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Deacon Kyle Eller: How can we handle the ‘perpetual outrage machine’ as Catholics?

It’s always interesting when very great and holy saints and even doctors of the church seem to give conflicting advice — like St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis de Sales do on the timely and important topic of anger.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

Ours is an angry time. Although one hopes it was not intended this way, we have built what some have called a “perpetual outrage machine.” Like fanciful attempts at building a perpetual motion machine, the perpetual outrage machine has many disparate parts working in concert — the diminishment of institutions that once moderated things, a decline in critical thinking, deep polarization, hyper partisan media, and then the jet fuel, the social media algorithms that have created a feedback loop of ever increasing anger.

I can only hope that, like perpetual motion machines, perpetual outrage machines are not really possible, that there’s some natural limiting factor that will grind it to a halt.

Our culture is so angry that many seem to consider anger among the highest virtues, as if it were the only moral choice, such that you will sometimes hear, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

That’s where, at least in Catholic circles, you will sometimes hear St. Thomas Aquinas brought out in defense of righteous anger.

St. Thomas (as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church) treats anger as a “passion,” which in the language of theology means a kind of pre-moral emotion that naturally arises in the human heart in response to something, in anger’s case a perceived injustice.

Like all the passions, anger needs to be governed by reason and the virtues. But in St. Thomas’s view, directed in this way, anger can be useful in the pursuit of authentic justice, for instance by firming up our will for doing good. One thinks of St. Paul’s counsel to “be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).

But then there’s the great St. Francis de Sales. Known as one of the gentlest saints ever, he reportedly spend 20 years learning to control his temper.

Maybe that’s why he says, in his “Introduction to the Devout Life,” that in practice it’s better to avoid anger altogether: “Depend upon it, it is better to learn how to live without being angry than to imagine one can moderate and control anger lawfully; and if through weakness and frailty one is overtaken by it, it is far better to put it away forcibly than to parley with it; for give anger ever so little way, and it will become master ….”

There is a mountain of scriptural warrant for this view. St. Francis quotes the Letter of St. James, which says plainly that the anger of men does not work the righteousness of God (James 1:20). Numerous passages of moral counsel in the New Testament letters of St. Paul and others urge putting away all anger, wrath, and so on, to set aside vengeance and overcome evil with good. In the heart of the Gospel’s moral teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns that anyone who is angry with a brother is liable to judgment (Matthew 5:22).

What are we to make of this? Let’s begin with the obvious fact that while St. Francis de Sales’ view rings true to me, I’m not holy enough or wise enough to stand in as judge in this dispute.

Let’s add the less obvious fact that there may be less disagreement between the two doctors of the church than it first appears, that in context St. Thomas is not giving a broad blessing to anger in general or urging people to go around being easily angered or excessively angry — quite the contrary.

And St. Francis, in the very passage I quoted, talks about putting anger away forcibly if need be, which sounds very much like the kind of use of the “irascible appetite” to bolster one’s grit and resolve for doing good that St. Thomas seems to have in mind. He also doesn’t seem to exclude the theoretical possibility that anger can be lawfully controlled; rather, he seems to be giving practical advice that for most people, we’re not virtuous enough for that.

Without writing off either perspective casually, we can still draw some lessons for our angry time. Anger is powerful and difficult to control and apt to lead us astray, for instance by convincing us to seek retribution in an unjust way. I think most people have experienced this danger, where anger leads us to make more of some offense than is really justified. So anger is a dangerous tool. If it is to be used at all, it must be used carefully and sparingly.

What’s more, it’s deceptive in that it often presents itself as a solution to our problems, but it’s more often destructive. In itself, it’s a dubious means to the justice of God. Rather, if it is to be useful, it has to be deliberately transformed into something more like virtuous grit, determination, resolve.

In light of all that, rather than being caught up in the perpetual outrage machine of our culture, we should be on deliberate guard against it, and examine ourselves carefully for where sinful anger may have taken root in our hearts. We are Christians, so our approach to evil is primarily one of overcoming it with good, to the extent of loving and praying for our enemies. If anger has any place at all, it is in strengthening us to do just that.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].