Anger Management

Each generation typically gets angry at the previous one out of impatience with the flaws that youth sees in the aged. This impatience is animated by a sense of superiority which, if unfounded in fact, is what C.S. Lewis called “chronological arrogance.”  Within the many fine phrases that embroider the confidence of the Second Vatican Council, especially in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “Gaudium et Spes,” there is a bit of that, in the assumption that the dawn with all its perils will be rosy.  In a commentary in 1969, the future Benedict XVI called its account of free will “downright Pelagian” and never mentioned it in his own encyclical on hope, “Spe Salvi.” Chronological arrogance can also be sublimated in pious forms of detraction such as apologizing for the crimes of people long dead. “Aggiornamento” can be the innocent flexing of youthful vigor, but it can also be the naïve chanting of babes in the wood.

The “Angry Young Men” of Britain in the 1950’s were a rather vague assortment of writers who had survived a world war only to find themselves in a struggle of a more subtle moral dimension in which their imagined benign future was being held back by calcified social conventions. While they were right in contending that the age’s miseries had been brought about by old prejudices and sheer stupidity, they forgot that the defeat of Axis brutality was the result of the heroism produced by the same culture they disparaged. One angry young man was John Osborne, author of Look Back In Anger and another was Kingsley Amis, who wrote Lucky Jim and later was honest enough to forswear the Communism of his youthful idealism.

At least they were vital enough to be angry. We now inhabit a hedonistic culture too slothful to be angry about much of anything, which is why it is easily bought off by sensual gratifications of the crudest sorts. Where there is anger in the Church, it tends to reverse what angered the previous generation. That is to say, the parents and grandparents of today’s young people showed their anger by demolishing the sacred traditions. Now the reaction is against that reaction, and churches are being restored, Gregorian chant is bidding guitars goodbye and nuns riding around on buses to relive their Kumbaya days are indulged with a strained politeness reserved for slightly dotty great aunties.   Untamed, this new anger can be as problematic as what angers it. While a classical revival has an inner integrity, the romanticism of some who confect an idealized past that never was, is fragile and bound to disappoint, just like the eirenic optimism of the 1960’s.

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Jesus chose some angry young men to be his apostles, but their anger was not delusional. At least it was a passion that Our Lord tamed and directed in the ways of righteousness.   James and John were his “Sons of Thunder.”  Some philologists maintain that their nickname Boanerges, “bene reghesh,” really did not mean that they were thunderous, but only windbags. It may even be the case that the blowhard was their mother Salome.  When they wanted to bring lightning down on the Samaritans, they could only imitate the sound of thunder,  but real fire was lacking. The Holy Spirit would take that energy and channel it. Anger as a deadly sin is like an oil spill instead of oil for energy. When anger is used rightly it becomes strength. Satan wants us to lose our temper, but Christ wants us to use it, the only way it should be used: to defeat Satan himself. St. Paul was not easily tamed, but he would later write in quotation of Psalm 4:4: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and give no opportunity to the devil.” (Eph. 4 26-27) A locomotive may let off steam, but that does not move it. Angry James became the first apostle to offer his life serenely for the Lord, and thundering John in his maturity wrote, “Little children love one another.”

For Christ, sinful anger, the loss of temper, is murderous: “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; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5: 21-22) Just as lust is a perversion of love, so St. Gregory of Nyssa describes anger as a twisting of courage. In the history of social pathology, neurotic people have camouflaged their psychosis in righteous causes. John Brown was a fanatic whose uncontrolled temper made him a mockery of martyrdom, but that did not discredit the abolition movement. The pro-life movement is the noblest cause of our days, and it is not less so for the few mentally disturbed people who wrap themselves in its mantel. Their anger is “of the flesh” but that does not disprove anger that is righteous.

Christ himself is the model of righteous anger. In railing against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the venality of the Temple’s money changers, he directs it against Satan who wants man to “lose” his temper by using people and circumstances as distractions to deflect the anger from him.  So he plays on human pride, which is the elemental sin that makes anger destructive rather than holy. “A man of wrath stirs up strife, and a man given to anger causes much transgression. A man’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.” (Proverbs 29:22-23)

Righteous anger is like harnessed wind power, while sinful anger is, to use an infelicitous metaphor, just passing wind. The Apostle to the Gentiles warned the Galatians that their uncontrolled temper was a “work of the flesh” (cf. Gal. 19-23) only after the risen Christ had converted his destructive wrath of the Damascus road.  If you are tempted to morose delectation you should avoid reading St. Jerome’s letters to St. Augustine, which show how hard it was for him to control his tongue and pen. And as for St. Columba, a modern dentist might warn him against grinding his teeth.

Now then, there is a problem and it is this: the notion that the antidote to sinful anger is timidity. No saint, naturally placid or aggressive, makes that mistake. “God has not given us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7)  The cure for both kinds of sinfulness, angry and timid, is the virtue of courage.  St. John Chrysostom wrote to Timotheus: “For if the wrath of God were a passion, one might well despair of being unable to quench the flame which he had kindled by so many evil doings; but since the Divine nature is passionate, even if He punishes, even if He takes vengeance, He does this not with wrath, but with tender care, and much loving kindness; wherefore it behooves us to be of much courage, and to trust in the power of repentance.”

I do not know which is worse: sinful anger, which thinks that it is just, or timidity, which thinks that it is charitable. In our media-conscious culture, timidity easily takes the form of affected joviality, hoping to diffuse tension by amiability: a hug and a slap on the back and then let the “dialogue” begin. That may work with victims of evil but not with the minions of the Evil One himself. Prophecy is not birthed by Hegelian synthesis. During his forty days in the desert, our Lord never joked in the hope of charming the dark and brooding spirit who can only laugh at others and never with them. The soldiers put a funny hat on Christ, but he made it a crown. His benignity destroyed Satan’s burlesque.  Anyone in a position of moral authority who thinks he might diffuse the tension between good and evil by playing the minstrel, only signals his own insecurity. That would be like the Queen of England wearing a Groucho nose at the opening of Parliament. Laughter is a medicine but it can also been an opiate, and when someone is constantly laughing there must be a deep disquiet when the lights go out. Hilaire Belloc, never to be confused with a Smile Button, wrote: “We sit by and watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile.”

Commenting on our Lord’s Eucharistic declaration that he is the Bread come down from heaven, Pope Benedict XVI recently said that Jesus knew exactly was he was doing in addressing the crowd “to break their illusions and, especially, force his disciples to decide.”  St. Paul wanted Timothy to be temperate, but never a man pleaser.  Timidity is not charity. It is distraction from danger. On the Titanic, some passengers noticed bits of ice on the deck, so the band played ragtime a little louder. St. Augustine said, “God does not need my lie.” And of course we also have Churchill’s definition of timidity incarnate: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

St. Alphonsus Liguori was not timid when he counseled: “Even when correcting faults, superiors should be kind.”  But his kindness was the engine of his zeal for the first of the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy: to admonish sinners. The Confessors and Martyrs, ancient and new, had only one kind of Anger Management Therapy: kneeling down and saying, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” Then they got up and went to work.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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