(Last month, Father Cole, drawing upon the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, said that one must be reluctant and very patient with people who seemingly harm the common good. In addition, fraternal correction must be done moderately with gentleness first before being done with more vigorous words.)

What About Cursing?

Since some moralists and priests are ignorant of Aquinas on these themes of ''tough love,'' it is useful to examine precisely his teaching on cursing, another form of moral violence which can also be either public or hidden. The results are surprising to a first-time reader.

In the Summa Theologiae, we find in the second part of the second part, question 76, the common doctor's teaching. He begins in article one when he asks the question if anyone is entitled to curse another. After giving some objections against cursing based upon Scripture, he begins his thinking with the ''sed contra'' stating:

Deuteronomy does say, Cursed be he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them. Further we read in Kings, that Elisha cursed some small boys who were jeering at him.

It is clear that if God and a prophet can curse others, it cannot be morally evil to do the same, at least in principle. In the first case, it is both declaratory and wished. But speaking evil against someone can be either morally evil or good. St. Thomas gives us a definition of the sin of cursing which explains how it can be wrong:

Thus where somebody orders or wishes evil in respect to another, because it is evil and that is what he intends, the cursing will be wrong in either case. This is cursing properly so called.

This is similar to Thomas's treatment of hatred14 where he distinguishes two kinds of hatred of a neighbor:

Now love is due to our neighbor in respect of what he holds from God, i.e., in respect of nature and grace, but not in respect of what he has of himself and from the devil, i.e., in respect of sin and lack of justice.
Consequently, it is lawful to hate the sin in one's brother, and whatever pertains to the defect of Divine Justice, but we cannot hate our brother's nature and grace without sin. Now it is part of our love for our brother that we hate the fault and the lack of good in him, since desire for another's good is equivalent to hatred of his evil. Consequently the hatred of one's brother, if we consider it simply, is always sinful.

Continuing his discussion on cursing, Thomas concludes:

If, on the other hand, somebody orders or wishes evil in respect of another but meaning it as a good, this will be licit, nor will it be a case of straight cursing, but only of incidental cursing, for the main objective is a good not an evil of itself.

The question, then, is: what good can come out of cursing someone. So, Aquinas continues:

Now there may be two good reasons for ordering or wishing what is evil. There is first of all the purpose of justice. This is why a judge is entitled to curse somebody who he sentences to a just penalty, and why the Church curses when she anathematizes somebody. This also is why the prophets sometimes utter imprecations on sinners; it is as if they were lending their wills to be instruments of divine justice, though such imprecations can be taken to be merely declaratory. The second purpose for uttering evil is to serve an advantage; examples of this occur when one wishes a sinner to fall ill or to be obstructed, or when one wishes him to become a better man, or at least to stop harming others.

One should note that wishing evil even in prayer upon another is not to do a physical harm on another. That is left up to God's providence. This is also similar to anger which wishes to do harm on someone who has done a grievous justice, but retaliation is not done for its own sake but for the good of the perpetrator. But if the disagreeable wished upon another is intended simply out of love of hurting a particular person or group of people, then we find sin in the human heart. It becomes wrongful hatred and wrongful cursing.

When Hatred Is the Motive

Writing in another context, Thomas explains further what the problem is when hatred is the motive behind inflicting evil on someone:

Wherefore properly speaking, brutality or savagery is applied to those who in inflicting punishment have not in view a default of the person punished but merely the pleasure they derive from a man's torture.15

This analysis helps us to begin our understanding of why cursing may not always be morally evil. Cursing may possibly be demanded by the situation, such as the case of one who has brought evil upon babies, i.e., an abortionist. Thomas will explain in more detail why cursing is ordinarily a grave sin although not intrinsically evil. Following St. Paul, in 1 Cor 6:10, Thomas teaches that arbitrarily speaking evil of others excludes one from the kingdom of heaven:

The cursing we are discussing at present is constituted by uttering evil against somebody, whether by way of ordering it or wishing it. But to wish or order evil against anybody is of its nature contrary to the charity with which we love our neighbor by wishing his good. In itself, therefore, cursing is a mortal sin, the gravity of which is proportionate to the love and respect we are bound to show another. That is why Leviticus declares, For everyone who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death (Lev 20:9).

But when will cursing not be gravely evil? Thomas answers:

Cursing can, however, be merely a venial sin, on account either of the smallness of the evil called down on another, or of the feeling that prompts its utterance, as where one does it light-heartedly or in fun or impulsively; this is because, as shown earlier (II-II 72, 2), the gravity of sins of word depends primarily on our state of mind.

So in fact, a prayer containing a curse may be a moral good because the physical evil begged for is based upon the good purposes of aiding someone to become either free from a moral evil or at least stop him from harming others. Thomas had applied this reasoning earlier in his career in what would be called the Supplementum:

A curse may be pronounced in two ways: first, so that the intention of the one who curses is fixed on the evil which he invokes or pronounces, and cursing in this sense is altogether forbidden. Secondly, so that the evil which a man invokes in cursing is intended for the good of the one who is cursed, and thus cursing is sometimes lawful and salutary: thus a physician makes a sick man undergo pain, by cutting him, for instance, in order to deliver him from his sickness.16

In his treatment of charity, Thomas likewise explains that reproving a sinner ''seems to imply the severity of justice, but as to the intention of the improver, who wishes to free a man from the evil of sin, it is an act of mercy and loving kindness.''l7

What Is More Evil?

What is more evil, pain or fault? Thomas will say:

Fault has more of the nature of evil than pain has . . . not only more than the pain of sense, considering in the privation of corporeal goods (which is the kind of pain most men comprehend), but also more than any kind of pain, and understanding pain in its most general meaning, so as to include privation of grace and glory.18

Thus fault is more evil than pain because it deprives a person of more goods, especially grace and possible glory in the next life. Most people do not really experience or think that grace and glory are higher than corporeal goods or believe in their existence, which is why Thomas said that most

think the greatest evils are bodily. Continuing in the same article, he further clarifies: There is a twofold reason for this. The first is that one becomes evil by the evil of fault, but not by the evil of pain. As Dionysius says, to be punished is not an evil, but it is an evil to be made worthy of punishment. The reason for this is that since good, absolutely considered, consists in act and not in potentiality, and the ultimate act is operation or the good use of something possessed. Now we use things by an act of the will. Hence a man is called good from a good will, and from a bad will, bad. For a man who has will can use ill the good he has, as when a grammarian of his own will speaks incorrectly. Therefore, because the fault itself consists in the privation of something used by the will, fault has more of evil in it than pain. 19

Looked at from the point of view of God, pain and fault both are evils but one is greater than the other for another reason:

The second reason can be taken from the fact that God is the author of the evil of pain, but not the evil of fault. And this is because the evil of pain takes away the creature's good which may be either something created (as sight destroyed by blindness) or something uncreated (as being deprived of the vision of God the creature loses its uncreated good). But the evil of fault is properly opposed to uncreated good for it is opposed to the unfulfillment of the divine will, and to the divine love whereby the divine good is loved for itself and not only as it is shared by the creature. Therefore it is plain that fault has more evil in it than pain.

The Virtue of Vengeance

At this point in this short study, we are now ready to see Thomas's teaching on vengeance, which ordinarily will be gravely wrong but also admits of exception as well.

Thomas will give a strong objection to vengeance in the article mentioned here, namely that it is something for God to do, otherwise we must be willing to bear with the wicked.20 Then he quotes St. John Chrysostom's beautiful words: From Christ's example let us learn to bear injuries to ourselves with greatness of soul, but not to suffer wrongs against God even by giving our ear to them.21

Thomas begins the sed contra stating that if God can take revenge for the sake of his elect, then it cannot be of itself and always morally evil or unlawful. Like the previous sins mentioned, there is some room for morally good vengeance as long as one's intention is upright and that taking delight simply in inflicting evil for its own sake is not done when inflicting punishment or something disagreeable on an evil doer. For this would be hatred of one's neighbor. Vengeance can be morally upright however, if the intention (and circumstances as well) ''of the avenger is aimed chiefly at a good to be achieved by punishing the wrong doer; thus, for example, the correction of the wrongdoer, or at least at restraining him and relieving others; at safeguarding the right and doing honor to God.''22

Further he shows that ''A human being repels what is harmful by self-defense, either warding off injuries, or, if they have already been inflicted, avenging them, not with the intention of doing harm but of repelling a wrong.''23 This then is the virtue of vengeance, not its vice. Its root is zeal or fervor when it seeks to ''right wrongs against God and neighbor.''24 One lacks this virtue if he becomes ferocious and inflicts too much pain or simply fails to inflict any punishment at all.25 Therefore, the act of vengeance is lawful when its purpose is to check evildoers.26

In conclusion, the average priest may not have any juridical power to inflict punishments upon people but just as he can bless people he can also curse for a good purpose. Likewise, a priest can inflict moral violence upon people when they are harming the common good, first either privately or publicly by strong words, if the sins of others are grievously harming others. There is no ritual for cursing others, however, one could craft one, especially if there are people in a parish selling drugs, or gangs are marauding neighbors, and porn shops are thriving. Cursing individuals will not produce results ex opere operato because the effects of restraining or converting evildoers depend upon the action of providential grace of God and their free will. Speaking out against such persons may have no immediate good effects and may be dangerous for the priest, but what can be done, should be done for the sake of the common good. TP

FATHER COLE, O.P., is associate professor at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and is the author of The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood (Alba House, 2007. $22.95 pb. 1-800-343-2522).