On Wrath and Anger

Attention Californians: TCT’s founding editor-in-chief, Robert Royal, will be in the Golden State later this month. Here’s Bob’s schedule, with a couple of links for more information (and more to come): Sacramento Catholic Forum, noon on Thursday February 18; Kolbe Academy & Trinity Prep, Napa CA, 7:00 PM on Friday February 19; University of Santa Barbara, Catholic Chaplaincy, 6:30 PM Monday February 22; and Claremont McKenna College, 4:00 PM Tuesday February 23.

Contrary to what we might think, both “anger” and “wrath,” considering them accurately, are good things. Both words, however, often refer to a natural emotion when it is excessively strong and not guided by reason. Anger indicates a strong reaction. We always knew when our fathers were angry.

Wrath depicts something even stronger, the difference between a downpour and a typhoon. The topic of anger comes up in Book Four of Aristotle’s Ethics. It is one of those givens in us that needs to be self-governed. We are to be angry in the right time, right place, right degree, and under proper guidance. People vary in the ease that this emotion becomes out of control. But it is possible to be either too excessively angry or not angry enough.

In Scripture, anger and wrath are used of God in His reaction to when He does not like what the Hebrew people are doing. He loves them, but that does not prevent Him from being angry with them. Yahweh always has a good reason, one of which is that they straighten themselves out.

Psalm 88 says: “Your wrath has swept over me.” St. Paul tells the Thessalonians: “God has not destined us for wrath but for salvation.” (1Th. 5:9) This remark implies that “wrath” might have been a quite legitimate option because of our sins. But the Book of Jonah tells us that “a gracious and merciful” God is “slow to anger.” (4:2) This slowness implies: “Don’t press too far!”

And in Ephesians (4:26-27), we read: “If you are angry, let it be without sin. The sun must not go down on your wrath; do not give the devil a chance to work on you.” Here, we find both a sinful and a non-sinful anger. But “wrath” in this context seems to be something we should take care of, even if justified. It can lead to much greater problems.

Wrath (Ira) from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1480 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]
Wrath (Ira) from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1480 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]

The capacity to be angry is given to us by nature itself. It is part of the whole inter-related “package” of items that constitute what-it-is-to-be-a-human-being. Without it, we would be less than we are. We would be crippled, lacking something that ought to be there. Tell me what makes you angry and I will tell you what you are. The same point can be made negatively. Tell me what does not make you angry and I will likewise tell you what you are.

In the belated publicity about selling fetal parts, for instance, many people were angry, even wrathful, on learning of this atrocious commerce. Yet these same people were often not angry at the evil of abortion itself. That reaction, I suppose, is better than being angry at neither. It makes the point of greater and lesser evils proportioned to greater and lesser angers.

In my own teaching experience, I always explained that Aristotle treated both envy and anger in the same general way, in the same book. Envy always struck me as a much more destructive and prevalent vice than greed, with which it is often compared. Greed is an acquired habit of not controlling our need for food or money. Envy, as Aquinas put it, is “sadness” at the good of another. That definition is most perceptive. Unlike drinking or money-gathering, this “sadness” is not a physical thing, though envy and jealousy can change our visage.

Like pride, envy is rather a spiritual thing. Nothing is gained or lost by it. It is an intellectual estimate of another’s good that we do not ourselves possess. The problem is not the good that the other really has, but our “sadness” or chagrin at his having it. The point is that he deserves it and we know it.

Pride, as the primary capital vice, is likewise a purely spiritual disorder. All is attributed to oneself. This spiritual element is why both angels and men can suffer from pride and envy, whereas angels cannot be greedy in the strict sense.

What about anger and wrath? What now strikes me is that anger also is a spiritual thing. This also explains talk of God’s “wrath.” It means more than envy. It indicates the need of real, “visible” response to evil or disorders, even if we cannot “do” anything about them because of free will or other causes. God’s anger does not eradicate the free will that originates the disorder at which the anger is directed.

This factor is why we can understand that God’s wrath is directed at our world, at our deeds, while we, on our parts, blithely go on approving, fostering, and living disordered lives as “rights” or “diversities.” Again, this divine reaction explains the theoretic need of a final judgment on our sins whereby God’s “anger” is, as it were, visited on those who, in their pride and envy, refuse to live in any other world but their own.

Hieronymus_Bosch-_The_Seven_Deadly_Sins_and_the_Four_Last_Things

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, and, new from St. Augustine's Press, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught.

  • Fr. Kloster

    I often hear things from the faithful that blur the lines between righteous anger and disordered anger. This is one of the main reasons why so many people fail to discipline their children. The Psalms are quite clear that a man who fails to use the rod “hates his children.”

    The politically correct society does not seek any real truth. Our society is driven by selfish desires that are built on the suggestively slimy method Satan loves to introduce.

    A close relative once told me that since I was a Christian I was not allowed to hate anyone nor anything. This was a very clever way to undermine the real battle at hand. Everyone should hate the Devil and hate sin; as well as all that system of darkness promotes.

    To remain comfortably numb, we might be told that we should never get angry. A loss of anger at disordered and sinful behavior only leads us in one direction. It promotes a single minded spoiled populace that has never learned the fruit of correction, has been deaf to constructive criticism, and has ignored the wisdom of sage men.

    • Michael DeLorme

      “They never will love, where they ought to love, who do not hate where they ought to hate.” -Edmund Burke

      Venerable Louis of Grenada defines that anger which Fr, Schall tells us is illicit as “an excessive desire for revenge.” St. Thomas, somewhere, defines it similarly.

      My somewhat impious but sincere prayer for every one of those persons I consider an enemy is: Father, give this person a place in Heaven ten times higher than I could ever even aspire to; yet if I should make it there myself—please just keep him the Hell away from me!

      I don’t think that’s vengeful at all.

  • Stanley Anderson

    I have often said that I think one of the results of the Fall was that not only do we engage in anger (of the unhealthy sort as Fr. Schall talks about), but we actively enjoy and “look for” things to hate and be angry at. My own example (out of many, and much more egregious, certainly) was how I far more enjoyed (when we used to get a newspaper) reading letters to the editor that I disagreed with than reading the ones I agreed with.

    I can only think the internet and the pervasive shadow of the media in every aspect of our lives has ramped up that enjoyment of finding things to hate and the ferocious (and unfortunately satisfying) activity of searching out things be angry at. There are plenty to be had at our front door like a newspaper slung by the paperboy (are they still around?) into the bushes by the porch waiting to be picked up, I suspect.

  • Nancy Lynne

    Oh, my! An essay written for me? Since I am in a state of perpetual annoyance, often proceeding to anger, this piece by Father Schall warrants some serious consideration perfectly timed during Lent.
    “Tell me what makes you angry and I will tell you who you are.” Reflecting on this little nugget will be rewarding I am certain.
    Heartfelt thanks for just what I need, Father Schall.

  • Rusty

    Anger is often the result of frustration.

    Anyone who is a parent understands how difficult it can be to respond to the behaviours of children, especially behaviours that are immature and selfish. Too often, I find myself raising my voice for lack of any other effective tools that will get the attention of my three teenage sons.

    I know they are all good kids/young adults; they still attend Mass, and are trustworthy, respectful and polite in public, but the sibling rivalries and bickering are a constant challenge to contain at home. What were once three boys who were each others’ best friends have been transformed by puberty into jostling, resentful, testosterone-fueled competitors. I pray they will emerge as adults who value and cherish each other, because my wife and I expect they won’t always want to hang around with Mom and Dad! We tell them we are all God’s gift to each other, but sometimes…

    Sound familiar? I find myself regularly bringing this into the confessional, but aren’t we supposed to be able to restrain our anger? Holy spirit, I could use your help in this…

    • Kathy

      I love your reply and can so relate to your words. In my case, caring in our home for my mother in law has created so much frustration that I am constantly asking for spiritual help. It’s true that frustration without any resolution will manifest itself to anger. I was just talking with Jesus about it this morning!! It seems a matter of intellectual ability to know what we are dealing with in terms of emotion and to just keep asking for divine help! I am hoping that at some point God allows our minds and hearts to mesh into His holy will and in the process to calm us By the way, as a parent of 2 grown kids, may I gently suggest that you are doing a beautiful job with your boys.

    • newguy40

      Rusty — As a fellow guy, we like to be able to fix things right away. One of the greatest challenges I had with one of my sons was his relatively minor mental and physical illness when he hit adolescence. My sorrow and frustration led to bouts of anger.

      Bringing these in to the confessional is completely correct and appropriate. Bringing it to our Eucharistic Lord will help too. If you are living an authentic sacramental life, you will be much the stronger for it. Prayer, faith, the Church, the Eucharist: all those things kind of gave me a floor that I could stand on.

      “Yes, the life of every good parent is a martyrdom! It is to drink daily from the chalice of Jesus Christ Crucified. To be good parents, you must have a deep and true love of the Cross. It is by changing serpents into doves and tigers into lambs that you will be representative of Christ the Good Shepherd, and prove yourself a worthy parent, a man fit to beget and save souls.” — Fr. Gerreol Girardey Qualities of A Good Superior 1920

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Great comment. Great quote of Fr Girardey that I can assimilate as a priest who has his own spiritual children to care for.

  • grump

    Schopenhauer observed, “To feel envy is human, to savour schadenfreude (the worst trait in human nature is devilish.”

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Thanks for your wonderfully astute valuable article Fr Schall. It is valuable to me because of the lifelong struggle with anger. I can try to excuse it by self pity blaming cruelty endured as a youth. Like the Apostle Paul who I try to emulate his advice on settling one’s anger before sundown is what works for me by simply forgiving. Mercy means to forgive and that is to love. I read somewhere perhaps St Faustina that mercy is indeed love and that mercy is actualized in forgiveness. Christ Crucified is the exemplar of merciful love revealing the Father’s glory, who He really is.
    Insofar as envy I perceive it not simply as dissatisfaction over someone having more than myself. It seems in my personal experience to be more related to those of us who believe we are more deserving. Much evil has been wrought on that premise. I saw it firsthand in the world of competitive technical enterprise. Persons [some] on that premise were prepared to virtually destroy others for upward mobility. I believe with you in the wrath to come for those of us who do not conform our lives to Christ. For those of us who succeed as I hope I greatly desire a realm where no one is envious of the other but rather unlike our present world we will rejoice in their greater reward for a more saintly life.

    • Dave Fladlien

      You raise a very interesting point, Father. One of the things I respect in a person is if he/she can be happy at another person’s success. I really feel sorry for people who get angry at someone who made a lot of money or won some event or got some promotion. If we keep it a game in our mind, then we can compete, as I’ve done in sports all my life, and try our hearts out to win, then go have a beer with our opponent afterwards, no matter who came out on top.

      There are venture capitalists who take a similar attitude, even when they lose millions on a deal.

      The problem can arise when people take ordinary life too seriously, which often results from competing for more than they can afford to lose. It can arise when their identity is overly tied up in something like their career: they can’t afford to lose, or they lose part of themselves. Or, I think, it can come from plain old greed, when someone is angry because another person has a nice car or home and they have a smaller or plainer one. We all have to be on constant alert not to fall into these things, since there may well be no proper way to completely avoid or even substantially reduce the danger.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        You explicated well what I perceived working for an engineering firm in the concrete canyons of Manhattan.

  • dennis alber

    Thank you Fr. Here, in this piece, is great food for reflection before Reconciliation.

  • Howard Kainz

    Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, connects anger with the “irascible appetite,” which is something positive — a gift of nature helping us to overcome difficulties. But of course, carried to extremes, it can lead to irrational attempts to clear all obstacles out of our way!

  • Alicia

    Thank you, Father. It’s so easy to be bias and impatient with others. Thank you too to the TCT readers for their comments which are all wonderful. It’s good to know I’m not alone.
    We are all called to become saints, but what challenge !!! It’s not easy.
    Father, your beautiful essay will be haunting me all day. There is so much in it. There is a lot to meditate on, and changes to be made.
    I’m going to need a tsunami of graces.
    God bless you Father.

  • Peter O’Reilly

    Thank you, Fr. Schall. I will take your article and the comments to heart today. What a gift. Thank you

  • MSDOTT

    Thank you Fr. Schall. Your post is added to my reflections during Lent.

  • Thomas

    The phrase “I will tell you what you are” is – for a priest – quite an odd choice, even as a rhetorical device.

    A priest should already know “what you are”: a beloved child of God and a sinner. This is true irrespective of what does or does not anger you.

  • Robert A Rowland

    Thank you Father Schall. I certainly have experienced anger, but never really thought much about wrath except in the context of the wrath of God . I have a much better understanding of both now thanks to your informative and exhaustive discussion.

  • augury

    Canto 17 of Dante’s Purgatorio says that wrath, and envy and pride, consist of a love of evil. It’s a slippery slope from being justly angry at the misdeeds of another person to wishing them evil, one we all must tread very carefully. As Catholics we must take care that our belief in God’s wrath doesn’t morph into our savoring the outpouring of that wrath onto our neighbors. Or we’ll be like the Psalmist of Psalm 109, who prays that the curses sworn against him by his enemy “be like a cloak wrapped around him, like a belt tied forever around him.”

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      Very valid insight frequently overlooked.

  • MJ Anderson

    A different take on Fr. Schall’s excellent examination of anger and wrath: we fail to become angry over violent attacks on the good. I note particularly Fr. Schall’s final paragraph. Arrayed before us each day in the headlines are persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the sale of baby parts by Planned Parenthood and others, human trafficking in US cities! euthanasia.We tolerate evil in our midst as something to shrug off, ” oh, well, what can one do?”. And merrily go about our own concerns, leaving the evil to grow. Are we — here I mean comfortable Catholics– the modern day Laodiceans?



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