Bring Back the Imprecatory Psalms

May they be blotted from the book of life; not registered among the just!
—Psalm 69

In the summer of 2018, as the latest in an unending wave of revelations of clerical sexual abuse shook the American Catholic Church, the episcopacy scrambled to respond to Theodore McCarrick’s crimes and the revelations of the Pennsylvania report. Their pronouncements, however, bore a striking defect: the absence of a rhetorical register adequate to the gravity and spiritual import of the crisis. Official press releases conspicuously failed to echo the righteous indignation, betrayal, and outright despair felt by believers in the pews. Perhaps more significantly, scripture and the liturgical prayer of the Church did not significantly shape the language and tone adopted by Church leadership. The feeble prayers, regrets, and requests for forgiveness that did make it past the PR consultants fell flat, hampered by the pedestrian English prose of contemporary spirituality (or that of the corporate boardroom, if there is a difference). 

Where, in all this, was the voice of the Psalter, that treasury of prayer which covers the full range of human emotions and affective responses, from troubled complaint to heartfelt request, from deep contrition to abject despair? And yes, even blind rage and the desire for divine vengeance. Canonical scripture (and until the post-conciliar reforms, the Liturgy of the Hours) includes the desperate prayers known as “imprecatory psalms,” those cries to God for judgment against the wicked, who seem to earthly eyes to prosper free of consequences. A representative passage can be taken from Psalm 69:

Answer me, LORD, in your generous love; in your great mercy turn to me. . . Come and redeem my life; because of my enemies ransom me. You know my reproach, my shame, my disgrace; before you stand all my foes. Insult has broken my heart, and I despair; I looked for compassion, but there was none, for comforters, but found none. Instead they gave me poison for my food; and for my thirst they gave me vinegar. May their own table be a snare for them, and their communion offerings a trap. Make their eyes so dim they cannot see; keep their backs ever feeble. Pour out your wrath upon them; let the fury of your anger overtake them. Make their camp desolate, with none to dwell in their tents. . . May they be blotted from the book of life; not registered among the just!

To the modern ear, some of the more extreme curses proclaimed in these scriptures may seem profoundly disturbing: “O God, smash the teeth in their mouths!” (Psalm 58:7); “May his children be fatherless, his wife, a widow” (Psalm 109:9); “Blessed the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9). Yet in the context of the unthinkable crimes of men like Theodore McCarrick, such language is an understandable and even necessary spiritual response.

For who, in surveying the church today, is not tempted to cry out to God with the Psalmist: “O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. . . We have become the reproach of our neighbors, the scorn and derision of those around us” (Psalm 79:1, 4). With the godless actions of McCarrick or Marcial Maciel in mind, in solidarity with the countless victims, how can we resist the urge to continue to verse 6 (omitted in the contemporary Liturgy of the Hours): “Pour out your wrath on nations that do not recognize you, on kingdoms that do not call on your name”?

The absence of the imprecatory psalms is emphatically not a partisan issue, a conflict between “traditionalists” and “progressives.” Moreover, the blame for this neglect cannot be confined to the hierarchy alone. In sources as varied as USCCB press releases, the pronouncements of lay review boards, and the conspiratorial missives of Archbishop Vigano, we find the same vacuum in the rhetorical register.

Most prominent and most disappointing, however, are the bishops. There were occasional acts of public penance by individual clerics, but for the most part the institutional Church responded in the language of management and bureaucracy, with the same kind of apologies and promises to “do better” that one might expect from a corporation or NGO. Press releases from the USCCB often read as if they had been vetted by a not-particularly-competent series of lawyers and experts in public relations, with the bishops play-acting as mediocre CEOs.

For decades, both in the cover-up of abuse and in limp, PR-driven press releases, the hierarchy have acted as if what really mattered, more than the image of God violated in countless victims, more than the gravity of the sins of the perpetrators, and more than truth itself, was the earthly reputation of the Church as an institution. For while the bishops are of course “shamed” and “saddened,” they are quick to remind us that many of the revelations concern the distant past, before the latest round of accountability measures were in place.

Far from trusting that “the truth will set you free,” bishops act as if the Spirit did not sustain the Church, but had abandoned it to clerical managers, who must constantly preserve it from shipwreck by means of soft-pedaled glosses and crafty cover-ups. We cannot afford to abandon ourselves to the astringent powers of the truth or the providence and protection of God, they seem to conclude; he needs us and our vulgar machinations to avoid “scandal” (a concept they grossly misapply). And when our cynical efforts at concealment inevitably fail, we cannot rely on the powerful language of scripture and the liturgy for our response; we need deftly worded sound bites, decked out in the latest of PR best practices. It is often difficult to infer from episcopal pronouncements that these are men who believe in God.

Yet failure to deploy the imprecatory Psalms cannot simply be blamed on the evils of “clericalism.” Lay theologians, concerned parishioners, and those on lay review boards are at least as likely as priests and bishops to let the professionalized language of the boardroom colonize their vocabulary, part of the emerging phenomenon Eugene McCarraher has labeled “Starbucks Catholicism.”[1] The “lay revolution” heralded by progressives, rather than enriching the Church’s theological and scriptural register, is frequently nothing more than a transfer of power to the “professional-managerial laity,” which inevitably enshrines that class’s native idiom.[2] Rather than public penance, pleas for divine judgment, and the raw emotion of Scriptural language, we now hear our bishops speaking in the familiar dialect of PR slogans, sprinkled with the same invocations of “participation,” “transparency,” and “accountability” used by socially conscious corporations.

While the USCCB’s lay-led National Review Board, in its 2018 statement, was quick to assert the need for something more than “the creation of new committees, policies, or procedures,” the most it could offer beyond the usual generic prayers and claim to be “saddened” was a vague call in HR-speak for “a genuine change in the Church’s culture.”[3] This was quickly undermined by the less-than-reassuring claim that “the overwhelming majority of our current bishops have, and continue to, take the sexual abuse of minors seriously.[4] To be sure, policies, procedures, and lay oversight are necessary, and these will inevitably reflect secular societal structure to some degree, but if we are looking for an appropriately scriptural or theological response to the horrors of sexual abuse, we will be forced to look elsewhere.

This failure by the episcopacy and mainstream lay voices to employ a rhetorical register rooted in scripture and tradition when talking about the abuse crisis has undoubtedly contributed to the growing popularity of men like Taylor Marshall and Archbishop Vigano. Yet for the most part, these would-be ecclesial prophets do not make substantial recourse to the imprecatory psalms in their rhetoric. Rather, what actually predominates in their responses to the sexual abuse crisis is a heady mix of the vocabulary of generic apocalyptic dualism (“the children of light” versus “the children of darkness” and “the Invisible enemy”) and terminology drawn from secular conspiracy theories (“New World Order,” “the Great Reset,” “the deep Church”). By and large, it is not the language of scripture and certainly not the great communal laments of the imprecatory Psalms, which drives their commentary. Rather, their viral success stems from their ability to co-opt the forms of a pre-existing (and very American) extremist political discourse for a Catholic audience.

How can we account, then, for this deafening silence from all quarters, this failure to invoke any of the scriptural idioms so eminently suited to the abuse crisis? There are surely many factors at work in this lapse of Christian memory, and a full treatment would have to consider the inertia and distortions of bureaucracy as well as the pressure exerted by modern forms of media, which undeniably incentivize and disincentivize certain forms of speech.

Still, part of the blame must be placed at the feet of the Church herself. For the past half-century, since the 1974 publication of the revised Liturgy of the Hours, the imprecatory Psalms have been stripped from the communal prayer of the Church. After much debate, Pope Paul VI removed three Psalms, verses from nineteen others, and sections from other Old and New Testament books which contained “curses.”[5] The official explanation ambiguously states that “the reason for the omission is a certain psychological difficulty.”[6] The document does not elaborate on the nature of this “difficulty,” or address the implicit assumption that “psychological difficulty” is to be avoided in communal prayer. Nor is it entirely clear why the justification is immediately followed by an admission which seems to undermine the decision: “the psalms of imprecation are in fact used as prayer in the New Testament, for example, Rv. 6:10, and in no sense to encourage the use of curses.”[7] Nevertheless, numerous Protestant denominations have followed suit in removing large swaths of the Psalter, and part of the Scriptural polyphony has been allowed to fall nearly silent.

In light of the abuse crisis, it is time to reevaluate the modern qualms about the imprecatory Psalms which led reformers to strip them from the Church’s liturgical prayer in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. These scriptural cries of judgment, in all their raw emotional violence, are precisely the language in which the Church has historically expressed its grief, despair, and anger, crying out to the God who asks us to offer to him our darkest passions for transformation, to the God who promises to defend the vulnerable and punish the wicked.

While liturgical reform committees, safely ensconced in their ivory towers, may feel that these passages are “difficult” and set them aside like a modern-day Marcion, we who have been reminded all too vividly by contemporary events that the wicked and their victims are still with us should urge them to revise this judgment, restoring the imprecatory psalms to their rightful place in the life of the Church.

Some of the reasons for this potential restoration are practical. Therapists and psychologists note that our violent and disturbing emotional reactions are most powerful when repressed. Unless they are brought into the light of day, they fester into malignant wounds which can emerge in sudden, uncontrollable outbursts. Counterintuitively, naming and even expressing our darker impulses can be a necessary path to healing and transformation. A number of theologians and psychologists have suggested that the imprecatory Psalms, whether prayed communally or individually, can provide a therapeutic context for processing our anger, hatred, and lust for revenge.[8] In exposing these desires before the Lord, we offer them back to him to be reshaped, and we proclaim that his hands alone can accomplish the fullness of justice. The ecclesial trauma caused by men like McCarrick—and the further trauma caused by the inadequate response of the institutional church—make the restoration of this practice wellnigh a psychological necessity.

The use of the imprecatory Psalms would also strike a blow against the dominance of ecclesial discourse by the so-called “developed” world and its bourgeois mentality. The Psalmist’s frank recognition of the existence of enemies, before whose oppression victims feel powerless, may indeed seem alien to middle- and upper-class congregations in wealthy nations. But this reflects the class privilege of those whose spirituality demands little more of them than a recognition of the agreeable relations expected among prosperous equals. Migrant workers or those toiling in the sweatshops might have a different perspective. Our world is still ruled by powers and principalities, and those exposed to their depredations need something heartier than what is offered them by contemporary liturgists.

However, the deepest and most pressing reasons for resurrecting the imprecatory psalms are theological. First, their rehabilitation would be a powerful reminder of the errors of supersessionism, anti-Semitism, and Marcionism. As Erich Zenger has noted, scholarly rejection of the imprecatory Psalms often belies the scarcely concealed conviction that the spirituality of the Old Covenant is somehow obsolete or sub-Christian.[9] Many of Israel’s prayers are thus judged to fall so far short of the moral heights of the Sermon on the Mount as to be unworthy of the Christian believer. This judgment reveals more about the latent prejudices of self-satisfied biblical scholars than it does about the scriptures, and restoration of these Psalms would demonstrate faith in the dignity of the Hebrew Bible.

Second, the contemporary rejection of the imprecatory psalms also reveals a dangerously flawed theology of divine judgment. If we can no longer pray for the manifestation of God’s wrath and justice against evil, it is because we have lost the sense that divine judgment is good news. God does not leave us to face the mess we have made of the world; the Lord intervenes in history to frustrate the plans of the wicked and set right what we have made wrong. This judgment can be painful for us, since this evil is deeply entrenched within our hearts. But God’s judgment, as Origen believed, is always aimed at restoration. “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (Heb 12:6).

We can welcome divine justice, for the one to whom all judgment has been entrusted is the Son (John 5:22), and he bears the scars of one who loves to the very end. Divine judgment is an expression of his jealous desire to root out from us everything which would keep us from himself, his holy zeal to destroy the idols we build which in turn enslave us. To pray for divine wrath with the psalmist is not ultimately to wish eternal damnation on our foes—which would be a sinful curse—but to ask that the situation in its entirety be exposed to the Holy One who seeks to painfully unmake us so that we may be remade in his image. Even when we cannot, as their victims, feel any desire for the rehabilitation of our enemies, we nevertheless can and should entrust them to God’s wrath. We can pray the imprecatory psalms because we believe that whatever justice God metes out will be an expression of his love, even for the vilest of sinners, although his love can be “a consuming fire” (Deut 4:24, Heb 12:29).

Finally, perhaps the deepest theological danger of the abridged Liturgy of the Hours is the pernicious approach to Scripture it embodies. We are not the measure of divine revelation, able to discard at will whatever we find difficult to digest. The passages we find challenging are an invitation to wrestle like Jacob with the angel of the Lord until he gives us his blessing. If something scandalizes us in the inspired text—if we encounter a “certain difficulty”—we are called to read it again and again, to ruminate over it until we find a way to inhabit its meaning. To be sure, we are not the passive recipients of meanings which we must accept even if they are unworthy of God. But it is a basic Christian conviction that every verse of Scripture must have something to teach us, even if we have to search for it like for treasure buried in a field.

Reading the Scriptures, or being read by them, is a labor of love which calls for our utmost interpretative effort and a transformative act of surrender to an authority greater than ourselves.[10] Thus the removal of the imprecatory Psalms was an act of theological indolence, avoiding the hard work that the Scriptures demand of us. In grappling in prayer with difficult texts like the imprecatory psalms, we encounter God and emerge transformed.

Thus, the imprecatory Psalms are more than an answer to a rhetorical vacuum in ecclesial proclamations—although they are desperately needed for that purpose. Neither should we pray them merely because they are anti-bourgeois, or because they didactically reinforce certain theological lessons, important as these may be. Their revival cannot be reduced to a political or symbolic act, heralding the vindication of some particular reconstruction of Tradition or the overturn of post-conciliar liturgical reform more broadly.

No. We pray the imprecatory psalms because within their scriptural scope we see the truth of our situation in this Vale of Tears: surrounded by the wicked of the land (including abusers and their episcopal protectors), who seem to be getting away with their lawlessness. We are “poor and needy” (Psalm 109:22) and we “sink in deep mire, where there is no standing.” We are “come into deep waters, where the floods overflow [us]” (Psalm 69:2). In praying these words, which God has given us, we become who we are, the people of God. And by entering into the world they reveal, we make contact in prayer with a living God who is no less able today than in the time of the Psalmist to hear and answer: “Arise O LORD; O God, lift up thine hand: forget not the humble . . . Break thou the arm of the wicked and the evil man: seek out his wickedness till thou find none” (Psalm 10:12, 15).

[1] Eugene McCarraher, “Smile When You Say Laity,” Commonweal, June 16, 2004.  

[2] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For a list of the passages removed, see Gabriel Torretta, “Rediscovering the Imprecatory Psalms: A Thomistic Approach,” The Thomist 80 (2016): 23-48, 24fn6.

[6] Cited in Torretta, 24.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Examples include Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance?: Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), Daniel Nehrbass, Praying Curses: The Therapeutic and Preaching Value of the Imprecatory Psalms (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), and Dominick D. Hankle, “The Therapeutic Implications of the Imprecatory Psalms in the Christian Counseling Setting, Journal of Psychology and Theology 38 no. 4, 275-280.

[9] Zenger, 13-22.

[10] For more on this, see Jean-Louis Chrétien, Under the Gaze of the Bible (New York: Fordham, 2015). My thoughts in this paragraph are also influenced by Ephraim Radner, Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016).

Featured Image: Taken by Jules & Jenny Chagall window detail, Chichester Cathedral; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0. 


Timothy Troutner

Timothy Troutner is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Drawing upon 20th-century German theology and French phenomenology, his research explores the doctrine of creation as it intersects with language.

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