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Posted March 3, 2005

Some Specific Causes of Priests’ Anger

Taken from the NCEA Seminary Journal, Winter 2004
By Louis Cameli

Priests are angry in the midst of the scandals of clerical misconduct with minors. They are angry at bishops and church structures for not responding appropriately at the time of the misconduct. They are angry that policies meant to remedy the situation leave priests vulnerable to false allegations and defamation.

Priests are angry at their brother priests who were perpetrators of misconduct with minors.

Priests are angry at the spokespersons of survivor/victim advocacy groups. Their consistently negative reactions to every initiative to foster the healing process and their cynical rejoinders reported in the press (almost always at the last word of a story) seem to keep everyone stuck in pain

Priests are angry at journalist and television reporters who are faithful heralds of perpetually bad news about the church, priests, and Catholic tradition (about which they are sometimes resplendent in their ignorance.)

Priests are angry at the Roman dicasteries that make pronouncements and give directions for moral statements, liturgical changes, and the role of the laity but do so in a way that often seems detached from the pastoral realities that priests must daily grapple with. Or, alternately, priests are angry that these same dicasteries and local ordinaries are remiss in enforcing church law and allowing non-compliance to flourish.

Priests are angry with “downtown” for the same reasons they are angry at the dicasteries, but with the added hitch that downtown is closer and, therefore, more intrusive with its bureaucratic fuss than Rome.

Priests are angry at other priests. They are angry at priests who “just don’t get it.” And that “it” may mean many things: commitment to the poor, racial justice, doctrinal orthodoxy, adherence to church law (especially concerning liturgy, the sacraments, and marriage), the stewardship of the church’s material resources, generosity in helping others and taking weddings, funerals, and sick calls. Sometimes priests are angry at other priests because they sense them laying unnecessary burdens on people or, alternately, not summoning people to true fidelity. Finally, this anger is directed to priests who “leave messes” for others to clean up.

There are priest angry at the church for having had Vatican II. One priest (now deceased) famously suggested that Blessed John XXIII would be the last to leave purgatory because he summoned the Council. This now poses a theological dilemma to have a blessed in purgatory, but anger transcends logical categories. Others are angry that there has been no Vatican III or that women are so marginalized in the church or that some women are so pushy and want to break Catholic tradition at all costs.

Very sadly, there are priests who are angry at “the people.” They may be especially angry at the occasional Catholics who neither support the church nor participate in its life but gush with sometimes unreasonable demands on the occasion of a baptism, wedding, or funeral. Priests are angry at people who easily and often spend four or five dollars on a mocha frappucino with caramel topping but toss a miserable buck in the collection basket when they do show up for Mass. A very real problem comes when such anger fans out to include the great majority of “the people” who don’t deserve it at all.


The first thing to remember about anger is that anger can be a positive and even holy reality. It can be so. It can motivate one and energize one in positive directions. Think of Moses coming down the mountain: “As he drew near the camp, he saw the calf and the dancing. With that, Moses’ wrath flared up, so that he threw the tablets down and broke them . . . Anger mobilizes Moses to begin a process of purification.

. . . Anger has a place in a priest’s life when it is outrage at what is wrong and it leads to prophecy and purification — positive outcomes.

[And then there is anger that keeps looping in our lives]. It will not go away and does not seem to lead anywhere. This anger festers and drags us down. We cannot let go of it, nor can we channel it in a positive direction. So, what do we do with it?

. . . Process it, that is, discuss it in psychological counseling or spiritual direction. Processing often means trying to get at the root causes and understanding it with the aim to control it and eventually to eliminate it. The difficulty — and I speak from my experience as a spiritual director — is that this kind of processing seems to have very limited results.

Occasionally, venting the feelings of anger and grasping its causes can help some angry people be less angry and more in control. More often — again from my experience — if one dwells on anger, it grows more entrenched.

I would compare anger and lust. Both involve strong feelings. Both can be sources of temptation (and sin). But they operate differently. I have proposed what the Germans call a Denkenexperiment, a thought-experiment. Summon, if you will, an object of your lust from ten years ago. What is it like? “Well,” one priest told me, “she’s ten years older.” Over time, objects of lust tend to lose their luster. Now, think of some affront or hurt that you suffered 10 years ago or 20 or 30. What happens now? For many of us, it comes alive with a force and energy as if it had just happened. Processing negative anger can feed the anger, not eliminate it. So what can we do?

The opposite of negative and depleting anger is not passive acquiescence to hurt or insult. The opposite of anger is gratitude rooted in an act of remembrance. If you revisit anger not to sort it out but to look at it in a wider lens of memory and gratitude, something changes in you. The anger-provoking agent remains, but the context widens. In the process, anger acquires new dimensions. It becomes a part of reality, not its totalizating or defining feature. How does this work? A few brief examples can illustrate the process.

If those who carry family anger within them try to remember the larger context of family life and history, the family remains a matrix of disappointment and a cause of anger, perhaps profoundly so. At the same time, the family comes into view as the limited and indispensable launching pad of our lives.

Similarly, the structures of the church and those who staff them can provoke considerable anger, especially in those who feel most attached to the church. Recalling and remembering the larger sense of the church and its mission does not magically eliminate anger. Part of the structure and some of those who staff it are clearly limited and, worse, sometimes betray the immense trust given to them. Still, a wider and deeper remembrance gratefully recalls how the imperfect instruments of church life hold a marching and sometimes stumbling pilgrim people on its basic direction.

A final example concerns the spokesperson of survivor/victim advocacy groups and journalists who have covered the misconduct scandals. Sometimes spokespersons and journalists have a limited take on the tragedy of clerical misconduct. This limitation has a painful and sometimes anger-provoking impact on faithful priests who abhor what some priests and bishops have done but also want healing to happen. Priest can angrily feel at cross-purposes with spokespersons and journalists who seem determined to keep the wounds raw. If, however, priests engage in a wider remembrance of these same people, they will gratefully note that the spokespersons and journalists have given us a gift – the hard truth that calls for our concentrated attention.

My point is to illustrate a spiritual practice that may be critical in our time and circumstances. I am suggesting a discipline of deliberative gratitude rooted in a remembrance that recalls more than hurt or injury. Is this difficult? I certainly think so. The old ascetical practices of scourges and hair shirts may be a cinch compared to facing our angers with the lens of gratitude and deep memory.

There is a way that this discipline enables us to participate in the mind and heart of God. If we take Paul’s words seriously in Romans, God does indeed make all things work for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28). Notice that there are no limits on what can work for the good. It is all things, all things. And here is where transcendent love meets memory and gratitude, and anger dissipates in its wake.