Exploring Harmful Anger in and at Marriage and the Priesthood

The protection of one’s marriage and children from the harm caused by excessive anger is an important responsibility for parents in their vocation. Particularly challenging is the uncovering and addressing of anger expressed in a covert, masked, and divisive manner. The expression of anger in this deceptive manner is described in the mental health field as the passive-aggressive expression of anger, which contrasts with its honest, open, and direct expression.

We have described this masked anger and the severe damage it causes to marriage in our American Psychological Association book on treating excessive anger with forgiveness therapy.1 The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes the passive-aggressive personality disorder as a pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations. In the Catholic family, this anger shows itself often as a strong resistance to acting in a responsible and loyal manner and to living by the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and the reception of the sacraments. It is also manifested by the refusal of a Catholic parent to support and communicate the Church’s liberating truths.

The spouse who exhibits this kind of anger regularly acts in a deceptive manner. An attempt is made to give the appearance of being the most loving, caring, and compassionate family member while at the same time enjoying venting anger in a covert manner. Such anger is not infrequently misdirected against the Faith. For example, a passive-aggressive spouse might make subtle disparaging comments about needing to protect children from certain Church teachings that are portrayed as rigid or lacking in compassion, love, and mercy. These would include, particularly, the Church’s teaching on marriage, contraception, cohabitation, homosexuality, and divorce.

The passive-aggressive spouse attempts to place his or her spouse on the defensive by the false claim that the Church’s teaching opposes mercy and Christian love. In doing so, a strong moral claim is made against the loyal spouse, essentially demonizing him or her. The goal of such covert, passive-aggressive anger is to undermine the trust in the loyal spouse and thereby gain control of the marriage and family. This deceptive process can often result in parental alienation — that is, alienating the children and other family members from the loyal parent.

A leading method of expressing veiled anger against the loyal spouse is by making false accusations, often in a subtle manner. The passive-aggressive spouse projects their own inner resentment onto the loyal spouse by attempting to portray the loyal spouse as being rigid, inflexible, harsh, hostile, or unloving.

They also often present themselves or their children as victims of cold, insensitive treatment by the loyal spouse who, according to them, has unreasonable, counter-cultural expectations of behavior consistent with the pursuit of a virtuous life and the Church’s moral teaching. Their goal is to undermine the influence of the loyal spouse and thereby control the marriage and the children.

Such passive rebellion in the home can confuse the loyal spouse and children and, at the same time, be difficult to uncover because of the themes of protection, compassion, and love that intermingle with a rejection of the revealed word of God. Unless uncovered, challenged, and appropriately addressed, this passive-aggressive anger results in harmful divisions between spouses and in parent-child relationships. Specifically, this veiled anger can severely harm marital trust and love, resulting in permanent division through separation or divorce, with its lifelong damage to innocent spouses and to children.2

The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Anger

The Catholic passive-aggressive spouse has decided against being a moral and spiritual leader and protector in the marriage and family for numerous reasons, and often finds pleasure in doing so. The reasons for this psychological response to the covert expression of anger often arise, as with most psychological disorders, from unresolved conflicts from childhood and adolescence or from major personality conflicts.

The origins of excessive anger expressed in direct or passive-aggressive ways usually arise from unjust hurts in life, most often with a parent, sibling, or peers. These are referred to as the secure-attachment relationships that strongly influence psychological and spiritual well-being. Psychological conflicts that lead to excessive anger are sadness, anxiety, insecurity, difficulty in trusting, the desire to control and dominate; selfishness with a rejection of any limits placed upon oneself; pressure from peers; pride; a false sense of strength in the expression of anger; and an inflated sense of self. The latter can lead to grandiose thinking. Some spouses see themselves as leading a noble campaign to free the family from oppressive, controlling, and rigid spouses and Church teaching.

At the same time, spouses who enjoy creating division within the family by expressing passive-aggressive anger often have significant unresolved anger with a parent who was overly controlling, excessively angry, selfish, or difficult to please — most often the father. This spouse, when young, typically never rebelled against the offending parent because of the fear of his or her response, or due to feelings of insecurity. However, pleasure often is found later in the passive expression of anger through resistance to expectations in Catholic parenting, such as correcting children who engage in rebellious, narcissistic, or immoral behaviors.

This paternal anger can be misdirected later at the Church, as described in Erik Erikson’s study of Martin Luther, who had a very abusive father.3 Anger in its early stages is often associated with the sadness of hurts or injustice, but later it can be associated with a sense of pleasure in its expression. The spouse who gives vent to passive anger in the family can find great pleasure in the belief that he or she is very clever and that no one can clearly identify the plan against the loyal spouse.

Passive-Aggressive Anger in the Church

Passive-aggressive anger has been expressed in the Church in epidemic proportions over the past fifty years, beginning with the rebellion against Humanae Vitae.4 Bishops and priests have refused to fulfill their responsibilities and obligations as spiritual fathers to teach the truths of the Faith, particularly regarding sexual morality and the sacraments. Instead, they have supported situational ethics, which was (is) driven by narcissism, in Catholic seminaries, universities, and secondary schools, potentially making an unformed conscience more important than the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church.

Robert Cardinal Sarah recently gave an address that describes how members of the hierarchy are expressing anger against their spouse, the Church, by refusing to affirm the truths of the faith.

Many refuse to face up to the Church’s work of self-destruction through the deliberate demolition of her doctrinal, liturgical, moral, and pastoral foundations. While more and more voices of high-ranking prelates stubbornly affirm obvious doctrinal, moral, and liturgical errors that have been condemned a hundred times and work to demolish the little faith remaining in the people of God, while the bark of the Church furrows the stormy sea of this decadent world and the waves crash down on the ship, so that it is already filling with water, a growing number of Church leaders and faithful shout: “Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise!” [“Everything is just fine, Milady”].5

Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal, SJ, the new head of the Jesuit order, has recently challenged Jesus’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, stating in an interview that the words of Jesus against divorce are “relative” and must be “discerned” according to the “conscience” of each individual.6 Also, Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, who was recently given a Vatican appointment, has written a rejection of Jesus’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. He also has written against the teaching of the Church on homosexuality.7

Now anger is being directed also at the priesthood in the comments of Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, who heads the pontifical council responsible for the interpretation of canon law, saying that we should not assume that the ordination of an Anglican priest is invalid.8 This is a classic example of a passive-aggressive attack, in this case a subtle but vicious blow against the priesthood. Many of us do not know how to recognize such passive-aggressive attacks.

The current passive-aggressive expression of anger against doctrine, marriage, and now the priesthood is directed primarily at the influence of St. John Paul’s II’s teaching, including Familiaris Consortio, the Magna Carta for Catholic marriages and families, and Vertiatis Splendor.9 It is also directed at his correcting and bringing to end ministries in the Church that supported the sexual revolution in the culture.10 For example, the interim report of the first Synod on the Family was a clear rejection of his teaching regarding same-sex and cohabiting unions, as well regarding the moral formation of youth in the Meeting Point program for adolescents. The goal of the passive anger is to attempt to undermine the legacy of St. John Paul II and to remove its influence in the Church, which could explain the appointment of Archbishop Paglia as the director of the John Paul II Institutes for Studies on Marriage and Family worldwide.11

Neither the prelates publicly affirming doctrinal errors nor the two Jesuits challenging the indissolubility of marriage have been corrected by the Holy Father. His silence can only be viewed from a psychological perspective as giving support to the expression of anger against 2,000 years of Church teaching in a passive manner, by resisting the demands for adequate performance in his role as the Vicar of Christ.

This passive-aggressive anger is also manifested in the Holy Father’s refusal to clarify his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which is being used to undermine the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist and marriage. In fact, he “has thanked the bishops of Malta, according to a Maltese news outlet, for their guidelines that allow people living in objectively sinful situations to receive Communion if they feel ‘at peace with God.’”12

Another manifestation of this conflict is the Holy Father’s refusal to respond to Archbishop Viganò’s testimony that he covered up the long history of homosexual predation by Archbishop McCarrick against seminarians and adults. Rather than removing him from ministry, which should have occurred, the Holy Father trusted McCarrick in his choice of hierarchy in the United States and in the Vatican.

E. Christian Brueger has written that the Catholic Church is now in de facto schism, enabled to a growing extent by the Holy Father’s silence, refusal to teach the Church’s truth on sexual morality, and tacit support of those who rebel. He has offered several important recommendations for lay Catholics:

Knowing that the episcopate is divided on de fide doctrines of morality, Pope Francis needs to lead his brother bishops to face frankly this crisis in the Church and to resolve firmly to overcome it. Meanwhile, lay Catholics should not allow distress over the present situation to shake faith in Jesus’s promise to preserve the Church from damnable error.13

The Catholic laity who are mental health professionals have a responsibility to the Church to uncover the psychological conflicts that are now seriously threatening the well-being of Catholic marriages, children, families, and the Church. The recommendation offered is the same given to passive-aggressive spouses, which is that the failure to teach the truth and to correct is a manifestation of severely divisive anger and must end through growth in virtues and in grace. It also is time to confirm his brothers in the faith (cf. Lk 22:32) and teach and speak the truth.

Despite these unprecedented stormy waters, we can draw strength, hope, and comfort from Pope Emeritus Benedict’s words:

May the seven years which separate us from the centenary of the apparitions [of Fatima] hasten the fulfillment of the prophecy of the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to the glory of the Most Holy Trinity.14

  1. R. Enright and R. Fitzgibbons, Forgiveness therapy: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Books, 2014).
  2. M. McCarthy, Torn Asunder: Children, the Myth of the Good Divorce and the Recovery of Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).
  3. Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1962).
  4. See James Francis Cardinal Stafford, “The Year of the Peirasmòs – 1968”, available at catholicnewsagency.com/resources/life-and-family/humanae-vitae/the-year-of-the-peirasms-1968/.
  5. “Cardinal Sarah’s address on the 10th Anniversary of ‘Summorum Pontificum’,” Catholic World Report, catholicworldreport.com/2017/03/31/cardinal-sarahs-address-on-the-10th-anniversary-of-summorum-pontificum/.
  6. See, translated by Matthew Sherry for Vatican expert Sandro Magister, “Marriage and Divorce. The General of the Jesuits: ‘Jesus Too Must Be Reinterpreted’,” Settimo Cielo, L’Espresso, magister.blogautore.espresso.repubblica.it/2017/02/22/marriage-and-divorce-the-general-of-the-jesuits-jesus-too-must-be-reinterpreted/.
  7. See Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, “‘What God has joined together. . .’,” National Catholic Reporter, ncronline.org/blogs/faith-and-justice/what-god-has-joined-together.
  8. Phil Lawler, “Is the Vatican’s top canonical official undermining canon law?,” CatholicCulture.org, catholicculture.org/commentary/otn.cfm?id=1220. Also see Ed Peters, “Questions in the wake of Cdl. Coccopalmerio’s comments on Anglican orders,” In the Light of the Law, canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/questions-in-the-wake-of-cdl-coccopalmerios-comments-on-anglican-orders/.
  9. Rick Fitzgibbons, MD, “Exploring the current ‘inexplicable’ Vatican ‘undermining of St. John Paul II’s legacy’,” LifeSiteNews, lifesitenews.com/opinion/exploring-the-excessive-anger-at-st.-john-paul-ii.
  10. Stephen Baskerville, “How the Church Must Confront the Sexual Revolution,” Crisis Magazine, crisismagazine.com/2017/church-must-confront-sexual-revolution.
  11. See Matthew Cullinan Hoffman, “Vatican archbishop featured in homoerotic painting he commissioned,” LifeSiteNews, lifesitenews.com/news/leading-vatican-archbishop-featured-in-homoerotic-painting-he-commissioned.
  12. Claire Chretien, “Confusion caused by Amoris Laetitia is ‘unprecedented,’ even ‘apocalyptic’: Scholar,” LifeSiteNews, lifesitenews.com/news/catholic-scholar-amoris-laetitia-has-caused-unprecedented-apocalyptic-doctr. This article cites the same author’s earlier article, “Report: Pope Francis thanks Malta bishops for guidelines allowing adulterers to receive Communion,” LifeSiteNews, lifesitenews.com/news/report-pope-francis-thanks-malta-bishops-for-allowing-remarried-divorcees-t.
  13. E. Christian Brugger, “The Catholic Church in De Facto Schism: What’s to Be Done?,” Public Discourse, thepublicdiscourse.com/2017/02/18799.
  14. Pope Benedict XVI, homily on May 13, 2010 (the anniversary date of the first apparition), w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/homilies/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20100513_fatima.html.
Dr. Richard P. Fitzgibbons, MD About Dr. Richard P. Fitzgibbons, MD

BS from St. Joseph's University; MD from Temple University School of Medicine, Dept. of Psychiatry, Hospital of the University of Medicine, and the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center.

Richard Fitzgibbons, MD, is the director of the Institute for Marital Healing, located outside Philadelphia, and has worked with hundreds of Catholic marriages and families over the past 40 years. He coauthored Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope (American Psychological Association Books, 2015), in which he addresses the importance of a treatment plan to uncover and address excessive anger in marital conflicts and divorce. In September 2019, they received the Benedict XVI Foundation Expanded Reason Award for research in association with the University Francisco de Vitoria, Madrid for Forgiveness Therapy. His book Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Marriages was published in 2019 by Ignatius Press.

Over the past 38 years, Dr. Fitzgibbons has consulted with priests from many dioceses and religious communities. He has authored articles in The Priest on identifying and resolving emotional conflicts in priestly life and has given conferences on these topics in many dioceses. He coedited an issue of the Catholic Medical Association's Linacre Quarterly (August 2011) on the crisis in the Church, and has served as a consultant to the Congregation for the Clergy. His website is www.PriestlyHealing.com. He has spoken twice to the spiritual directors of American and Canadian seminaries on the origins and healing of transitory same-sex attractions and in many conferences for seminarians.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Dr. Richard P. Fitzgibbons your analysis may be valid in certain individuals, however, you make some universal assumptions that seem hard to accept. As a doctor, I would expect you to provide hard evidence based on research for your assumptions about anger and its influence on the position people take regarding doctrine. If I take your conclusions seriously, disagreements with doctrine, doubts, and responses over teachings are only emotional, not rational. Is this a fair conclusion?

    • Au.contraire, Dr. Fitzgibbons is speaking from his clinical experience and his well-informed conscience and intellect. His diagnosis of schismatic clerics can be complemented not only by psychiatric studies, but by writers from other disciplines like Mary Eberstadt, Robert Royal, Philip Lawler et alii. I don’t see this article as asserting that psychosocial dysfunction afflicts all clergy, but one would be wearing the Platonic essence of rose-colored spectacles to maintain that there is not a pervasive refusal to preach even the fundamental doctrines of the Church. Finally, this is an article in a review that is pastoral not a dissertation with “hard evidence’. When is the last time you heard a homily defending traditional marriage or criticizing contraception?

  2. Besides silence “viewed from a psychological perspective as giving support to the expression of anger,” I consider it steeped in rejection and dismissiveness. As a result, no behavioral boundaries are delineated or disciplining consequences imparted. The ordained family increases in its dysfunctionality looking at their issues through telescopes. Priests and Bishops more and more lack authentic leadership and magnanimity.


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