By Cardinal Justin Rigali

“The Random House Dictionary” defines the word hypocrisy in this manner: “A pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles that one does not really possess.” In our efforts to lead a Christian life and the self-examination that must go along with those efforts, we can be confronted in our own minds or through the accusations of others, with the word hypocrite or hypocrisy.

A misunderstanding of this word in the context of our quest to lead a virtuous and Christ-like life can be devastating to our efforts and can defeat us with that particular weapon of discouragement, which is so destructive to the spiritual life.

Sin, forgiveness, mercy and grace and the quest for holiness must always be themes for the followers of Jesus, but during the Lenten season we dwell on them in a particular way. Since discouragement is so harmful to the quest for holiness and since our human weaknesses can often leave us discouraged, it would be good for us to answer the charge of hypocrite or hypocrisy which we sometimes make against ourselves, which others may accuse us of and which Satan delights in throwing up to us. Let us view each of those sources of accusation inspanidually.

“I am a hypocrite”
The heading of this section reflects the accusation which we sometimes make to ourselves. This self-accusation may be made by those who have the gift of faith, who strive to live a life of virtue and who realize the importance of giving good example but who, despite these characteristics, fall into sin. That sin may even be serious. This is the lot of all of us who are sons and daughters of sinful Adam. However, having fallen into sin, the person of faith, striving to lead a virtuous life, makes the self-accusation: “I am a hypocrite. I say I believe in Jesus, in the Gospel, in the Church. I go to Mass and I say my prayers. I teach those entrusted to me to lead virtuous lives and now I have committed this sin. I am nothing but a hypocrite.” This accusation is generally false.

If an inspanidual’s faith and desire to lead a virtuous life is sincere and if that person falls, it is not called hypocrisy, it is called sin. The inspanidual is not trying to fool anyone. This person is not claiming to have a faith which he or she does not really possess. Their prayer is sincere when it is made and their desire to encourage others to lead a good life comes from the best of motivations.

Into this context enters the reality of sin. The inspanidual is responsible before God for the sin committed but this does not negate a sincere faith or a genuine quest for holiness. In fact the confessionals in our churches are wonderful reminders that Jesus knows we are sinners and in the Church, where He welcomes His friends, He has a special place where they can be forgiven and restored to the virtuous life that He knows they want to lead.

“You are a hypocrite”
In Satan’s struggle against the Kingdom of God on this earth, he makes use of two seemingly different concepts before and after we fall into sin. When we are being tempted to sin, he says to us: “This is really not so bad. Go ahead and do it.” If we follow his temptation and fall into sin, his strategy changes to the following accusation: “You are nothing but a hypocrite and a phony. You say you love God and that you want to be good. You even encourage others to do the same. Look at yourself now! Don’t even bother anymore because you’re nothing but a hypocrite.” His final strategy is to attempt to turn sin into despair.

Satan does not want us to remember God’s mercy because he does not want us to take advantage of it. He does this first by denying the reality of sin and when he has won that victory, he attempts to deny God’s mercy by trivializing our sorrow with the accusation of hypocrisy. If we accept that, he has truly won, at least for a time, because he is keeping us away from receiving God’s mercy.

We do not believe him because we believe in the merciful Jesus of the Gospels, who does not deny the reality of sin but who also offers mercy to the contrite of heart.

In the Book of Psalms, those great poems or prayers written by King David under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we find the great psalm of repentance. This is Psalm 51 or the Miserere, and it is David’s response after the Prophet Nathan has confronted him with his affair with Bathsheba. God says, through the lips of David: “Do not spurn a broken, humbled heart.” Remember that

Saint Augustine tells us that when God wanted to teach us how to speak to Him, he wrote down the words in the Psalms. This appeal for mercy is God telling us not only that we can appeal for His mercy but also the manner in which we can do so, this is through humility and the acknowledgment of our sin. He does not dismiss us, just as he did not dismiss sinful David, by saying: “You are a hypocrite.”

“They are hypocrites”
Perhaps you have heard of the expression “Pharisaic scandal.” As we know from the Gospels, the Pharisees were a rigorist and self-righteous group in the community during the time of our Lord. They often claimed to be shocked at different things our Lord said or did. Their concern was not really with virtue but with tripping our Lord up. From this we get the phrase “Pharisaic scandal.” It describes a person or group who claim to be shocked by something but whose “scandal” has nothing to do with a true love of virtue but with a desire to trap a person or group by using their own words or actions. In this context, the word hypocrite may also be used dishonestly and incorrectly. “They are hypocrites” can be the accusation made by those possessing Pharisaic scandal, not based on a true desire for virtue but as a weapon to be used against a real or perceived enemy.

In this context, it is necessary to look at the motivation and life of a person or group, as far as it is possible to know this. Are we looking at a case of true struggle against human weakness? Has someone fallen into sin who has truly been trying to lead a life of virtue? Have they been sincere in their desire to advance a life of virtue for themselves and others and have fallen into sin through the common lot of all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve? It is necessary to ask these questions in various situations so that the accusation “They are hypocrites” will not be misused.

Our loving God loves to forgive
The reason why I have chosen this topic this week is to encourage all to seek God’s mercy. Do not be discouraged by the temptations of Satan or false accusations from your own conscience or the false accusations of others in your pursuit of a virtuous life. I would like to conclude and summarize what I have discussed this week by quoting a very beautiful text of the late Pope John Paul I. As a true pastor, he also wished to encourage the faithful to receive God’s mercy and not be discouraged because of their sins. He did not want them to be deceived into despair.

In this context, he spoke of how Jesus loves us so much that even our sins can have a positive outcome, so that He can show His forgiving love. I was present as the Pope spoke these very pastoral and consoling words: “How much mercy it is necessary to have! And even for those who err, I will just recommend one virtue so dear to the Lord. He said, ‘Learn from me who am meek and humble of heart.’ I run the risk of making a blunder, but I will say it: the Lord loves humility so much that, sometimes, he permits serious sins. Why? In order that those who committed these sins may, after repenting remain humble. One does not feel inclined to think oneself half a saint, half an angel, when one knows that one has committed serious faults” (Audience, 6 September 1978).

Do not be deceived into not asking God for mercy by thinking you are a hypocrite because you believe in virtue but have fallen into sin. Hypocrisy exists, but know its definition, not a distortion and not a self-serving accusation that is not based on any concern for true virtue. Sinners are not necessarily hypocrites and sinners are loved very much by Jesus. Just look at a crucifix and a confessional to be reminded of this.

19 March 2009