Anger and Correction: What Can We Do in the Face of the Catastrophe?

Delivered in a panel presentation at Loyola University Baltimore
September 14th, Feast Day of St. Lawrence O’Toole
When Lawrence was ten years old, his father handed him over as a hostage to King Mac Murehad  of Leinster, who then abused the child terribly


Since I was asked to offer my reflections on the abuse catastrophe in the Church, grim news has been met with more grim news:

As some of you will already know, today was the third and final day of the U.S. bishops’ conference fall general assembly, held here in Baltimore. The bishops had indicated their intention to vote on two key proposals, which had been expected to form the basis for the Church’s response. The first would have been a “Code of Conduct” for bishops, and the second, formation of a lay-led body to investigate bishops accused of misconduct.

On Monday, however, at the beginning of the meeting, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, told the bishops that that vote would not be taken. DiNardo indicated that the Vatican insisted that any decision be delayed until the conclusion of a special meeting, or synod, called by Pope Francis for February to discuss the issue of abuse in the context of the worldwide Church. What will happen there, we do not know for sure.

When I received the invitation to be part of this panel, it was suggested to me that I might bring the perspective of “a lay woman, a theologian, a convert, and a parent.”

I don’t know if this is what they had in mind, but I can say that my perspective from all four of these roles is the same: I am angry.

Now, perhaps I should just stop there, but I think there is more to say.

We could ask, for example, whether and how anger is an appropriate response. And here, I can offer you some reflection on the basis of the work that I do every day: the work of studying and teaching theology. As it turns out, the tradition of Catholic theology has a great deal to say about anger, and some of it very insightful.

Interestingly, we find some important differences among various teachers. The spiritual master John Cassian, for instance, argues that anger is appropriate only in the case of anger at one’s own sins.

Thomas Aquinas—perhaps the best known thinker of the Catholic tradition—has a different take. In his most complete work, his Summa Theologiae, he makes the argument that  although there most certainly are forms of anger that are morally wrong, this is not necessarily the case.

Let’s step back a bit to get a fuller picture.

Anger, says Aquinas, is the most complex of what we would call “emotions.” Anger contains, for example, both hope and sadness at the same time. And these are not just emotions for Aquinas. Anger also has a deeply moral dimension.

In order to see this more clearly, we have to recall that Aquinas holds a basic and very optimistic claim about  human beings: human beings, in a deep and innate way, tend toward the good. They desire the good, even if they are also sometimes lack the strength to hold on to it, and even if they are often mistake about what is good and how it is so.

For our purposes here, we should specify that one of the specific ways that Aquinas sees human beings as oriented toward the good is in a characteristic of human beings that he calls the “irascible appetite.” What Aquinas means by “irascible appetite” is the tendency of human being to pursue good even when it is difficult to do so, even in cases where there is considerable effort involved, where they must rise above and overcome obstacles. We have an inclination, he believes, to try to remove what is harmful, and to see the restoration of good, or justice. Here, Aquinas uses the Latin term vindicatio, and it’s no accident that that sounds like the English word vindication.

Here is the central point: when that desire is frustrated, when we see obstacles to justice that cannot be removed, then we can experience a form of anger that is actually virtuous. When it is directed at an obstacle to the good, and is in accord with reason, Aquinas says, “This anger is good.” (ST II-II, 158, 1)

Interestingly, Aquinas argues that all anger arises from some form of slight, a kind of injustice that does not treat a thing according to its value, and one form of the three forms of slight is “contempt.” In the case of contempt, justice is perverted because a wrongdoer thinks less of a person that one ought to, less than what the person deserves. (ST, II-I, 47, 2).

With this in mind, I return to my central claim: I am angry.

I think you can see, given the description of Aquinas’s thought above, why I believe Aquinas himself would see such anger as warranted and even virtuous. The abuse that has occurred in the Church, the cover-up of that abuse, the enabling of that abuse, and now, the deferral of justice and reform: these fit perfectly the description that Aquinas gives of the contempt for persons that can engender anger. Indeed, I believe Aquinas would recommend anger on behalf of all who have suffered–on my part and on yours. “If one is angry in accordance with right reason,” he writes, “one’s anger is deserving of praise.” (Summa, II-II,158.1)

I am not quite finished, though, with this analysis. There are further specific realities that might given rise to anger for me.

As “a lay woman, a theologian, a convert, and a parent,” I am already engaged in arduous work directed toward overcoming difficulties and fostering the good.

As a parent, I am trying to care for and protect my children. I am trying to direct them to the good, and even to God. Only six months ago, I adopted my youngest child at the age of fourteen, at about the same time that she chose to be baptized into the Church that we introduced her to. But the abuse that has occurred in the Church, the cover-up of that abuse, the enabling of that abuse, and now, the deferral of justice and reform, has made my task more arduous.

As a lay woman, I have been encouraged by Vatican II to believe that I am a co-laborer in the work of the Church, sent out as one baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection to preach the good news, one way or the other. The abuse that has occurred in the Church, the cover-up of that abuse, the enabling of that abuse, and now, the deferral of justice and reform, though, has created new obstacles to that mission.

.As a teacher of theology, I am engaged in arduous work. My students, too, are people whom I love, with whom I do the work of theology, a work that has its true home in the Church. As a teacher of theology, I inevitably represent the Church. I endeavor to share with students not only the complexity and challenge of the theological task, but the beauty and the invitation to the Church’s life that always lies just below the surface. And as someone who has been teaching ecclesiology for many years, I know the extent to which the Catholic tradition claims that is impossible to life live in Christ without the Church. I know that we are bound to the Church.

The abuse that has occurred in the Church, the cover-up of that abuse, the enabling of that abuse, and now, the deferral of justice and reform, has begun to feel like contempt not only for the victims, but for me.

But this of course would be true not just for me. Anyone who claims the description of “Catholic” is representing the Catholic Church. Anyone who is baptized is called to preach, to lead others toward the embodied life of love that is lived in the Church. All of us are tempted to begin to feel that we are being treated with contempt.

A brief word from “a convert.” I became Catholic about a decade ago, in part because I had already spent years studying theology and trying to lead a Christian life, and I could see the fullness and beauty of what the Catholic Church offered. I was an adult, and I had already seen a lot. And I had read a lot of Church history; I knew that things can get very bad. So, I did not come to the Catholic Church expecting the Church to be perfect. But I did expect the Church to be the Church. And the ability for the Church to live out her mission is what seems to me to be threatened by the catastrophe in which we find ourselves.  

So, what to do with this anger? Thus far, I haven’t given you any constructive suggestion at all. And I do think it is important to do something. Anger that festers easily becomes both toxic and contagious. We have to find a way forward.

Here, I’d like to return to the question of the Church being the Church.

On the one hand, I would urge any and every Catholic reading these words to be in touch with the person who is your most important connection to the Church: your bishop. That is not to say that I don’t think you should speak with your pastor, with fellow Catholics, and with others. I do. But the office of the bishop is the office of unity, and of connection. I believe it is important that the bishops know what U.S. Catholics are thinking and feeling at this moment

But I also have another specific suggestion to make. The Church, of course, is not simply the hierarchy, but all of us, and the life that we lead together, every day. I’d like to make a suggestion that, though not in any way fully sufficient as a response to this abuse crisis, could, I think, constitute one small part of that response. It is something that you and I are able to do.

In the face of this crisis, one question that has been asked over and over: “Where is the fraternal correction?I am not referring here to official mechanisms that make their way “down,” so to speak, from superiors, etc. I am talking about a habit by which priests or bishops say to one another: “There is something here that is not right. It has to be addressed.” The question is how so many priests and so many bishops have seen so much and not said anything.

We have to remember, though, that priests and bishops only come from one place: the pews of the Church. Before they are ordained, they are just all of us. And so, it seems appropriate to me to ask another question: where is fraternal correction in our own lives as Catholics and Christians?

In Matthew 18, we find Jesus himself instructing us in this matter: “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.” When was the least time you or I did anything like that? Aren’t we more likely to talk about someone than we are to talk to them? Aren’t we more likely just to mind our own business? Aren’t we more likely to look the other way? And how much more true is this with complex or unclear matters? Maybe I see some troubling behaviors or clues scattered around your life. But I can’t be sure. So I do nothing.

Is this what we are doing? Are we speaking to one another directly and humbly, in love? Are we living together in a way, building the kind of community, that would make that possible? Or are we deferring?

This kind of thing can easily go wrong, of course, but we already know that when we simply fail to do it at all, things can also go quite wrong indeed. If we were willing to take up this hard task, it could be at least a small part of tackling a much larger question: how the Catholic Church can begin again.



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