St. Thomas Aquinas notes how it is a vice not get angry over things one should. He calls it "unreasonable patience." A failure to correct the wicked encourages them to persist in their evil deeds, since there are no reprimands for their wrong actions. It also causes confusion in the community over what is truly right and wrong, and thus may lead even good people to do evil.

Take, for example, the problem of abortion. The killing of innocent babies in the womb is one of the gravest injustices of our times. Thousands of babies are killed each day by abortion in the United States alone. We should be angry about this! Righteous anger should drive us to seek to outlaw abortion in order to protect human life. Yet when Christian leaders fail to condemn abortion and the governmental polices that support it, the abortion industry is encouraged to further its evil practices, and even more women and children will suffer. Christians themselves might become softened and increasingly apathetic about the pro-life cause if they perceive that their leaders take a lukewarm stance toward this issue.


Disciplining Children

Unreasonable patience can take place right in one's own home. While sinful, immoderate anger is a difficulty in some families today, the failure to discipline one's children can also be problematic. Since anger seeks to set things right in the face of evil, it can be very good if it is grounded in love for the community and for the person who has done wrong – if it is seeking to maintain justice and to correct the vice of the wrongdoer (Catechism, no. 2302).

Third, our anger can be sinful if it is too fierce. This can happen in two ways.

This is why parents sometimes need to correct their children when they are misbehaving. No punishment, of course, should ever flow out of frustration, selfishness or rage; it should always be done moderately. Most of all, it should be rooted in love. If a father truly loves his children, he wants what is best for them, for to love "is to will the good of another" (Catechism, no. 1766). Since virtue and holiness are what is best for our children and what will equip them for a happy life, parents need to train them in the good habits of the virtuous life. This involves much education, encouragement, example, and prayer, to be sure. But it also entails discipline.

Failure to correct vice will have serious consequences for a child's future, for they will not be as equipped with the basic human skills – the virtues – they need to navigate through the challenges of life. They will be more prone to act according to their emotions and appetites, and their pleasures and fears, than according to what is truly best.


Dare to Discipline?

Why do some parents fail to discipline their children? Some have good intentions but feel uncertain about how to discipline since they did not have good parenting models from their own upbringing. Some might be afraid that, if they discipline, their children will not like them. Others might even have a faulty view of punishment as being unloving.

Still other parents might simply be lazy. After all, constantly staying on top of our children's moral development (which is a perpetual endeavor!) and doing so in a loving, relational way is quite demanding. When there is a cry of injustice between siblings in the basement or a certain tone of voice with a child in the kitchen or a discipline issue brewing in the living room, it is tempting to downplay it or ignore it altogether. Indeed, it is easier to continue to watch that game on TV or to talk to our friends who are visiting or to check one more email than it is to drop everything to deal with a misbehaving child.

But small acts of misbehavior typically do not go away on their own. When we do not seek to set things right when our children misbehave – when we fail to take time to calmly but firmly discipline children on smaller matters that pop up in the day – unruly conduct progressively gets worse. And when things get out of control, the inattentive parents often end up responding in frustration, as if the problem is primarily the child and not their own negligence in discipline.


Sinful Anger

Being angry over the right things is important. But we also want to steer clear of the many ways anger can be sinful.

According to Aquinas, anger is sinful, first, when we are angry over the wrong things – over things that are not unjust. Some examples: a lazy student who did not study but is angry at his teacher for giving him a poor grade, a family member who is angry that you are not coming home for Thanksgiving dinner even though you are very sick, a child who is angry because you asked him to pick up his toys. None of these people have a just cause for anger; their anger is sinful, for they are angry over the wrong things.

Another way we might fall into sinful anger is in our motives. When someone hurts or upsets us, we might be driven by a vindictive attitude, which wants to see that person suffer. Part of us might wish that person failure or harm. We might hope their wrongdoing will be exposed – not for their own good, but merely because we want to see their demise. Virtuous anger, however, seeks the well-being even of one's enemies. Thus, the virtuous man hopes that those who do evil will repent of their wickedness and return to what is good. But when we are sinfully angry, we do not care so much about the soul of the person who hurt us. We just want to see them "get what they deserve."

Third, our anger can be sinful if it is too fierce. This can happen in two ways. Without saying a word or inflicting any physical harm upon others, we can be too severe internally in our thoughts. This can happen, for example, when we hold a grudge, have too great a displeasure toward someone, or secretly wish that person harm. Immoderate anger also can manifest itself externally in the way we act toward a person who upset us – if, for example, we respond in a fury over a small matter, if we punish a child too severely, or if we purposefully neglect basic courtesy toward the person who hurt us.

Sinful anger in any of these forms is a capital vice in that it gives birth to many other vices. It tends toward sinful thoughts about a person, whereby we have strong displeasure or ill will toward him. It also leads to sinful speech, as we are more likely to speak injurious words either to his face or behind his back, mocking him, criticizing him, or trying to get others to turn against him. Finally, sinful anger can even lead to injurious actions against the person who injured us.

This seems to be the kind of anger Jesus was condemning in the Sermon on the Mount – not the virtuous anger that seeks the rehabilitation of evildoers (the anger He had toward the Pharisees), but the vicious anger that seeks the harm of those whom we abhor. Virtuous anger builds up the community by correcting vice. But sinful anger tears it down by merely seeking to wound those who hurt us."

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Acknowledgement

Edward P. Sri. "The Art of Living: Anger and Virtue." Lay Witness (July/August, 2010).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine.

Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

The Author

sriSri1Edward Sri teaches at the Augustine Institute, is a visiting professor at Benedictine College and a contributor to the popular apologetics series, Catholic for a Reason. Sri is also a founding leader with Curtis Martin of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). He resides with his wife Elizabeth and their six children in Littleton, Colorado. Edward Sri is the author of Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II's 'Love and Responsibility', The Bible Compass: A Catholic's Guide to Navigating the Scriptures, A Biblical Walk Through the Mass: Understanding What We Say and Do in the Liturgy, Mystery of the Kingdom, The New Rosary in Scripture: Biblical Insights for Praying the 20 Mysteries, and Queen Mother.

Copyright © 2010 Lay Witness
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