October 10, 2010


Anger and Virtue: EDWARD P. SRI, July/August, 2010, Lay Witness)

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. 5:21–22).

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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 10, 2010 7:14 AM
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