I had a strange experience this morning. In response to a comment I made on Facebook supporting the distinction the Pope made against the misinterpretations of his words concerning responsible parenting, a couple of people took offense thinking the Pope and I were condemning “unplanned” pregnancies. It gave me a little insight as to what it was like to be the Pope when people start accusing you of saying something you did not say and never intended people to take away from what was said. These people were angry and because of their anger they were incorrectly judging what was said. It is a common problem that we need to be made aware of.
I think the problem is, Western society has moved away from rationally looking to understand what was actually intended and instead treats the emotions that arise from a statement as an infallible interpretation over truth or error. In other words, we see a statement that evokes a passion, and automatically assume that how we emotionally perceive it as being what the speaker or writer meant. The problem is, passions aren’t infallible. On the contrary, they are very fallible and easy to manipulate—that’s the entire purpose of propaganda.
That’s not to say that we need to be like the Vulcans of Star Trek. Emotion, by itself is not good or bad. What makes them good or bad is what we do as a result of our emotions. The Catechism speaks about emotions in this way:
1768 Strong feelings are not decisive for the morality or the holiness of persons; they are simply the inexhaustible reservoir of images and affections in which the moral life is expressed. Passions are morally good when they contribute to a good action, evil in the opposite case. The upright will orders the movements of the senses it appropriates to the good and to beatitude; an evil will succumbs to disordered passions and exacerbates them. Emotions and feelings can be taken up into the virtues or perverted by the vices.
So, anger (for example) that rouses us to act for what is right is good. anger which rouses us to hate, judge rashly or attack others is bad.
But sometimes, emotions can be misapplied. If a person misunderstands something, it is easy to think something is when it is not, or is not when it is. In such cases, emotion can be misapplied. That’s how people can believe that a dictator has people’s well being in mind and follow him to destruction. That’s also how people can believe that Church teaching is based on hatred.
In fact, there’s a logical fallacy which is known as the appeal to emotion. It involves the association of a feeling with a claim. X makes us feel good, so X must be true. Y makes us feel bad, so Y must be false. But a skilled speaker can lead people to think in a certain way. They can make people think that marriage is about emotional happiness, and whatever interferes with that happiness must be wrong. As a result, the Church teaching on divorce/remarriage or same sex relationships is portrayed as interfering with emotional happiness, and therefore must be called “against love,” evoking negative emotions against the Church teaching.
I also see it happen in cases of fear. Let’s face it. There is dissent from Catholics, including open defiance of Church teaching by politicians who then insist they are good Catholics. That dissent is wrong, and it is an appropriate emotion to be angered to defend the Church—provided we do it in a morally good way. But the appeal to emotion can also be used here. If one attempts to manipulate emotion to treat a different way of expressing truth as if it were dissent, then people can be led by their emotion of anger to oppose a legitimate teaching of the truth. The teachings of Vatican II and the words of Pope Francis have been the target of angry Catholics who have been led to think of this as error fomenting dissent.
We need to realize that while emotion is not wrong in itself, it cannot be used by itself to form our reactions to things. We also need reason to help us find out what is true. Reason can be defined as the ability to “think, understand, and form judgements logically.” The Catechism speaks of reason as an important part of determining right and wrong:
1704 The human person participates in the light and power of the divine Spirit. By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good. He finds his perfection “in seeking and loving what is true and good.”7 (339; 30)
1705 By virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an “outstanding manifestation of the divine image.”8 (1730)
1706 By his reason, man recognizes the voice of God which urges him “to do what is good and avoid what is evil.”9 Everyone is obliged to follow this law, which makes itself heard in conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. Living a moral life bears witness to the dignity of the person. (1776)
So, in determining right and wrong, it’s not enough to have emotions about what we see or hear or read. We need to use reason to see whether we understand properly what is going on, and accurately form judgments on these events. When we properly understand, our emotions can be a driving force to right wrongs, or care for others, or other good things. But when we don’t properly understand what we see, hear or read, our emotions can be like an angry mob which acts destructively.
So, it is good to use our emotions and passions to contribute to a good action. But we need our reason to avoid having them contribute to an evil action. It’s something that we need to remember. Emotions can be manipulated and they can be wrongly applied. So we must, by an act of will, control our emotions and not give in to any impulse that comes along.