Shepherding the Irascible Sheep: Anger, Fear, and Fortitude

By dealing with our anger and fear in a healthy way, we develop the virtue of fortitude (a key component of patience). Focusing on the character of fortitude provides guidelines to dealing with clients that encourages proper use of fear and anger without denying their existence or validity.

Abstract: Confronting anger in counselees often presents a barrier to pastoral counseling. But the insights of Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, combined with those offered in contemporary psychology, open a path for seeing our emotions as a significant aspect of our bodily nature. By dealing with our anger and fear in a healthy way, we develop the virtue of fortitude and a key component of fortitude—patience. Focusing on the character of fortitude in pastoral application can provide guidelines to dealing with clients in a way that encourages proper use of fear and anger without denying their existence or validity.

            One of the most interesting remarks made by pastoral ministers in a class on pastoral counseling was that many of the ministers found it hard to deal with those they counseled who expressed anger—I myself was among them in that sentiment. While the personal history and culture of the minister is one aspect of the problem, I wondered what possible support could be provided for pastoral ministers counseling the angry, or those with anger issues? Further, what defines appropriate or healthy anger? Connected with this is the question of fear. Anger and fear might be seen as two sides of the same coin—reactions to stimuli, or passions, that flee or confront the cause of that stimulus. Traditionally, these two passions (anger and fear) had been classified as “irascible” passions, both of which were moderated and turned toward their proper end by the virtue of fortitude (courage). Advances in psychology have made significant contributions to theories of the human psyche and uncovered new ground for understanding these passions; hence, they rely on the theory of the virtue of fortitude—and one of its key components, patience—for answers. Turning to contemporary theories in psychology, I will synthesize contemporary findings with the traditional data of moral theology to create a contextual response for pastoral ministers to the issue of anger and fear in those for whom they minister, based in a reflection on fortitude and patience.

St. Thomas Aquinas treats the virtues as perfecting certain essential faculties of human nature. These passions are passive powers of the soul which draw one, as part of the appetitive powers, toward the thing acting upon the soul. 1 They are thus receptive and passive; they are essentially “reaction-based” responses of the body to changes that occur in the senses. 2 Thomas, following Aristotle, divides these faculties into concupiscible and irascible passions. This is a division between responses to pleasure and pain (concupiscible); and responses to difficulty in obtaining or avoiding good or evil (irascible). 3 Fear as a passion is irascible, which regards an evil object as impossible or difficult to avoid; 4 daring is the contrary passion which seeks quick resolution of the evil by turning toward it. 5 Anger as a passion regards two different objects: to vengeance as a good (pursued) and to the person it seeks vengeance upon as an evil object. 6

St. Thomas recognizes virtues to be certain, habitual, reasonable moderation and control over the passions and powers of the soul. Temperance moderates the concupiscible appetite, removing obstacles of pleasure which might draw the mind away from its proper object. Fortitude, on the other hand, deals with the contrary set of passions—the irascible. It is oriented to resist obstacles which might impede the good action of man. 7 It chiefly resists obstacles in regard to the passions of fear or daring; but it also has bearing upon the moderate use of anger in resisting these obstacles (so that fortitude also perfects the appetite of anger). 8 Fortitude as such, however, is measured by the extreme obstacle—death of the body—which it primarily seeks to overcome.9 However, fortitude includes the key, potential element of patience, which deals with conduct before lesser obstacles. Patience deals primarily with endurance of any evil for the sake of a greater good. 10

Consequently, patience is the more apposite virtue to be considered for its pastoral implications. St. Augustine defines it as “that by which we tolerate evil things with an even mind, that we may not with a mind uneven desert good things, through which we may arrive at better.” 11 He also notes that patience is only true if the object it seeks is noble; enduring ills for criminal ends is not patience. 12 He draws examples both of Jesus suffering Judas to betray him, as well as the sufferings of the martyrs. In fact, the greater battle is the battle against temptations—greater patience is required to persevere in the good, as in the case of Job. 13 Augustine specifically notes that infused patience cannot be a product of human will, but only grace, and specifically, as an effect of love of God. 14 His account thus contains two distinctive features: Christ is the archetype of the virtue because his earthly life displays the virtue best; and the virtue is unified and interconnected with the form of the virtue, charity. 15 In fact, Elizabeth Cochran argues for an identity theory of unity, so that each virtue is love; and patience, according to Augustine, is just another form or expression of love. 16

Modern psychology has a similar relationship to affect as did the Aristotelian St. Thomas, in that the effects are ranked in a hierarchy. In theories of anger, multiple classifications of anger exist. One theory holds that anger is a negatively valenced, approach-related emotion; and fear or anxiety is a negatively valenced, withdrawal-related emotion. The three aspects of emotion, according to this theory, are valence, arousal, and motivational direction. Valence determines whether the affect is positive or negative; arousal, whether it is intense (high) or slight (low); and motivational direction, whether it is approach or withdrawal. 17 This theory aims to break down the link made in other theories between positive valence and approach motivation, so that anger is seen as negatively valenced and approach motivated (other theories deny this case). 18 In another theory, anger is clearly defined as removing an obstacle or even of seeking revenge; likewise, anger is held to be approach motivated. 19 A critique of this position is offered by Watson (2009), who argues that the emotion of anger is related to both withdrawal and approach motivational directions. In particular, it is linked substantially with fear and anxiety. 20 Thus, the characterization of anger seems to focus on the possibility of different motivational directions and their connection.

In terms of the theorization of fear, multiple theories, again, come to the fore. One clearly makes a connection between emotions of negative valence, so that “fear is elicited when the perception of safety is threatened (e.g., exposure to an unfamiliar person), whereas anger surfaces when a goal has been interrupted or blocked (e.g., when a toy is suddenly taken away from a child).” 21 Fear is present along with the ability to feel pain from the beginning of development, but anger only develops with the advent of the cognitive ability to identify “the source of their distress.” 22

Emotions such as anger and fear can be activated and controlled by an individual, even though they have negative valences. Thus, anger can promote performance in a confrontational encounter and be preferred. Fear too can promote performance in certain cases, such as when there is a grave and imminent threat that needs to be avoided. Fear, however, is the more unambiguously unpleasant emotion, whereas anger can sometimes be pleasant (i.e., in enjoying revenge); but both can be utilized well in light of a larger, rational goal. 23

The therapeutic mode of operating with unresolved fear or anger is interesting, as it often calls the patient to confront those unresolved emotions in a high-arousal setting. Not addressing or experiencing anger or fear leads to other secondary affects in response, such as secondary anger and underlying emotions. 24 There is a clear link between arousal of primary emotions and the outcome of therapy; questions remain, nevertheless, as to what intensity is optimal in reliving those primary emotions. 25 Incidentally, in the results of the therapy, it was noted that unresolved loss or sadness often underlie secondary anger. 26 The release of primary emotions was often accompanied by fear, perhaps as a result of the vulnerability elicited by Gestalt methodology. 27

The correlations between psychology and theology were remarkable in this case. The parallels arose on many levels: analysis of the passions of anger and fear, proper use of emotions, and even certain biological claims. There was general agreement between Thomas’s and Augustine’s theories of anthropology and those of comtemporary psychology: fear is an avoidance phenomenon that responds to the perception of threat, while anger addresses frustration or difficulty in obtaining some good. The most surprising parallel between Thomas and contemporary psychology was in the discussion of motivational directions. Those who argued that motivational directions in anger were due to both approach and withdrawal coincided with the theory Thomas advanced of two motivational directions (toward revenge/aggression and away from the person). The conflict concerning motivational directions seemed to hit on both of these as well. The therapeutic use of confronting primary emotions seems to focus on the unhealthiness of sublimating emotions; again, this corresponds to Thomistic fortitude or patience, which is a right use of irascible passions. The analysis of people using fear or anger to properly motivate utilitarian goal-seeking is clearly in the same class of results confirming the Thomistic theory of virtue. Finally, even the analysis of infant perception of anger was similar to Thomas’s biological thesis that anger requires further cognitive ability above that required for fear.

The disagreements between theology and contemporary psychology lay in the characterization of virtue, the unity of the virtues, the rationality of the end of the act, and, of course, the Christocentric, or properly theological, element.

In contemporary psychology, the characterization of virtue is absent explicitly, due to the avoidance of proposing normative standards of behavior, but implicit in some of the therapeutic articles and statements (i.e., that one should resolve or deal with anger/fear “well”). Virtue, however, is a central category in moral philosophy and theology. In modern psychology, the unity of the virtues is significantly absent either implicitly or explicitly. There is no consciousness of a unity between habits, so that all action is informed by, and governed by, right reason. For Thomas, and especially for Augustine, virtue is formed and unified in charity, so that one cannot truly possess one virtue without another. Again, in modern psychology, the “end” of a virtue in the rational, good being is, at most, implicit in the discussion of how people tolerate fear or anger in order to promote a utilitarian goal. However, the very characterization of “utility” is not focused on the nature of the rational end, but only on the fact that there is a rational end, which prompts the person to tolerate fear/anger. But, in theology and philosophy, true virtue has to pursue a true good; otherwise, it’s a sham (the bandit is never courageous qua bandit). Finally, the lack of Christocentrism is predictable (and normal), in modern psychology, given that it is a natural science and so deals with a different subject matter than that of theology.

The most significant difference between contemporary psychology and the theology of Thomas and Augustine is in the characterization of affect and emotion. The terms as used by contemporary psychology are not clearly tied to an overall metaphysical picture of the human being. While Thomas and Augustine are primarily relating the moral implications of the passions, they also recognize their theories to be connected to one which makes the understanding of virtue both possible and clear. On the other hand, contemporary psychology seems to lack a significant element which the theological accounts possess (even though the metaphysical integration is philosophical, not theological per se).

The application of these theories to pastoral counseling is multiform, given that the subject of the theories concerns the nature of the irascible passions of fear and anger. What’s clear is that each of these emotions is present in every client we encounter in pastoral counseling, and that they need to bring these emotions into relation with right reason. In order to succeed at this, the client must practice the virtue of fortitude, and, its constituent virtue of patience.

For those undergoing pastoral counseling, the practice of patience is critical in order to confront one’s own experience and emotion. Yet, according to one pastoral counselor, one of the chief problems is clients who present a “divided self” in counseling sessions, by demonstrating various forms of hypocrisy and self-deception. They act out in different ways which seem inconsistent with their stated goals or practices. Very often, they are functioning people most of the time, with “slip-ups” or other problems, which arise sporadically. It might be binge gambling, sporadic affairs, or addiction to Internet pornography. These problems, described in a case study by Bland (2009), beset a single Evangelical Christian man. 28 Prior to grace and virtue, the human state is fractured and divided in its desires; but as these gifts are integrated in the human state, it more closely resembles God (by recreating the image of God in the human soul). Consequently, it is clear that a focus on courage and patience can heal some of these divisions.

Bland also points out what can go awry. It is possible, assuming that both parties are Christian, that counselees will feel they have to hide what might be seen (rightly or wrongly) as unacceptable behavior. Sometimes, counselees will successfully hide their condition of divided self entirely from their counselors, often prompted by the subtle “countertransference” of the counselors themselves. 29 While this is more or less uncontrollable, counselors can make missteps. First, they can sympathize with their patients by admitting being divided themselves! This impedes the process of guiding the counselee toward self-integration. Second, counselors may encourage or perpetuate cycles of depression, indulgence, and repentance in their patients, which furthers the division of the self. 30

Bland states that the first step to counter this is to recognize counseling as grace, or unmeasured acceptance of counselees’ actions, rather than labeling them as sinful or immediately attempting to suppress them. Such negative actions on the part of the counselor would cause further fracturing in the patient and be viewed as “another failure” in the cycle. Instead, the counselor’s focus should be on analyzing the background motivations for the unwanted behavior. By exploring the underlying motives, counselors get a better handle on the emotions of fear or anger themselves, which might be sublimated by counselees and expressed by acting out. This exploration of underlying motives can be seen precisely as the counselors’ practice of patience with the faults of counselees. Further, counselees practice patience when they admit to themselves that division is occurring—without making any normative claims—and likewise recognizing their motivations, fears, anger, and other reactions as acceptable in general. 31 In essence, confronting the true image of one’s self is a courageous act; however, only when counselees face the self in this way can eradication of unwanted behavior truly begin.

In a very practical sense, then, pastoral counseling can employ the findings of modern psychotherapy as defined above. Counselors can prompt counselees to address past memories or experiences as a way to engage the emotions which underlie them. It is most likely that those who seek counseling out of a sense of hurt or something “not being right” in their lives harbor secondary emotions of fear and anger. Fear and anger are the emotional reactions to hurt or wrong. Counselors should make explicit to the counselee the offer of grace or acceptance both from God and from themselves, in order to address the underlying desires which might motivate the counselees to become divided from their primary passion or experience. This demands the virtue of patience on the counselors’ part. Then, with these passions clearly understood by both counselors and counselees, counselors should begin to address them primarily in the context of virtuous character, rather than simply dealing with the ridding of unwanted behavior. The focus on character will bring subjects out of isolation or division of self; instead they will see themselves as a whole. Addressing their fears and brokenness requires the same virtue of fortitude demanded of the counselor.

Likewise, the Thomist and Augustinian theories on the virtue of patience are critical to pastoral counseling because of their adherence to the unity of virtues—culminating in charity.  If this is true, then seeking to properly order desires in one area of life will bring about true virtue in others (i.e., fearing the displeasure of one’s wife might be more effective in stopping the viewing of pornography than simply attempting to stop such behavior without this consideration). Similarly, prayer and spiritual direction will be critical to growth in the moral virtues and increasing the fervor of charity.  Acts of charity, such as working with the poor, will proceed from this unity of virtues, often effecting positive change in unexpected ways.

In conclusion, there are a number of ways to address fear and anger, as well as the more general problems of division of self and weakness of will, which are helpful to pastoral counselors—and to those in the related field of spiritual direction. The Thomistic structure of virtue and its theory of virtue formation provide a framework which is crucial to determining our progress forward (and backward) in the spiritual life. This framework can offer a way for counselors to focus on true pastoral ministry—rather than get “bogged down” in merely psychotherapeutic ends—by integrating modern psychology into a theory of the spiritual life. A concrete example of the role of patience in pastoral counseling is the insight that countertransference can jeopardize counseling, especially when dealing with those who have a divided self. Only fortitude and openness—patience—with the other person will allow ministry to be effective. If we lack patience with ourselves or others, our ministry will suffer.

  1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. English Dominican Fathers, second and revised edition, (New York: Benzinger Bros., 1920), I-IIae, q. 22, a. 1, resp.; a. 2, resp.
  2. Ibid., a. 3, resp.
  3. Ibid., q. 23, a. 1, resp.
  4. Ibid., q. 41, a. 2, resp.
  5. Ibid., q. 45, a. 1, resp.
  6. Ibid., q. 46, a. 2, resp.
  7. Ibid., II-IIae, q.123, a.1, resp.
  8. Ibid., a.3, resp.; a.10, ad. 3.
  9. Ibid., a.4, resp.
  10. Ibid., q.128, a.1, resp.
  11. Augustine, On Patience, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, FirstSeries, vol. 3, ed. P. Schaff, trans. H. Browne, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co, 1887), 2.
  12. Ibid., 5.
  13.  Ibid., 8-9.
  14. Ibid., 22.
  15. Elizabeth A. Cochran, “Jesus Christ and the Cardinal Virtues,” Theology Today, vol. 65, (2008), 82.
  16. Ibid., 83-84, 87.
  17. Cindy Harmon-Jones et al, “The Expression of Determination,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 100, no. 1 (2011), 172.
  18. Ibid., 173.
  19. Charles Carver and Eddie Harmon-Jones, “Anger Is an Approach Affect,” Psychological Bulletin, vol.135, no.2 (2009), 183.
  20. David Watson, “Locating Anger in the Hierarchical Structure of Affect,” Psychological Bulletin, vol.135, no.2 (2009), 205-206.
  21. Braungart-Rieker, et al., “Fear and Anger Reactivity Trajectories From 4 to 16 Months,” Developmental Psychology, vol.46, no.4 (2010), 791.
  22. Ibid., 800, 792.
  23. Maya Tamir and Betty Ford, “Choosing To Be Afraid,” Emotion, vol. 9, no. 4 (2009), 488-489.
  24. G. Diamond, D. Roachman, and O. Amir, “Arousing Primary Vulnerable Emotions in the Context of Unresolved Anger,” Journal of Counseling Psychology, vol.57, no.4 (2010), 402.
  25. Ibid., 403.
  26.  Ibid., 406.
  27. Ibid., 407.
  28. Earl Bland, “Courage and Grace as Self-Integration,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity, vol.28, no.4 (2009), 326-327.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid., 334-335.
  31. Ibid., 334-335.
Fr. James Dominic Rooney, OP About Fr. James Dominic Rooney, OP

Fr. James Dominic Rooney, OP, is a Dominican priest and PhD candidate in philosophy at St. Louis University. He ministers at churches in the St. Louis area, including the St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Mission.


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