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Father Mike Schmitz: What should a Catholic make of ‘cancel culture’?

I have noticed something happening in our society that people have called “cancel culture.” How are we supposed to respond to this as Christians?

Father Michael Schmitz
Ask Father Mike

This is quite the timely (and potentially volatile) question! Over the course of the past few years, the prevalence and power of social media has given rise to this reality. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “cancel culture” refers to a kind of “boycotting or shunning of an individual or group who is deemed to have acted or spoken in a questionable or controversial manner.” (Thank you for the definition, Wikipedia).

This kind of response to unwanted speech or behavior is nothing new. All cultures throughout the world have had a standard of behavior that gets reinforced through the way people respond to each other. In fact, there have been many societies that are identified as “honor based” or “shame based” cultures. In many of these cases, there is a clear delineation between what kinds of actions are acceptable and which are not. To violate cultural norms is to risk being ostracized (or “canceled”). Not only that, but an argument can be made for the value of being able to make people experience consequences for bad behavior when the systems that are set up for those consequences fail to bring about justice.

So, if this is nothing new, then is it nothing big? If this is common in many cultures, are those who are concerned about cancel culture making a fuss over nothing?

While canceling might not be novel to our culture, I do not believe that our current society is well-equipped to deal with this question, for at least two reasons: we lack truth and grace.

Relativism and subjectivism are a part of our societal landscape. The affirmation that there is no real right and real wrong is one of the beliefs that has been broadly accepted by our culture. I remember hearing a priest once say something along the lines of, “We live in a culture that claims that there is no such thing as right and wrong, yet everyone is desperately afraid of being judged.” That has been my experience. When there is no real sense of right and wrong, all we are left with is utility and preference. “Does it work?” or “Do I like it?” are all we are left with.

With no objective standard, there are no external guiding principles for behaviors. And with no guiding principles, there is no limit to what can be a “cancelable offense” except a person’s own willingness (or unwillingness) to tolerate an opinion or behavior they don’t like.

Without objective truth, the only two options this kind of culture has are to either tolerate and celebrate all behavior or to condemn behaviors that we dislike. Even more, cancel culture doesn’t merely condemn behaviors, it condemns people.

And this is possibly the heart of what is wrong with cancellations. They do not stop at pointing out evil (or even merely unpopular) ideas and behaviors. They target people. As Catholic Christians, we do condemn certain ideas or behaviors as wrong or evil. We do hold up certain behaviors as good and virtuous. But we are prohibited from condemning individuals.

Further, when we Christians encounter our own (or another’s) failings, we have recourse. We can acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness. There is a remedy to our brokenness and failure, and it is called mercy — it is called “grace.” But a world without God cannot offer what it does not have. And our world has chosen to fashion itself as a world without God, which has led to a world without grace.

In the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, St. Paul describes the situation of a member of the church who was living in a romantic relationship with his father’s wife. Paul was shocked that his fellow Christians knew about this and tolerated this scandalous behavior. What the man and woman were doing was clearly wrong, yet no one in the community was doing or saying anything about it. Because of this, St. Paul instructed the local church to treat the man “as an unbeliever” so that he would realize his sin, repent of his choice, and be reconciled with the church. This is the first description of something like “excommunication” in the life of the church.

We need to pay attention to at least two aspects of this action.

First, Paul instructed the community to “treat him as an unbeliever.” This didn’t mean preventing the man from going about his work or slandering him in the larger community. It simply meant that he was not to participate in the life of the community. For example, he would not be free to receive Holy Communion since he was in a state of sin. This “cancellation” was limited in scope to this particular community.

Second, it is misleading to even call this situation “cancellation.” The man was not merely being punished; he was being taught. The goal of treating him this way was so that he would turn from an evil action and return to the community. The early Christian community could do this because it was appealing to an objective standard (and not merely their own preference) and were offering a mercy that could fully restore the man to grace.

This isn’t totally foreign to us. Most of us have experienced this in how we were raised. At some point, I imagine that we have heard the words, “You can come back to the dinner table when you are ready to sit still and behave.” This is necessary for socialization and for teaching children how to behave on a basic level. Parents make it clear that there is an objective standard and offer the opportunity for participation in the life of the family without restriction once the child has returned. The man in First Corinthians (and children in their families) are not being “canceled,” they are being corrected.

We all give off subtle “corrections” to the people around us. And we all receive countless such corrections. Every time we pleasantly acknowledge someone who smiles at us, we are affirming a particular behavior. Every time we roll our eyes in annoyance, we are expressing displeasure.

But this is “correction,” not “cancellation.” And there is a difference.

As Christians, we can offer correction based off an objective standard that transcends mere preference or utility. And we must continue to extend the offer of grace and restoration to all who are willing to accept it.

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at [email protected] 

Mass obligation reinstated July 1

In a communication to diocesan clergy, Bishop Daniel Felton has announced that the Sunday Mass obligation, which has been dispensed since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will be restored effective July 1.

The full text follows:

Dear Brother Priests and Deacons,

Greetings in our Lord Jesus Christ! Effective July 1, 2021, in coordination with the other Minnesota Bishops/Administrators, I am rescinding the dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation that was given in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, restoring the Mass obligation beginning the weekend of July 4. Attached please find a statement from the Bishops of our state making the announcement statewide. Please make sure that you communicate this to the faithful entrusted to your care.

During the summer months, it is a great opportunity to reach out and to re-engage parishioners; to provide some catechesis on the obligation itself; to invite and accompany the newcomers who have been participants of the on-line Mass experience to come and partake of the Mass at the parish church; and to assure the people that it is safe to return. With regard to the last point, as we move out of the pandemic safety protocols, please be respectful of those who may choose to wear a mask. I commend the hard work you, parish and school staff, and all the faithful have done over these many difficult months to help ensure we could worship together at Mass while limiting the spread of the virus.

I call to your attention the website referenced in the attached letter: backtomassmn.org. At that link is a Frequently Asked Questions page that may be useful to parishioners or to your own communications. As you share this news on social media, I also encourage you to use the #BackToMassMN hashtag.

It was great to see many of you at the ordinations of Dcn. Scott Padrnos and Fr. Trevor Peterson. Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!

May the Lord bless you and those you serve,

+Bishop Daniel

Update on diocesan COVID-19 protocols

To: Priests and Deacons
From: Very Reverend James B. Bissonette
Regarding: Mask Mandate Adjustments
Date: May 14, 2021

I am writing to you in regard to recent changes in the COVID-19 Mask Mandate.

From the Centers for Disease Control: "Update that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance." (May 13, 2021)

From the Office of MN Governor Walz: "Governor Tim Walz today announced the end of Minnesota's statewide mask requirement, aligning Minnesota with the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on face coverings. Minnesotans who are not fully vaccinated are strongly recommended to wear face coverings indoors." (Announced May 13, 2021; Effective May 14, 2021)

From the City of Duluth Communications Office: "Beginning today, the City will no longer enforce the mask ordinance…It is also important to remember the CDC's guidance on easing mask wearing is for fully vaccinated people, and that some business sectors and nonprofits are still required to wear masks within their spaces and may require the public to do the same." (May 14, 2021)

As you know, the recently adjusted Diocesan COVID-19 protocols state: "COVID-19 vaccination is strongly encouraged but not required for all who come to worship including priests, deacons, servers, lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, music ministers and ushers."

Given the above, beginning on May 15/16, 2021, the celebration of the Ascension of our Lord, those who come to worship may choose to wear a mask or may choose not to wear a mask.

Since we do not know who is vaccinated or who is not at our Masses, I ask that you follow the rest of the adjusted protocols (including safe distancing) until May 28, 2021 and July 1, 2021.

Thank you for your continued cooperation with these important matters.

Father Mike Schmitz: How do I support my seminarian ex-boyfriend?

I am a young woman who was dating a terrific young man. Things were going along really well for us when he broke up with me because he believed that he needed to enter seminary and discern whether or not God is calling him to be a priest. I want to support him, but I’m not sure how.

Father Michael Schmitz
Ask Father Mike

Thank you very much for writing and for this question. In addition, thank you so much for wanting to support your ex-boyfriend in his active discernment of the next step God might be calling him to. I can only imagine how tough this has been for you. Any breakup can be difficult, but when the other person is “pursuing their calling,” one can feel a little guilty about the sadness. I’ve spoken with folks who have been broken up with because the man was entering the seminary (or the young woman was entering the convent) who feel like they ought not to be sad or angry because the other person is trying to do God’s will. And yet, it can still be a sad thing. You were both invested in the relationship, and I imagine that the both of you had talks about a possible future together. To have to let go of those dreams gets to be difficult. You have permission to be sad and even angry about it. 

But I want to invite you to keep something in mind before all else: This is not just his story. So often, when I talk with someone in your position, altruism kicks in, and they will say things that indicate they see the breakup as only about the one who is entering the seminary or the convent. Yes, your ex-boyfriend is responding to a potential call from the Lord to be a priest. But this is a part of your story too. This relationship and this breakup and this pain that you are going through is your story. If God is calling this young man in a different direction, remember that he is also calling you in a different direction. You are not an “extra” in your ex-boyfriend’s vocation story. You have your own story, and God is actively calling you forward. 

Again, do not ever forget that where you are right now is a necessary part of your story. In fact, God is doing something in your life that he could not do without it. Obviously, things could be different, but the very fact that God has allowed you to be in this situation and go through this pain indicates that he wants to do something in your heart through this. This is a part of your story, and your call in the moment is to enter into whatever God is doing in this. 

You get to ask the question: How is God loving me in this moment? God never ceases to love you. He never ceases to draw you closer to his heart. How is he calling you to draw closer to him in faith? How is he calling you to trust him more radically? This is the question for all of us in any season. 

There are times in our lives when the skies are blue and God is loving us in a gentle and powerful way. But there are also times in our lives when the skies are dark and the weather is stormy and the waves threaten to swamp the boat in which we are sailing. In these moments, God is still loving us. He is loving us in a mysterious and beautiful way, even if it doesn’t feel beautiful. How is God loving you now? Further, how is God calling you to enter into his love? 

In order to respond with your whole heart, I invite you to pray like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prayed, “Father, let this chalice pass from me.” He didn’t pretend that everything was great. He was in the midst of incredible distress and trial. And his prayer echoes the pain in his heart. He let himself be honest with the Father. But then he continued, “Yet not my will but yours be done.” In the midst of his honest prayer, he also expressed his trust. 

Let this be the model for your prayer: Honesty and trust. 

God is doing something in your moment of loss. He is doing something that could not be accomplished without this. He is loving you. Enter into his love with honesty and trust. 

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at [email protected]l.com. 

Ordination and installation set for the Cathedral

Bishop-elect Felton
Bishop-elect Daniel Felton
(Photo by Mary Rasch)

The ordination and installation of Bishop-elect Daniel Felton will take place at 11 a.m. May 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary in Duluth. The evening before, Vespers will be celebrated at the Cathedral at 5 p.m. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 restrictions, in-person attendance at these events is by invitation only. However, the ordination will be livestreamed by the Cathedral and available at www.dioceseduluth.org. Bishop-elect Felton is also planning to celebrate Masses in each of the diocese’s five deaneries in the coming months to meet the faithful.

Father Daniel Felton named bishop for Duluth Diocese

Today, the Holy See announced that Pope Francis has named the Very Rev. Daniel Felton, of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis., to become the tenth bishop of the Diocese of Duluth. His episcopal ordination and installation as bishop of Duluth have been set for May 20.

Bishop-elect Felton
Bishop-elect Daniel Felton

Bishop-elect Felton, who has served as vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Green Bay since 2014, was born Feb. 5, 1955. He is the son of Carol and the late Ken Felton and the oldest of five children and attended St. Edward School in Mackville, Wis., and Appleton West in Appleton. He holds a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., in religious studies and psychology; a master’s degree in theology from St. John University, Collegeville; and a licentiate of sacred theology and a master’s degree in social communications from the Gregorian University in Rome.

Bishop-elect Felton was ordained a priest on June 13, 1981, by Bishop Aloysius Wycislo for the Green Bay Diocese. His parish assignments have included Holy Innocents in Manitowoc, St. Raphael the Archangel in Oshkosh, and St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Manitowoc. Father Felton was also the director of affiliate affairs for the Catholic Telecommunications Network of America.

Father Felton serves as a member of the diocesan College of Consultors, Presbyteral Council, Bishop Advisory Council, Personnel Board, Diocesan Finance Council, St. Norbert Board of Trustees, and Silver Lake College Board of Directors. He is also a member of the National Advisory Council of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“We are grateful to our Holy Father, Pope Francis, for sending us our next bishop in this joyful Easter season,” said the Very Rev. James Bissonette, diocesan administrator for the Diocese of Duluth. “We look forward to getting to know Bishop-elect Felton and beginning this new chapter in our walk of faith together under his leadership as our next shepherd.”

Bishop-elect Felton succeeds the late Bishop Paul Sirba, who died Dec. 1, 2019.

The Diocese of Duluth serves the 10 counties of northeastern Minnesota with more than 44,000 Catholics and 71 parishes.

Father Mike Schmitz: Does God just coerce people into following him?

I have recently been reading the Old Testament and have encountered some things that have troubled me. Among them is the way God talks about blessing those who obey him and cursing those who disobey him. I much prefer the New Testament and how Jesus reveals that God is love and calls us to love him. This just seems like God is coercing people into following him. What do I do? 

The fact that you are wrestling with this demonstrates that you have an issue and are willing to engage with it rather than just ignore it. These are the kinds of questions that can lead to a deepening and maturing of faith, so I am very glad that you asked about this.

Father Michael Schmitz
Ask Father Mike

Your observation is one that others have made as well. In our times, few people are familiar with the entire Bible. We might just be knowledgeable about certain verses or certain “ideas” that are found in Scripture. When we encounter the fullness of the Bible, it can confront us with elements we had not considered before. 

Further, what you noted can make a relationship with God seem incredibly “transactional”; the reason you follow him is to get good things and to avoid getting bad things. Even more, you noted that this seems to impugn the character of God, as well, and makes it look like he is willing to curse or bless people depending on how they respond to him. 

But let’s consider a few important points. 

You indicate that you are troubled by the fact that there are blessings connected with obeying God and curses connected with disobeying God. I can understand that this kind of thing might bother some people. But let’s also look at two things: human nature and the world around us. 

The world around us is completely filled with a thing that most people prefer to avoid: consequences. Every choice we make has consequences attached to it. We do not live in a world where we can make choices without also being willing to accept the consequences of those choices. Many times, those consequences have the positive effect of shaping our choices. (I choose not to eat the second double cheeseburger because I do not want to live with the consequences of eating the second double cheeseburger.) The fact that consequences exist does not mean that I am being coerced into eating only one cheeseburger. The consequences reveal what I’m truly choosing when I make decisions. 

Let’s emphasize that point: Consequences reveal what we are actually choosing when we make decisions. A person chooses to have the extra drink, and later realizes that what they’ve really chosen was a headache the next day, or they may discover that they have taken another step towards becoming dependent on alcohol. A person chooses to play video games and later realizes that what they’ve really chosen was to get a bad grade on the assignment that was due the following day. A parent chooses to scroll on their phone to get the latest updates on their friends and news in the world, and later realizes that what they’ve really chosen was to create distance between them and their spouse or children. 

There are an infinite number of examples in our own lives that each one of us could think of, and they all do the same thing: They are all oriented towards making us more free or more enslaved, more wise or more foolish. 

God’s laws are the same. God makes it clear that he desires for human beings to live in a certain way. If we live the way he has revealed, we become free and wise. If we defy his will and his commandments, we become enslaved and foolish. This happens all of the time, and it happens regardless of our wanting it to. They are not arbitrary consequences. They are inherent in the very act of choosing. 

One of the things that holds us up is that we imagine that God’s “blessing and cursing” is arbitrary. It is not. The blessings are the intrinsic result of choosing to obey him, and the curses are the intrinsic result of choosing to disobey him. He is not coercing people into obedience by holding out a carrot (or being willing to use a stick), he is revealing what kinds of behaviors lead to life and which kind lead to death. 

And this leads us to the second thing we need to acknowledge: human nature. I wonder if we aren’t being too generous with ourselves if we think that we don’t need rewards and punishments in our lives. Let’s even simply imagine that all of God’s laws are just that, rewards and punishments. Let’s say that the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy are even arbitrary. Would anyone be willing to assert that human beings are so good that we wouldn’t still need them? Every parent knows that children learn what is right and wrong through a system of reward and punishment. Hopefully, that system is just and fair and good, but it will be a system of “blessing and cursing” nonetheless. And this is how human beings learn. This, in fact, is how we have to learn. 

If we are ever to get to the place where we are willing to do the right thing “for its own sake,” we have to learn via the system of consequences. Yes, the goal is to be people who love God for his own sake and not out of a fear of hell or a selfish desire for heaven, but none of us automatically have that kind of love in us. That kind of love is more mature than most people have in them. It has to be cultivated and taught. The “blessings and curses” are the way our good Father in heaven is teaching us how to love. 

Last thing: Whenever we read a challenging piece of Scripture, I always encourage people to “keep reading.” For example, a person might wrongly have the impression that the New Testament doesn’t talk about things like hell or how loving God looks like obeying him. But what we find is that Jesus talks more about hell than anyone else in the entire Bible. (Yes! Loving and gentle Jesus!) He does this because he actually loves people and doesn’t want them to experience that consequence of disobedience. Jesus is also the one who says, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” Even in the New Testament, God reveals that obedience and love are intrinsically connected. 

And the same is true in the Old Testament. In the chapter of the book of Deuteronomy immediately following the blessings and curses (Chapter 30), God reveals the motive for the punishments he is willing to allow: so that you may be brought back home after having been scattered, so that you may be gathered into God’s loving arms after you have been isolated, and that you might “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, and so may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). God wants us to live and love, that is why he lets us choose it freely. 

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Bible podcast by Father Schmitz tops Apple Podcast list

Father Mike Schmitz says that if you had asked him to come up with an idea for a podcast that rise to the top of Apple’s Podcast charts, “The Bible in a Year” wouldn’t have been it.

podcast cover artAfter all, he says, the podcast, put out by the Catholic publisher Ascension Press, is pretty simple: a few words of introduction, three readings from the Bible, and a few words of explanation, around 20 minutes all told.

But starting Jan. 2, and for 17 days after, the top of the Apple Podcast charts is where “The Bible in a Year” landed. As The Northern Cross goes to press in February, it remains in the top 5.

Father Schmitz, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Duluth Diocese and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth, told The Northern Cross it was good timing that it came out right at the beginning of the new year, when people are trying to begin new things they know they need to do.

“That definitely, I think, is one of the reasons why it was so popular,” he said.

But he believes there’s more to it. He said that personally, he found himself being tired of “more and more noise and more and more distraction and more and more catastrophe” in the world around him and recognized the need to be rooted in something eternal, like the Scriptures. The Bible in a year is something he says he would have wanted to do himself anyway.

“It’s really cool that this is doing so well,” he said, noting it’s an indication of people’s thirst for wisdom and truth.

Father Schmitz says the podcast reading plan was developed around “The Bible Timeline,” the in-depth study by Jeff Cavins. The concept is reading the Bible in a way that is attentive to the story of salvation history from beginning to end.

But, noting that following the Bible Timeline plan strictly wouldn’t get to anything from the New Testament until November, the podcast format has a modification — four “messianic checkpoints.” For instance, beginning on Day 99 there will be a solid week just reading the Gospel of John.

Father Schmitz said the brief explanations are something many people find helpful people trying to understand the context, or when they discover that the Bible is full of brokenness and not just “stories from the Hallmark Channel.” The stories in the Bible are “not clean, not neat,” he said.

Yet Father Schmitz said God enters into that covenant with broken people and brings out greatness in the midst of brokenness.

The podcast’s success has garnered a flurry of media attention for Father Schmitz. He said the podcast has been mentioned in papers as far away as Australia. Major secular newspapers in England have run stories. So have Catholic News Agency and Catholic News Service and Religion News Service in the United States, through whom it is available to numerous other religious and secular media.

Father Schmitz was also been interviewed by conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro, host of his own popular podcast and video channel, which on YouTube alone has 2.68 million subscribers. Closer to home, he was interviewed in KARE-11, the NBC affiliate in the Twin Cities.

And the daily podcast is only one of the projects in the pipeline for the busy priest. He has a forthcoming book on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, co-authored with Father Josh Johnson. His weekly videos for the Ascension YouTube channel, which he’s been doing for the past five years, routinely draw tens of thousands of views.

When the pandemic hit, Ascension also began streaming his weekend Mass from UMD.

“That has been a weekly thing ever since last March,” he said, seen by people from all over, some of whom still can’t go to Mass.

And that’s in addition to his duties in the diocese, where he said UMD is still dealing with challenges from the pandemic and students will be participating in SEEK, the national conference of FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students.

But he says he can’t complain about about having a lot on his plate when it’s an honor to be able to offer that service.

“It’s just a gift,” he said.

— By Deacon Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross

 

Editorial: Seeing past the 50-50 split

The results of the election verified something that has been increasingly clear over a number of recent election cycles: politically, anyway, we’re divided just about in half.

Nationally, in terms of popular vote, out of all those tens of millions of votes cast, the margin was less than 5%, just like it’s been the last three presidential elections. In fact, in the 21st century, five of the six presidential elections have ended up that way.

In the states, many tilt solidly to one side or the other, with elections coming down to just a few “battleground” states with razor-thin margins of victory.

And that same split is visible in the church. In the past election, reportedly those who self-identify as Catholic were also split almost exactly down the middle in terms of whom they voted for.

It’s clear that any path forward has to involve some kind of authentic reconciliation in the truth amid those divisions.

Fortunately, our faith gifts us with this ability. We have a coherent, beautiful, humane social doctrine that is more sane and good and inviting by far than any of the competing ideologies in our world, and which can help purify them all, affirming what is true in them and amending what isn’t. We have a vision of Christ the King who helps us not to “put our trust” in worldly leaders. The church has a long memory and experience of many different kinds of rulers, including not just every American president since George Washington but a whole world of rulers, good and bad, from saints to tyrants and despots.

And it’s striking how consistent our duties as Catholics remain toward civil leaders whether we consider them good or bad. We pray for them, especially for their well-being and their success in doing good. We support them when we can out of service to the common good. And if they should do evil, we resist them to the extent we must — when conscience and our higher loyalty to God will not permit us to do otherwise — such that one might, like St. Thomas More, be the king’s true subject, but God’s first.

It’s not too early to begin praying for our elected leaders — all of them, the ones we voted for and the ones we didn’t.

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].