July 30, 2019
Of late, anger has fallen on bad times. Especially in the Church, where the consecrated processes of dialogue and toleration have rendered conviction taboo. Since 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!”. What of St. John Chrysostom who condemned the Empress Irena for her worldliness from the pulpit of Hagia Sophia? Or, St. Ambrose scolding a kneeling Theodosius for the slaughter of thousands in Thessolonika. Saints like these, and thousands more, would seem like misfits in not a few sophisticated Catholic circles today. Our precious Catholic patrimony has become dimmed by the muting of Catholic indignation. A Trojan Horse invaded the walled City of Christ’s Bride. And as the enemies poured out from the horse’s belly, they sacked and effaced with singular purpose. Too many Catholics watched helplessly, supinely. Indeed, generations of Catholics looked on as the honor of God and His Church were mocked. Epicene gestures will not do. Only sanguine courage.
The disappearance of anger presages the eclipse of a passionate standing with Christ. It also signals a sickly attenuation of human nature. Men without anger are only half-men: 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 teaches, “The good is never more fittingly defended than when it is defended with passion.” Problems with anger come not from becoming angry, but from not becoming angry in the right way, in the right cause. Notice, the Catholic is not enjoined to refrain from anger, for that would be extracting a vital cog in the apparatus of achieving the good and attacking the evil. Anger is essential in the ensemble of human passions that assist man in being himself (cf. Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q.23,a4) The Late Thomist scholar, Dr. Frederick Wilhelmson, expressed this in his typically stirring style, “Catholicism is…the Mexican Jesuit Blessed Miguel Pro blessing his Marxist firing squad in Mexico with the stumps of his arms after the barbarians had finished cutting them off. It is Spanish soldiers charging Communist trenches with fixed bayonets and rosaries…Catholicism is about an army marching through history chanting the Te Deum. Catholicism is about swords.” Swords that Our Lord commanded us to wield when declaring He had not come to bring peace (Mt 10:34). Swords of holiness and truth. Swords taken up first against our own sins, defects and smelly mediocrities. But also swords of doctrine against our duplistic enemies. Bright swords, raised bravely unafraid of any of Christ’s foes.
But how does one of the Seven Capital Sins become 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 judgement of hell?” (Mt. 23:27,33). Of course, there is 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). With these divine actions it is certain that anger is not only tolerable, but an integral spoke in the wheel of sanctity. Any lingering doubt is chased by the pungent words of the book of the Apocalypse, words that 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.” (Apoc 3:16). That same book cities the reason for such timidity, “Thou hast lost thy first love.” (Apoc 2:3). Quite simply: no love, no anger.
St. Thomas Aquinas heeds this divine pattern, even as he deepens the theological and philosophical tradition, when he teaches that anger is a part of the cardinal virtue of fortitude. Thus,
“Whereas fortitude… has two acts, namely endurance and aggression, it employs anger, not for the act of endurance, because it is guided by the reason by itself, but for the act of aggression for which it employs anger… since it belongs to anger to strike at the cause of the sorrow, so that it directly cooperates with fortitude in attacking… Hence the Philosopher say (ETHICS.iii,5): Of all the cases in which fortitude arises from a passion the most natural is when a man is brave through anger, making his choice and acting for a purpose, i.e., for a due end: this is true fortitude.” (S.T. I-II, Q. 123, a.12,ad.3).
St. John Chrysostom writes in his Commentary of Hebrews: “Anger is often useful because it is by nature designed for waging a war with demons and for struggling with every kind of sin.” Our Lord and his great saints are declaring anger holy when it is passion against those things that stand opposed to God’s glory. It curdles into sin when its use is twisted by self-interest, precipitousness or toward an elicit end. No man must mistake timidity for meekness. Our Lord’s anger shatters such confusion. Fire used properly sustains life; improperly, destroys it. Man’s passions are no different. God Himself has embroidered human nature with passions, hence they are good. Used according to right reason, guided by the grace of Christ, these passions accomplish grand things. Similarly, evil is crushed most effectively by incited passions. Look no further that St. Joan of Arc or St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the preaching the First Crusade.
Bravery and anger are inextricably bound. Once we begin to calm our passionate anger against enormities like abortion, same sex marriage, or contraception we gradually fall into a settlement with these evils. Toleration cedes ground to the enemy, and he begins his next assault on higher ground than he did before. Each time we pause, moved by faux mercy, the enemy does not. It is a dangerous naivete that supposes compromise or quiet on issues close to the heart of the enemy will leave the enemy less our enemy. Such weaknesses only feed his appetite. So many in the Church have simply mimicked the entire West in its effete courting of détente with vice. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous address to the Harvard graduates in 1978 was like a stinging slap across the face of the genteel bien pensant. Recall his words:
“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost it civil courage both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. Of course, there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.”
Perhaps Catholics need to remind themselves that theirs is the triumph of the Cross. To be a part of the Church is to inherit triumph. Smiles on the faces of martyrs proves this. Once convinced that we are members of a Church triumphant, it is not long that we realize that we are privileged members of a Church Militant. While this classical ecclesiological term is no longer fashionable, it is one that the gates of hell dread Catholics rediscovering.
Christ was indeed angry at the money changers. He knew that sometimes there is no other way of awakening souls half-dead. Perhaps it is time for more Catholics to imitate the Savior. A Christlike anger is just the thing to reverse all the reversals piled up by those who accommodated sinners and their sinful actions over these many decades with broad smiles. Try it. You’ll be in good company.