The Problem of Hypocrisy

“Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words…”

Since scholarship shows that our beloved Saint Francis of Assisi did not likely utter these words, the origin of this quotation will probably forever remain unknown. The authenticity and impact of a quotation depends heavily upon who spoke the words, yet even without a known speaker, these words pack a powerful punch, for they are not only wise and honest, but also simple. It is not hard to imagine that our unknown source was a man as pious and saintly as our dear Saint Francis. He certainly had a brilliant grasp of two things, as implied by the quotation: The call to preach the Gospel and the incredible impact that human action can have upon its witnesses. And tell me, has it ever occurred to you that our unknown preacher obviously must have thought it was mighty necessary to say and preach the words he is known for… unless, of course, he was being a hypocrite, which is a closely connected subject to this quotation, and just so happens to be the focal point of this Guide post!

You see, this quotation strongly alludes to the old adage that “actions speak louder than words.” And yes, the quotation seems to grant a primacy to evangelizing through deed more than words. Still, the quotation assumes a correlation between what we preach by our actions and what we preach by our words. If we’re going to profess the message of Christ, then our actions had better follow suit. If they don’t then others will observe hypocrisy – and hypocrisy preaches the message that the Gospel is a joke, a farce, and a lie.

One of the top stumbling blocks for people within the Church and those outside of the Church alike is this problem of Christian hypocrisy, both historically and currently. Perhaps we’ve all come across non-Catholic (and maybe non-religious) people who seem overly hostile and critical of the Catholic Church based on the evils perpetrated by those who cling to the Christian title. Perhaps we even know a non-practicing or fallen away Catholic who has left the Church because he has witnessed the scandal of hypocrisy by those within it. Perhaps our own false witness has led others astray. No doubt, the perception of hypocrisy does a lot of harm in closing hearts to embracing the truth of Catholicism.

As a quick side note, let’s look at the difference between perceived hypocrisy and true hypocrisy. A man who sincerely professes a belief, but sins against his profession is not a hypocrite, but just a sinful man, so long as he is striving to live his professed belief while battling his own temptation and sinfulness. His public sinfulness is perceived hypocrisy. On the other hand, a man who preaches a belief, but sincerely disregards it by professing a contrary belief through his life and actions is a man who demonstrates true hypocrisy. Unfortunately the label “hypocrite” is given by the outside observer, who can’t distinguish between a man’s sinfulness and true hypocrisy. To the outside observer there is no difference. Both are hypocrites, and the witness of both often does the same damage.

I’ve actually had several conversations with different non-religious fellows (I should say anti-religious fellows) that more or less took the same path. I was defending the pro-life cause and he was defending abortion and a woman’s right to choose. Since a pro-choice position is impossible to reasonably defend, their arguments quickly became punches aimed at my Faith. The common theme that rang through in their rants against Catholicism was the problem of Christian hypocrisy. They consistently pointed out several cases of scandal by clergy and male and female religious, including sexual abuse and other seemingly unethical behavior from decades past in religious ministries such as orphanages and education (including the Canadian Residential School problem). The first time, I listened to his claims, but refused to go deeper into that debate with him, for it was completely out of the realm of the topic of our dialogue on life issues. At this point, he closed me off to any more conversation and his hostile attitude and bitter perspective of the Church left me with a first-hand understanding of the harsh reality that the fruits of Christian hypocrisy are destructive and scandalous to the message of the Gospel. In other conversations, I did dialogue further, and all I got were charges of justifying hypocritical behavior, along with a persistent, hostile, and bitter attitude towards the Church.

Don’t be mistaken: actions DO preach. And they do immeasurable harm when they say a different message than one’s words are saying. At this point in our Church’s history, I think that practicing Christians understand this and have likely experienced it first-hand. We are ourselves scandalized by the public sin and hypocrisy of our past and present members. And we also live in a skeptical world that is quick to settle on excuses by which to de-authenticate the Church.

This got me to thinking about how we might respond to charges of hypocrisy that people use as an argument to discredit Christianity. Of course, it would be hypocritical to justify hypocritical behavior, and we shouldn’t try to do that. But as I dwelt on this incident, I came up with ten things that could be said in relation to the hypocrisy shown by those who claim to be Catholic.

  1. The first is that we need to be very prudent in passing judgment on any incident or person, whenever it occurred in history, unless we have personal first-hand knowledge or have a highly reliable source, such as legal or official statements of the matter. Often, the Church’s critics cling to claims made by the secular media or historians, who tend to reveal their reality in half-truths.  If there isn’t sufficient reason to believe it is true, then we ourselves risk falling into slander. All of us should be seeking truth, not hearsay. There’s a liberation that comes in dispelling darkness and bringing things to light, which is best left to due course of law and public confession when possible.
  2. Second, although we may never know all the specific details of a scandalous case, we, as the Church does, must never condone the sinful behavior or action. We are not out to justify or make light of the sins of our fellow Catholics. Sin is sin and it always kills. It kills the sinner and it also clearly wreaks sickness upon the Body of Christ, the Church. Further, it kills the growth of the Church and the conversions of those who are turned off by the scandal they observe, which is very grave indeed.
  3. Third, there is a true statement that goes something like this: “The greatest disproof of Christianity is Christians.” This just says that if people are going to claim to believe in Jesus, their lives had better show it. If they don’t show it, then their lives disprove everything they profess in Christ. This is a serious reminder to all Christians that they represent Christ at every moment, both in public and private. The hypocrisy and public sin of Christians is a terrible scandal that many people will never overcome.
  4. Fourth, it is simply wrong and ignorant for people, both within the Church and outside of it, to think that the Church is a perfect Church made up of perfect members. It is a terrible assumption to literally impose perfection on anyone who identifies himself as a “Christian.” Perfection is something a Christian strives for, by the grace of God. But, just because one is a Christian doesn’t mean he has lost the capacity to sin. It does, however, mean that we are held to a higher standard of morality, which makes our sin and hypocrisy all the more fatal.  When one gets over the fact that the Church’s members, even her clergy and religious, aren’t perfect, then it becomes obvious that these members may actually sin from time to time. Seriously, if you’re looking for a perfect church, go ahead and join it and it won’t be perfect anymore!
  5. Which leads to a fifth thing: a Church of sinful members really doesn’t disprove Christianity. It really doesn’t disprove anything if properly understood. On the contrary, it only proves one fact: that the Church is made up of sinners who rely wholeheartedly on the saving grace and the forgiveness of God! The whole purpose of why Jesus founded a Church was to lead us to salvation because we’re sinners. A perfect Church without sinners wouldn’t really be necessary would it? Without denying the severity and destructiveness of hypocrisy, we are all a work in progress.
  6. Sixth, it is highly unfair to judge the Church by the scandalous and hypocritical action of a member, or even a few members. This is known as the Fallacy of Composition. You don’t conclude the Church is evil simply because a member is evil in the same way that you can’t conclude an elephant is small simply because one of his members (say a toenail) is small. You wouldn’t judge Harvard as a terrible university because your cousin flunked out (one terrible student!), or because a professor got fired (one terrible professor).
  7. Seventh, there are two realms of justice: temporal and eternal. It is human to expect and demand that justice be served here on earth (albeit with a human justice that is fallible and imperfect). We demand that people be accountable for their actions. But we must not forget that we must all face the All-Just God. It is only after death that we will all face the true consequences of our sins. We should certainly administer temporal justice, but we can at least find satisfaction in knowing that God’s perfect justice will one day be exercised.
  8. Eighth, sometimes much to our human dismay, the power of a repentant heart can heal the rift between God and the most ruthless hypocrite through the victory won by the Cross and the Sacrament of Confession. No, Confession is not a free pass to commit sin, lest we fall into the sin of presumption! This means that it is a sin to sin while assuming you can make it all better by Confession. Unlike us humans and our civil courts, God is also perfect in Mercy, All-Merciful. He will always forgive a sincere and contrite penitent. Hypocritical action can be forgiven and we need to live with that fact.
  9. Ninth, It is unfair and unprofessional to judge past incidents with modern understandings and values. This mode of thought is known as presentism and can be fallacious. (Common accusations include: biblical slavery, Christian Crusades, Inquisition, the Church’s missionary work, etc.) Our culture is vastly different than the former cultures we love to judge. Culpability is affected by historical context. Just look at today with abortion, divorce, or non-marital sex, ideologies pushed to the point that the consumers really don’t have as much culpability as they once did.
  10. Tenth, the Church has not changed its moral teaching in 2000 years. Perhaps it seems like the Church has deceived or mislead us (and even condoned scandalous behavior)  in the way it has approached and responded (or seemingly failed to respond) to scandalous incidents in the past. With specific reference to the global abuse scandal within the Church, the Church has been at the forefront of society as it grows with the rest of world in developing methods and protocol to effectively address these issues. Through all of this, our focus must be that the Church has never taught that sinful behavior is anything else than what it is.

While dwelling on these, it is easy to connect any grave and high-profile scandalous incident or series of incidents committed by an individual or a group, especially from the past. The real question is: Can we, Catholic Gentlemen, begin to see the impact of our own perceived hypocrisy upon the world? Our hypocrisy is a huge stumbling block that causes many to refuse to see the beauty of Catholicism. We mustn’t contribute to the vast garbage heap of Christian hypocrisy. We are men, striving to be molded into the image of Christ. We have promised through our Baptism to reject sin and the power of Satan. This is the life we must live, which is why a later post will take us back to the quotation we began with:

“Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words…”

~ The Catholic Gentleman's Guide

7 thoughts on “The Problem of Hypocrisy

  1. Great article! Very well thought out and balanced look at a huge stumbling block for many looking at the Church from the outside and from within for that matter. Thanks Matthew!

  2. So fascinating that most “pro-life” individuals are in favor of capital punishment. Not all, but a strong majority. Any hypocrisy there? Are all lives equally as important?

    • There is no hypocrisy between the Church’s stance on abortion and on capital punishment. There’s more depth to it, but the essence is that one ends the life of an innocent human and the other a guilty human. Capital punishment can be permissible as a last resort. Also, I wouldn’t say “most” pro-life individuals, as most in my realm do not favor capital punishment. But listen, all lives have inherent God-given dignity, but that doesn’t mean I won’t kill someone as a matter of self defence. Or do you let him kill you so as not to be a hypocrite?

  3. I guess one man’s hypocrisy is another man’s “depth.”
    And I suppose there’s never been an innocent person’s life terminated by capital punishment. They were all, as you say “guilty humans,” since those who sentenced them to death are infallible.
    Anyway, it’s pretty obvious that most “pro-life” individuals are also pro-capital punishment, because if all those folks were against capital punishment, then it’s pretty clear that we wouldn’t have capital punishment anymore.
    Finally, it’s rather revealing that you criticize the fellow you were debating (above) for introducing irrelevant arguments, and yet in your reply to me you someone manage to equate self-defense with capital punishment! Obviously self-defense and legal declarations of war are special cases justifying lethal use of force that have little to do with either abortion or capital punishment.

    • It’s a valid misconception that capital punishment can be equated with abortion. There’s more depth because there’s more to explain, so look into it yourself, and maybe you’ll be satisfied with the distinction. Here might be a good place to start:

      And you’ll see that self-defence is not irrelevant. I think it is very much an example of why capital punishment can be permissible. Think of it like this: Capital punishment is less an exercise of justice against the guilty, and more an exercise of protection for the innocent. I agree, our modern need for it is slim to none, but that doesn’t mean that this hasn’t been the case through history, in different parts of the world, and won’t be the case in the future. Morally, capital punishment is as objectively permissible as killing in self defense, so the two have a lot in common.

      What I would question is what makes capital punishment relevant to abortion? There’s no doubt that the pro-life movement would prioritize its fight against abortion, because abortion is certainly the greater evil. I’m curious if you’re against abortion and capital punishment?

      I do appreciate the dialogue and I hope that someday you’ll come to reconcile any of the stumbling blocks you might have against Catholicism.

  4. Thank you, Matthew, for this post. I found here a lot of arguments which I can use talking to the people who criticize Church. That’s true – it’s a great responsibility to be a christian. As you said, that it’s not about our perfection, but heart’s attitude ( I sin, but I strive to choose God, if I fall, I raise up and ask for mercy). First of all we should be honest with Lord and come often or live constantly in His light. This responsibility for our deeds, doubled by the fact that we are Christians can terrify us. But what we can do is to come to Christ and say: “Lord you know how weak I am, please help me to be always loyal to Thee.”

    Greetings from Poland

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