Life & Soul Life and Soul

A persistent sinner who wants to change is not a hypocrite

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I think it’s an aphorism which originated with Evelyn Waugh, that if you were to leave your umbrella at the back of an Anglican church it would still be there when you returned, but if you left it in a Catholic church it would be gone. That a convert would take pride in this thought is a sign of a particular understanding of why people go to church and where one stands on that whole “It is not the healthy who need the physician” approach taken by Jesus, much to the outrage of the Pharisees. In such a view, the hope is that people come to church because they understand, albeit in an inchoate way, their need for Christ, present in the Church through his Word and the power of the sacraments, not because they are ignorant of what a good life looks like but precisely because they feel consistently unable to exemplify a good life in some or all aspects of their dealings with God, themselves and others.

The Pope, in the latest of his expansive in-flight press conferences, cited the hypocrisy of Catholics as the single biggest reason for people leaving the Church. He proceeded to give an example of someone who boasts that he is Catholic and goes to Mass every Sunday, yet exploits his workers and affords Caribbean holidays by defrauding them. This led me to reflect on what the difference is between a hypocrite and a common or garden sinner.

Both fail to keep God’s law in some areas, but one honours it by acknowledging his failure vis-à-vis the law. Consistently to fail to keep the law while constantly aspiring to do so with the help of grace is not hypocrisy. But to cite some aspect of the law merely to cover oneself with the appearance of moral righteousness, that is hypocrisy. To call oneself a “pro-choice Catholic”, for example, is hypocrisy, yet many a self-styled pro-choice Catholic would claim the opposite because of a fallacious view that only hypocrites believe in unchanging moral absolutes.

No, a hypocrite is someone who wants to hold someone to an absolute he himself refuses to be bound by. This is why the abuse crisis is such a terrible blow to the credibility of the Church.

A hypocrite is someone who wants his Christianity to allow him to feel comfortable with his own assessment of righteousness, rather than expose him to the limitless demands of God’s own perfection. The hypocrite says: “God must love me as I am.” The sinner says: “Please love me as I am so as not to leave me this way.”

And that brings us back to the umbrella. To follow Christ is not simply a matter of acquiring “Gospel values” or becoming the best version of yourself you can. It is not primarily about engaging in good works to save the world. These are to discipleship what putting on weight is to gourmands. Churches are, one hopes, full of people who understand that the only principle of righteousness and charity and peace and fraternity is the indwelling of Christ in our hearts though the Holy Spirit. The Gospel is not a value but a Person who brings new life which is the consequence of my accepting his invitation.

Despite my sin and the lack of coherence between what I profess and what I enact, Jesus comes to me and becomes within me the motive force and efficient cause of new life. We are all doomed to hypocrisy unless our prayer is like Blessed John Henry Newman’s, “Stay with me Lord until I begin to shine as Thou shinest, so as to be a light to others.”