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crises, and hypocrisies

By Diogenes (articles ) | Mar 28, 2004

Question: Can the Church's ministers be sinful and the Church herself sinless? Any well-catechized Catholic will answer Yes. The possibility that my bishop is breaking it as I write has absolutely no bearing on the validity of the Levitical Code or on the integrity of the institution that propounds it. But can the Church's ministers be hypocrites and the Church herself not hypocritical? Here the answer is a qualified Yes, and perhaps the reasoning is not so obvious.

First, let's concede the factual premise that churchmen of all ranks (as well as laymen) frequently commit the very acts they publicly maintain to be sinful. Does this make them hypocrites ipso facto? No. Gilbert Meilaender explains it well:

Beginning perhaps with the generous thought that we should not "impose" on others standards that we ourselves do not meet, we end with a morality that demands less even of ourselves than we ought. The norms to which I adhere are not those I can keep or do keep; they are those to which I hold myself accountable. I do not see how I could manage that if there were not ways to recognize my accountability -- if, that is, I were not part of a community that regularly confesses its sin and seeks to begin anew. Only from such a perspective, I suspect, could I have the courage to set forth an ideal of which I myself may often fall short.

Bull's eye. To charge a man with hypocrisy, it's not enough to point to the gap between convictions and conduct; a hypocrite (the word originally means "actor") consciously assumes a persona false to and nobler than his real character for purposes of public display.

Now here's the rub: a man may project a false image of his conduct, or of his convictions, or both. Why? Because in various times and places it is deemed meritorious to believe certain things, as well as to act in a certain way -- and therefore it pays to fake either. Conduct-hypocrites (cowardly generals, venal abbots) are universally despised, but their hypocrisy (when exposed) weakens our confidence in the 'means-wisdom', rather than the 'ends-wisdom,' of the institutions over which they preside.

Take the case of Rodrigo Borgia, who fathered at least six bastards by married women, made two of them cardinals, bought himself a papacy (he's Alexander VI), and died one of Europe's richest men in 1503. Not edifying. Yet convert Sheldon Vanauken writes that what moved him to become a Catholic was the realization that the reforming popes (who followed Alexander and the Medici), while they had to do penance for the sins of their predecessors, didn't have to reform their doctrine. By a paradox, the conduct-hypocrisy of her bishops can reinforce the Church's claim to be divinely protected from teaching error.

But suppose a priest fakes his convictions, preaching as sin what he secretly believes to be a joke, and calling forth from credulous people sacrifices -- sometimes heroic sacrifices -- which he inwardly laughs at. Now the charge of institutional hypocrisy is seriously in play, and its validity hinges on the willingness of the institution to 1) examine itself for fakery, and 2) punish it when found. A wounded soldier will feel differently about the cowardly officer (conduct-hypocrite) who hung back out of range while he sent his troops into deadly fire, and the treacherous officer (conviction-hypocrite) who smirks at the troops maimed in obedience to his purposely futile commands. And note: what's going to break the good soldier's heart? Not the wickedness itself, but the high command's denial that the cowardice was cowardice and the treachery was treachery -- the denial that says, in effect, that his own loyalty was meaningless.

Long before the abuse crisis erupted, Catholic World Report insisted that the real scandal is not so much the abuse as the episcopal denial and cover-up. The cover-up itself is beyond dispute; the vital question is: is it an example of conduct-hypocrisy and hence a sin of moral weakness (cowardice, mendacity, careerism, blackmail), or does it point to conviction-hypocrisy, i.e., hatred of Church doctrine and/or disbelief in God? To me, the second possibility is unimaginably worse, and I find myself stretching the evidence to the breaking point to assimilate it to the first, to view the corruption as vice rather than policy, the hypocrisy as personal rather than institutional. Call me Pollyanna.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Fr. William - Mar. 29, 2004 8:16 PM ET USA

    First, let's keep praying for the successors to the Apostles, that they would be strong & holy, in union with Holy Mother Church, the Holy Father, the Magisterium, & the Teachings of the Church. Second, let's pray that bishops who have committed conduct-hypocrisy will go to Confession and "go and sin no more." Third, let's pray that bishops who've committed conviction-hypocrisy (God have Mercy on their souls), will convert or have the moral courage & integrity to formally leave the Church.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 29, 2004 2:13 PM ET USA

    J.J.P. How about "Quidnam sit crimen majestatis" ?

  • Posted by: - Mar. 29, 2004 7:16 AM ET USA

    What is treason in Latin? Perhaps you spell it "APOSTASY."

  • Posted by: Canis Prodigus - Mar. 28, 2004 8:13 PM ET USA

    Brilliant analysis; but the emerging question is a bit more complex. That is, what is the net effect on an organization if (as I suspect) both types of hypocrisy coexist? I suppose the immediate predicate questions are "which occurs with greater frequency?" and (most importantly) "which is most prevalent at the highest levels (i.e., which manifests itself more universally throughout the organization)?" I would argue that it is not at all Pollyanna-ish to conclude that it is conduct-hypocrisy.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 28, 2004 8:03 PM ET USA

    Perfidia, quod est?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 28, 2004 7:59 AM ET USA

    "Que est veritas?" Interesting question... But how do you say, "What is treason...?" ...in Latin?

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