Originally published at Homiletic & Pastoral Review
“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Christ thus established love as the essential identifying mark of those who belong to Him. Love reveals the Christian; conversely, if we don’t love one another, we will not be recognized as His disciples.
It is on this point, then, that we must especially examine our consciences. Do we love one another? How would we know?
Our fallen nature and the world around us have never made love easy, but perhaps, trite as it may sound, the difficulties are especially great in our own time. It’s often observed that we live in an age marked by division, bitterness, and anger. As the children of the Church live in the world, exposed to all its foibles, we find division, bitterness, and anger among Catholics as well — e.g. between those who incline politically to the “right” or to the “left,” or those with contrasting positions on the Second Vatican Council or the Latin Mass. When they grow strong enough, such conflicts can tear apart families, parishes, and others of our communities. That scenario is not, alas, a mere hypothesis on my part.
Obviously this disunity among Catholics is a grave evil; but how to respond to it calls for more consideration. It has been pointed out, wisely, that as children of the same Mother Church, members of one Mystical Body, we share a common Faith, which provides us with a comprehensive, unifying worldview that, in one way or another, encompasses all good causes; this Faith ought to be more central, more fundamental, to us than any of the issues that divide us. This theme deserves extensive reflection, but my focus here is along different lines. Here I aim to explore how we, as mature Catholics, ought to respond when we find ourselves differing about issues that matter to us (and about which, presumably, the Church allows her children to form their own opinions).
Beliefs and practices connected in some way with faith, even when not stemming directly from Church doctrine, are often held with the same or almost the same gravity attached to religious dogma. Thus, an argument over such matters tends to be seen as a defense of truth and justice against the attacks of error. From this perspective, the conflict becomes something like a crusade. The proclamation of truth, it is often pointed out, has always brought resentment and resistance from some. We are obliged to make known and promote what is right, whether it be popular or not.
In this light, the anger that animates the heated arguments is often seen as not only justified but virtuous, the appropriate response to evil. How could one not be angry when people make statements one understands to be false, even offensive? Doesn’t someone need to stand up for what’s right? After all, Jesus too showed His anger.
This reasoning begins with a great truth. Christ did make clear that His followers had an obligation to proclaim truth — His truth — and that they would have to endure every form of rejection and abuse for their fidelity to Him. Many of those who have done so through the ages are now venerated as saints. Scriptural citations are easy to find: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18); “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34); and perhaps the best known, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11).
Yet we do well to be careful before applying this beatitude to ourselves. Being hated and reviled is not, in itself, a sign of blessedness. Those who are rejected for their loving faithfulness to the Lord, who suffer on His account, are indeed sharing the lot of the martyrs and are blessed for it. On the other hand, one may be rejected for many other reasons. Some people are hated because they lack respect for their neighbors, because their words or actions show arrogance, contempt, or unconcern. This kind of rejection has no beatitude attached to it. St. Peter cautions the young Christian community, on the brink of serious persecution, along these lines: “If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed . . . But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker” (1 Peter 4:14–15).
How does anger fit into this picture? The Catechism lists anger as one of the principal passions (CCC §1772). The passions are “emotions or movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil” (CCC §1763). In other words, passions are our nature’s response to the perception of good or evil. These passions are neither good nor evil in themselves (§1767). “Emotions and feelings can be taken up into the virtues or perverted by the vices” (§1768).
Regarding anger specifically, the Catechism says that it is the movement of resistance to a perceived evil (§1765). In this sense it can be said at times to be right, insofar as human beings are creatures of body and spirit whose responses involve emotion. The anger of a parent or older sibling when a child has been harmed, or the anger of poor peoples downtrodden by tyranny, are instances in which the emotion has an appropriate basis.
Even so, one needs to be careful. Anger, even aroused for a good reason, can still lead to evil actions. Like all the passions, it needs to be governed by reason (CCC §1767), and is perhaps harder to subdue than most emotions. We use the metaphor of “seeing red” because when anger is active, we see differently, less clearly, than when calm, as if a red mist were over our eyes — so much so that New Jersey’s Driver Manual recommends waiting for anger to cool off before attempting to drive.(1.) In particular, the “heat of the moment” is hardly conducive to determining whether our anger is reasonable or our response warranted. As St. Francis de Sales observes, “There never was an angry man who thought his anger unjust.”(2.)
Few reasons for anger are so easily justified, even ennobled, as those relating to faith and piety. Our religion is the greatest cause in our lives; what more important reason for indignation could there be? Yet it’s on precisely this account that particular care is needed in arguments involving some aspect of faith or devotion. When anger is on behalf of religion, or the ways in which we practice our religion, it tends to claim one’s allegiance in the name of one’s loyalty to the Church. It thereby asserts for itself a kind of religious authority and, bit by bit, erodes the sense of a need to hold it back.
Eventually the anger comes to feel synonymous with one’s fidelity to the Faith: the angrier one is, the truer one’s commitment. This sentiment is something like Laertes’s indignant cry in Hamlet, upon learning that his father has been killed. Laertes rejects the idea of calming down as unworthy of a true son:
That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,
Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot
Even here, between the chaste unsmirchéd brow
Of my true mother.(3.)
But is anger the proof of love that God asks of us? Christ gave no credit to Peter for cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave (Matthew 26:51–54; John 18:10–11), nor to James and John for wishing fire on the Samaritans who shut their doors to Him (Luke 9:54–55). What about anger in the defense of truth? The previously quoted first letter of St. Peter comments thus: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence . . . For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong.” (1 Peter 3:15–17; emphasis added)
Having been an impetuous, fiery soul in his younger years, St. Peter understood well as an old man what anger does, and what it does not do. One thing anger does not do well is persuade hearts. When we act or speak out of a burning passion, even if we think it justified or under control, those on the receiving end are likely to see only an attack against themselves, and will thereby be closed off against whatever we may want to say.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux comments on this in relation to her work as mistress of novices in her convent. She was obliged at times to correct the novices, but knew she must not do so in an emotional way:
“I would prefer a thousand times to receive reproofs than to give them to others; however, I feel it is necessary that this be a suffering for me, for, when we act according to nature [i.e. react emotionally], it is impossible for the soul being corrected to understand her faults; she sees only one thing: the Sister charged with directing me is angry, and all the blame is put on me who am filled with the best intentions.”(4.)
Words and actions arising from anger close off hearts and thereby destroy community. When anger becomes a habit among Catholics, it not only injures our own community but undermines our ability to evangelize. Why should those outside the Church listen to us if we can’t achieve kindness and unity among ourselves?
Overcoming these evils is no easy task. It requires the patience and discipline to hold impulses in check; the humility to listen to what others are saying with real attentiveness and thought, and to try to understand them; the charity to see the other as himself, as a person, and not merely as a wrong viewpoint. None of this comes readily or naturally. The inclination to turn indignantly on someone who’s offended us, to let out what rises up inside at those moments, is common in some degree to us all.
What, then, can we do? Who will save us from this body of death? (cf. Romans 7:24) First and foremost, we can begin by relying on the Holy Spirit, Who does what nature cannot. If we make a practice of calling on Him and depending on His grace, He will enable us to love everyone — the loud, close-minded uncle, the snobbish woman in the next pew, the person who posted something outrageous in the comment box — with the supernatural love that bears and endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7). Not that we must seek them out or relish their company, but when we do interact with them, the power of grace in us can enable us to genuinely love them and treat them accordingly. This kind of love is true strength, and, indeed, the most powerful witness we can give for Christ.
What, specifically, does this love look like? Is it incompatible with disagreement or conflict? It’s true that love may involve what’s often called “fraternal correction.” For human nature, though, so much more inclined to find fault with others than with oneself, it takes a rare degree of humility and charity to make such correction genuinely fraternal, rather than merely critical. Taken up too lightly, the task of correction can lead to a focus on others’ faults or errors, to the point of not knowing one’s own. Our Lord points this out penetratingly: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).
Speaking up to offer correction can often feel like a service or moral duty, an opportunity to enlighten others about the error of their ways; but in practice it’s often less helpful than one might expect. St. Thérèse again comments on this, describing how she felt when she became responsible for the novices:
“From a distance it appears all roses to do good to souls, making them love God more and molding them according to one’s personal views and ideas. At close range it is totally the contrary, the roses disappear; one feels that to do good is as impossible without God’s help as to make the sun shine at night. One feels it is absolutely necessary to forget one’s likings, one’s personal conceptions, and to guide souls along the road which Jesus has traced out for them without trying to make them walk one’s own way.”(5.)
Once confronted with the task of directing souls, the young saint had the humility to realize that her ideas about what was best for them, what they needed to learn, were only human ideas, no more likely to sanctify than anyone else’s. Since her duty as novice mistress obliged her to advise and correct, she turned to God and, rather than drawing on her own wisdom, relied wholeheartedly on His enlightenment.(6.)
Thérèse added that before assuming this responsibility, she too experienced the urge to correct others: “When I saw a Sister doing something which . . . appeared to be against the Rule, I would think, Ah! if I could only tell her what I think and show her she is wrong, how much good this would do me!” However, after she became novice mistress, her attitude changed: “When it happens that I see a Sister perform an action which appears imperfect to me, I heave a sigh of relief and say: How fortunate! this is not a novice, I am not obliged to correct her. I then very quickly take care to excuse the Sister and to give her the good intentions she undoubtedly has.”(7.)
Thérèse learned that, unless God calls on us to give corrections — in which case He will give the grace to do so with genuine love — we tend to give them from our own nature, which makes subjective judgments about when others are wrong and what they need to hear. This phenomenon is easy to see in the “corrections” being given in comment box debates, where charity — the defining Christian virtue, that on which we will be judged — seldom appears to be the prevailing concern.
What, then, does this charity look like in practice? Thérèse makes one good point when she speaks of trying to ascribe good intentions to her Sisters. We know so little of what goes on in the secret complexities of others’ minds and hearts. Even close relatives, old friends, and spouses don’t always understand each other; how can we be sure of what an acquaintance or a stranger is thinking? With widely varying backgrounds, personalities, and ways of expression, everyone has different expectations; what’s normal to one person is shocking to another. One aspect of charity, one that’s particularly important in unifying a community, is to give each other the benefit of the doubt, to avoid making assumptions, or better, to assume the best as far as possible.
This principle applies to our disagreements as well: When our brothers and sisters in the Faith advance some idea that strikes us as inconceivable, we may disagree thoroughly, but not let that impede us from seeing the goodness in them. Any given person has inconceivable dignity and worth, being made in the image of God, and reflects His glory in one way or another. In particular, those who are close to us — our families, friends, fellow parishioners, and others within our circles, like St. Thérèse’s sisters in religious life — deserve not only our patience but our respect and love. These are the people to whom we have particular ties and whose virtues we have probably had the chance to see.
This inner attitude of charity will show itself in exterior interactions. If we can see each other as God sees, made in His image, manifestations of His goodness, our interactions will be marked with courtesy and charity. We will be more disposed to listen to one another, to truly communicate and seek to understand. Again, this way of living can’t be learned in a day nor achieved by unaided human nature; the Holy Spirit brings it about in us, if we seek His help.
Imagine: What would happen if Catholics everywhere started living this way? If each of us put first our Faith, and our bond therein, and united as brothers and sisters? If, when disagreements arose, we handled them accordingly, looking to our one Church for guidance and truly seeking resolution? Might not the children of the Church become a powerful force for change in the culture, instead of being more voices in the clamor of the world?
You and I may not be in a position to change the world. But each of us can change our own hearts.
1. New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, 2021 New Jersey Driver Manual, p. 90. https://www.state.nj.us/mvc/pdf/license/drivermanual.pdf.
2. St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life (New York: Image Books, 1966), 148.
3. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, in The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972), Act 4, scene 5, 118–121.
4. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, third edition, ed. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1996), 239.
5. Story of a Soul, 238.
6. Story of a Soul, 238.
7. Story of a Soul, 245.