On the Usefulness of Anger
Anger has fallen on hard times — especially in the Catholic Church, where the newly consecrated virtues of dialogue and toleration have rendered conviction taboo. As anger is the fusillade aimed at conviction dishonored, it too stands beneath a cloud. In this kind of gauzy world, a St. Polycarp would have no place, especially with his memorable remark to Marcion, “You are the first born of Satan!” And what of St. John Chrysostom, who, from the pulpit of Hagia Sophia, condemned the Empress Irena for her worldliness? Or St. Ambrose, who reprimanded a kneeling Emperor Theodosius for the slaughter of thousands in Thessolonika? Saints like these, and thousands more, would seem like misfits in not a few of today’s sophisticated Catholic circles.
The disappearance of anger presages the eclipse of standing in passionate solidarity with Christ. It also signals a sickly attenuation of human nature. Men without anger are only half-men: They are men who hold very little dear. Anger is a noble human passion to be enlisted in defending the most ennobled natural and supernatural goods. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, “The good is never more fittingly defended than when it is defended with passion.” Note that the Angelic Doctor does not enjoin us to refrain from anger, for that would be extracting a vital cog from the apparatus that achieves good and defeats evil. Rather, he teaches that anger is essential in the ensemble of human passions that assist man in being himself (cf. Summa Theologiae, I-II, q.23, a.4). Problems arise not when we become angry, but when we become angry in the wrong way, for the wrong reason.
But how can one of the seven capital sins — wrath — be a virtue? Why does sanctity itself demand anger? Before we set right reason to clarify this issue, let us turn to the Word Incarnate. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, our Lord is absolutely livid when He reproaches the Pharisees: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you are like to whited sepulchers which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones, and of all filthiness…. You serpents, generations of vipers, how will you flee from the judgment of hell?” (Mt. 23:27,33). Of course, there is also the riveting scene of a rare display of our Savior’s pique when He lashes out at the blasé indifference of the Temple moneychangers: “And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the many money changers, and the chairs of them that sold doves: And he saith to them: It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves” (Mt. 21:12-13).
These divine actions teach with certainty that anger is not only tolerable but an integral spoke in the wheel of sanctity. Any lingering doubt is chased by the Savior’s pungent words in the book of the Apocalypse — words that should send shivers down our spine: “But because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot or cold, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth” (3:16). That same book cites the reason for such timidity, “Thou hast lost thy first love” (2:4). Simply put: no love, no anger.
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