Disordered Passion and Obedience
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?

What is interesting is that the Second Reading locates the source of the social disorder not in the structure of government or in political mechanisms, but in the disordered passions of individual persons. Today, the tendency is to believe that the source of our social problems is in systems of government, and not the disordered character of individual persons. What is also interesting to consider is that the founding fathers of the United States always maintained that virtuous persons alone make good government possible, and that without virtuous citizens, good government, whose end is social order, is impossible.

One of the effects of Original Sin is the disorder or rebellion of the passions. There are eleven basic passions of the sensitive appetites. Specifically, the passions are appetitive reactions that follow upon knowledge. The passions of the mild or pleasure appetite are love, desire, satisfaction, hate, aversion and sorrow; the passions of the aggressive appetite are hope, despair, fear, daring, and anger.

Animals are governed by their passions, but human beings are to be governed by a higher faculty, namely reason and will power. The passions become fully human when they are given proper order by a will that is subject to reason, that is, when they are disposed to obey the demands of reason. The emotions have an innate need to be guided by reason, and without being so guided, emotional health is not possible, much less a healthy and well ordered civil community.

But disposing the emotions to obey reason is a very difficult thing to accomplish, because of that wound of Original Sin, and it takes years of hard work and suffering to bring to the passions that kind of order. But that’s what the virtues are: they are habits that dispose the passions to obey reason.

The interesting thing about the passions is that they affect the way we see the world. And so if our passions are disordered, the way we see the world will be distorted. As a person grows in virtue, he begins to see through the clear lenses of a well ordered character; but if he refuses to grow in virtue, he remains emotionally immature, and the result is a skewed and distorted mind.

So why is it that so many people refuse to cultivate the virtues? Why is bringing the emotions of the pleasure appetite under the governance of reason so unpopular? Why is it that so many people today don’t know what the word “temperance” means—which Aristotle defines as the virtue that moderates the pleasures of touch? Why is chastity so unpopular, on a cultural level at least? Why are so many people today impulsive and periodically out of control? The reason is that cultivating virtue is hard work. It involves personal sacrifice, and it is more important for people today to “feel” a certain way than to “be a certain kind of person” (a person of good moral character). Emotions are about feeling, but good character is about “being a certain kind of person”, one with a morally noble identity. But to be a person of moral nobility requires a willingness to make sacrifices, to do without, to control oneself, to obey a higher law, for the sake of the common good, which includes my own good, but is larger than it.

Frankly, this culture places the emphasis on feeling, not character. And so an increasing number of people today choose for the sake of their own pleasure, rather than out of a love for the common good and obedience to the moral order. And so petty theft is more common, as is lying, perjury, insurance fraud, cheating, and indulgence of all kinds.

The problem is that disordered passion blinds the intellect, which in turn leads to imprudent decisions, very often unjust decisions, and these in turn have very costly social repercussions. One morning I was driving to work, trying to think of examples for my students that illustrate how disordered passion blinds the mind. I was stopped at an intersection with a red light; I was about to turn right, but the oncoming cars had an advanced green, and one is not permitted to turn right on a red light with an advanced green. So I’m waiting for it to turn green, and a young man in an SUV behind me starts to lean on his horn. I simply point to the oncoming cars and shrug my shoulders. But he continues to honk. I ignore it. When the light turns green, he steps on the pedal, speeds past me, cuts me off and slams on his breaks, almost causing a collision, he then waves his fist.

Now I’m somewhat in shock at this point. He takes off, but at the next red light, I take down his license number and later file a Road Watch report. I’m not sure if it accomplished anything, but what I found interesting is that this man had no idea who I was. I could have been a sociopath, a person with a long criminal record. I could have been a complete “nutcase” with a gun looking for an excuse to make someone’s life miserable—and there seems to be more of those today. He wasn’t able to consider this. Vehement passion (impatience) blinded his mind. Lucky for him it was a Deacon who was a religion teacher, trying to think of a way to explain how disordered passion blinds the intellect. And only a week later, the same thing happened on the corner here at Yonge and Wellington. It was early in the morning, just before leaving for school, I had just finished telling my wife: “If someone is driving like a crazy nut, don’t honk the horn. There are a lot of adults out there who are not all there mentally and emotionally.”

Well, I should have taken my own advice; not ten minutes later a lady was on my bumper, so when the street became two lanes, I moved to the right lane immediately, and this woman speeds past me only an inch from the side of my car, and I make the decision to give the horn a little toot. Big mistake! She pulls in front of me, slams on her brakes, and sticks her arm out the window with one of her fingers pointing to the sky. This time I didn’t bother with Road Watch—I thought the police would start to wonder if there’s something wrong with me. But there it is once again, disordered passion blinds the intellect. I could have been some narcissist who despises women. I could have followed her to work, followed her home, or waited till she got to a red light, etc., she had given me the excuse needed to rise up out of my boredom and wreak havoc upon her life, under the guise of justice. She didn’t think; she just reacted impulsively.

I was even sitting in the Mr. Greek Express one evening waiting for my order to take out and there was a family there having supper. The father called the waitress over and in a very aggressive tone demanded to see the manager. She comes over, and he’s holding a dinner knife in his hand and talking to her as if she had just committed the most heinous crime. It was really quite frightening to watch, my heart rate rapidly increased just witnessing this. It was as if she’d backed a truck into his brand new Jaguar or something. Well, the injustice was that his wife’s order got mixed up: she’d ordered chicken, not pork, or something to that effect.

There is an example of how the disordered love of food—and a corresponding inability to tolerate any kind of sorrow brought on by delay—affects the mind. What is not an injustice at all is judged to be a serious violation of justice, which in turn gives rise to vehement anger. Compare that reaction to the person with an ordered appetite for food who simply calls the waitress over and politely points out the mistake and waits. Nobody’s day is ruined.

What disordered passion also does is that it blinds us to the limits of our own perspective. We are not aware of just how limited our point of view is—we think our view is much larger than it actually is, we “feel” right, and so we don’t listen to others, we dismiss them or demonize them (we see this in politics all the time). But as we get older, we should begin to see that reality is much more complex than we once thought, and we’re not so “passionate” (self-righteous) anymore. At least that’s what should happen. Very often it does not, because of pride, which is the disordered emotion of love bearing on one’s own excellence. One cannot tolerate the feeling of being wrong—it conflicts with one’s inflated image of oneself. And so if one insists on enjoying the feeling of being one up on others, then one is unwilling to listen and have one’s viewpoint enlarged.

The unfortunate thing with this is that one does not get to experience the real joy of a richer possession of the truth. Instead, one settles for a feeling that is based on an illusion.

Well, in the gospel, the Apostles, the very foundation stones of the Church, are arguing amongst themselves, discussing who among them is the greatest. The disordered emotion of self-esteem. What is strange, however, is that Jesus calls over a child. That’s strange because children are governed by their passions, and the problem with the Apostles is that they were behaving like emotionally immature children.

Of course, that’s not the quality that Jesus is calling attention to in the child. One of the most wonderful characteristics of the child is “openness”. A child is open to learn and obey. It is only later on, in adulthood, that some people will make the decision to close themselves, because they have decided that they want to “feel” a certain way, that pleasure is more important than truth, that feeling emotionally comfortable is more important than the continual improvement of one’s character.

Every ten years or so there usually appears on the Best Seller list a New Age book of some kind. In the 70s it was The Power of Positive Thinking, later on it was the Celestine Prophecy, then came Deepak Chopra, then the Secret, etc., and what all these New Age books have in common is they promise that if we think a certain way, the forces of the universe will somehow converge upon us in a positive way and we will prosper. But what’s interesting is that there is never any call to personal reform, no need to obey commandments, etc. Salvation without moral reform, without the need to cultivate virtue or make painful sacrifices; rather, we can live on our own terms.

I believe that the most fundamental virtue is obedience: obedience to the natural moral law, obedience to the divine law, obedience to the Law of Christ and His Church, and that’s the one thing that people find the most difficult, and so they very often convince themselves that they can have a close relationship with God on their terms, without reforming themselves morally.

We are called to be perpetually open to truth, in particular moral truth, to the demands of the natural moral law. We are called to be continually open to the never ending improvement of our character, which means we have to have the willingness and fortitude to behold our own moral deficiencies, to discover them, moral deficiencies that often others see, but we do not. If we live in a childlike spirit of openness and obedience, with a willingness to be measured by a truth larger than ourselves, regardless of how it might make us feel at first, we will grow in a genuine spirit of happiness, a happiness that is much deeper and richer than the fleeting pleasures that so many people settle for.