I know that anger is one of the seven deadly sins. Yet Jesus was clearly angry when he chased the moneychangers out of the Temple and, being God, he couldn’t commit any sins. Is anger a sin or isn’t it?
The question you ask is one that troubles many people. It is good that we have a clear understanding of the issues, so that we don’t unsettle our consciences unnecessarily.
The problem arises when we fail to distinguish between anger as an emotion, or a passion in the traditional terminology, and anger as an act of the will.
In general, emotions or passions, sometimes called feelings, are natural responses to various situations. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines feelings or passions as “emotions or movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil.” (CCC 1763)
Thus in the face of something good, we may experience the emotions of love, desire, hope, joy, etc. And in the face of something perceived as evil, we may experience hatred, anger, fear, aversion, sadness, etc.
In themselves, the passions are neither good nor evil. They simply form part of the human psychology God gave us. It is only natural to experience love or joy in the face of something good, and equally natural to experience fear or anger in the face of something evil.
For example, if we didn’t fear danger we would not live long. And if we didn’t become angry when we saw a man cruelly beating a child, we would not be human.
These feelings are neither meritorious, in the case of the positive ones such as hope, love and joy, nor sinful, in the case of the negative ones like fear, anger or sadness. They are simply natural reactions to situations.
It is only when we consent to the feelings by an act of the will that they can become meritorious or sinful. In the words of the Catechism, “In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will.” (CCC 1767)
Let us look at anger in particular and see how this teaching applies. Adolphe Tanquerey, in his spiritual classic The Spiritual Life, defines anger as “a sentiment that consists in a vehement desire to repel and punish an aggressor.” (n. 854) Using the example previously given, if we see a man cruelly beating a child we naturally feel angry towards the man and a desire to stop him. This is only natural, and it is good. It is not sinful to feel angry.
There are many situations in which we can feel justifiably angry. Parents can feel angry towards their children when they don’t do what they are told. Teachers can feel angry towards unruly students. Employers can be angry with workers who are lazy, and workers can be angry with employers who make unreasonable demands on them. There is nothing wrong in this.
In response to these feelings, a person can react in various ways. Their response will now be a free act, moved by the will, and it will be praiseworthy or sinful.
For example, they can express their anger in a controlled way, proportionate to the evil being done, and moved by charity, in which case their expression of anger will be morally good. Parents need to express their anger and discipline their children when they act up, as do teachers with their students. As long as they do it in a controlled way, moved by love, it is praiseworthy, even virtuous.
Jesus’ anger towards the moneychangers in the Temple was of this sort. It was completely justified, expressed with control, and moved by love for his Father’s house, even if it may have appeared strong.
Alternatively, people can lose control and become unduly violent, harsh or abusive. While they may be justified in becoming angry, they are not justified in expressing their anger in such a harsh way. This anger is sinful because of its lack of self-control and due proportion.
It is the role of the virtue of meekness to moderate anger according to right reason; that is, according to what is appropriate in each case. We do well to ask God for an increase in meekness, so that we can control our anger when required.
With this understanding, we can clear up many doubts of conscience. For example, we do not need to confess feelings of anger, which are never sinful in themselves, nor do we need to confess expressing our anger outwardly if it was done with moderation and charity. We only need to confess our expressions of anger if they were immoderate and disproportionate to the situation, or expressed without love for the person.