The Emotion of Anger vs. The Sin of Wrath

William E. May
(c) Culture of Life Foundation 2012
July 25, 2012
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

For the past 4 weeks (June 18-July 13), and for some more time to come, I have had to go to a hospital every weekday where I can receive hyperoxygenated baric therapy. The therapy requires me to enter a "chamber" where I remain for 2½ hours in the hyperoxygenated environment in order fully to heal osteomyelitis in a bone on the second toe of my left foot. While in the "chamber" I cannot read a book because the paper in the book would catch fire. For 2½ hours I can either sleep, pray, or watch television. For the most part I have slept because I usually must get up at 5 a.m. in order to dress, have medications infused and be ready to leave the rehab facility in which I now live. Transportation to and from the rehab facility is a wheelchair-equipped vehicle which leaves at 8 a.m. to get me to the hospital in time to be prepared to enter the "chambe

During the fifteen minutes required for me to "descend" into the "chamber" - I am, as it were, descending from sea level to a depth where twice as much oxygen is present, it is somewhat like landing in a plane that had been 36,000 feet above ground - I must yawn, swallow, etc. for 15 minutes in order to prevent my ears from popping. Likewise, in "ascending" from that depth to sea level, I must again yawn, swallow etc. for 15 minutes to prevent the "bends." During the descent and ascent the TV in the chamber is turned on, and at times I have watched the "History Channel." Twice it has devoted programs to the "Seven Capital Sins" as classified by Pope Gregory the Great in the late sixth century. Gregory identified them as Superbia (Pride), Avaritia (Greed), Invidia (Envy), Ira (Anger), Luxuria (Lust), Gula (Gluttony), Acedia (Sloth). The History Channel devoted one segment to "Anger" and another to "Pride."

Anger an Emotion, Wrath a Sin

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCD), no. 1866 identifies the Seven Capital Sins, or Deadly Vices, as follows: "Vices can be classified according to the virtues they oppose, or also be linked to the capital sins which Christian experience has distinguished, following St. John Cassian and St. Gregory the Great. They are called 'capital' because they engender other sins, other vices. They are pride, avarice (greed), envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia." Note that both lists are identical with one exception: the CCD calls "Wrath" the Capital Sin that Pope Gregory the Great and subsequent Catholic thought (e.g., that found in Dante's Purgatorio) had called "Ira" or "Anger." This distinction between wrath and anger is most important.

It is most important because "anger" is an emotional response and not a freely chosen moral act. In fact, one should feel the emotion of anger if a parent, for instance, finds an unruly adolescent snatching the purse of an elderly woman as she is using her walker to go to the corner drug store - just as Jesus experienced anger when he saw the money changers in the Temple, called them a gang of thieves who desecrated his Father's House, and drove them out. But, Jesus's anger was tempered - i.e., it was subordinate to the virtue of temperance - Jesus did not lose his "temper," just as the parent in our example must not lose his or her temper. To do so would be to forget the truth: that in our actions to redress wrongs, we are to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to pray for them, and not to seek vengeance upon them.

We are not to regard our enemies and those who hate us as objects to be exterminated, or as anything other than beings, like ourselves, who are made in the image and likeness of Christ - both of us are called, by uniting ourselves to the dying and risen Christ, to be saints, to be as holy as our heavenly Father is holy.

"Wrath," the CCD reminds us, is a Capital Sin, a Vice, because it is the freely chosen expression in human acts of untempered anger. It is the intemperate expression of anger, rather than anger itself, which leads to sin.

An example of "intemperate" anger is a father who, learning that his teenage daughter is pregnant, smashes his fist into her body or even expresses his anger outwardly with demeaning and harmful words and or demands that she get an abortion. A father in this situation manifests "tempered" anger if he tells his daughter that her getting pregnant angered him because she acted very badly, but went on to say to her that he and her mother love her, and the baby she is carrying, and want her to keep her child.

It is this distinction between wrath and anger which leads to St. Paul's admonition in his Letter to the Ephesians: "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil."

I hope this short essay has served to make clear the moral difference between the emotion of anger and the sin of wrath - and, that TV can, at times, move us closer to God provided we choose the right channel. Stay tuned for more thoughts from the chamber…