The scandal of religious hypocrisy

The scandal of religious hypocrisy

There’s nothing to add to this self-explanatory headline, nor even much reason to follow the link. The title says it all: SCANDAL: Vatican police raid cardinal’s apartment to stop drug fueled gay party.

The lede is easy to believe: “Pope Francis is reportedly furious at the news as he has worked hard to clean up the Vatican.” It evokes the anger Jesus directed at the scribes and Pharisees. The Lord, who was a friend to sinners in other contexts, always eager to minister divine mercy and foster conversion, had no time for hypocrites:

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Mt 23 ff)

This is a reaction I think many of us intuitively share. Priests who hear confessions are well acquainted with the wage of sin, so we’re not easily scandalised. But I am scandalised by exposés of priests leading double lives. I’m sure I’m not the only one to share our Lord’s visceral reaction against the scribes and Pharisees. But why? Why do some sinful contexts cause more scandal than others?

It might be a case of “there but for the grace of God go I,” but that’s no explanation. We can all think that about any number of sins, and they do not possess the shock value of the deliberate and systematic hypocrisy of double lives. What makes this sort of sin so different?

In today’s Office of Readings, St Augustine sheds light on the matter. Augustine, you might recall, is famous for praying “God, make me good, but not yet.”

“We should be displeased with ourselves when we commit sin, for sin is displeasing to God. Sinful though we are, let us at least be like God in this, that we are displeased at what displeases him. In some measure then you will be in harmony with God’s will, because you find displeasing in yourself what is abhorrent to your Creator.”

It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? We should hate sin, because God hates sin. And if we do hate our sins, then even in the midst of sin, there is some harmony with the will of God. This is not only perfectly intelligible, but also widely experienced. Who doesn’t identify with St Paul’s quandary?

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Rom 7:15-18)

But here’s the rub. When a person is systematic in their hypocrisy, when they lead a double life, they have accommodated sin. Far from hating sin, this sinner plans his life around it. And so, by Augustine’s suggested measure, there is no semblance of harmony with God at all.

Hence we have the Lord’s prayer in today’s Gospel:

“I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.” (Mt 11:25)

I think children are probably incapable of leading a double life. They are perfectly capable of sin, but in their simplicity they don’t accommodate sin. And, in their humility, when children are in trouble, they are quick to seek a remedy. The “learned and clever,” by contrast, have the means to lie about their sin — even to themselves — which is the first step to a pharisaical double life.

We can, all of us, adapt Augustine’s prayer: “God, make me good.” (There’s no need for temporal qualifiers.) None of us can be saints by force of will — we need God’s grace. We’re sinners obliged to start again and again and again — like small children, learning to walk, recovering from every fall, always persevering. We should avoid sin, and with God’s grace we can avoid sin. But in those moments we do sin, so long as even then, we hate the sin, we avoid, I think, the pharisaical mire.

Ab insidiis diaboli, libera nos, Domine.



Full disclaimer: in my first hour in the Holy Land, I gazed at the desolate horizon several times and wondered at it. “This is the Chosen Land? Wars have been fought, and countless lives lost, over this?”

On second thought, I recalled this underwhelming choice is God’s typical MO. He often chooses the most unassuming, the most unimpressive — like the shepherd children at Fatima who became some of the greatest prophets of the twentieth century. Or the timid and illiterate farmhand, who became Curé of Ars and parish priest to the world. Or the impetuous Galilean fisherman upon whom Jesus founded his Church.

Having recalled these lessons, I reserved judgement, and by the end of the day I had changed my assessment. By then I had toured the archeological digs of the City of David and walked around the Old City of Jerusalem. I discerned a spiritual power which is literally indescribable — one has to be there to experience it for oneself.

Upon returning to Australia I bought and read Simon Montefiore’s Jerusalem: A Biography, which I highly recommend. (Not perfect — Montefiore goes off the boil, for example, when he describes Paul as the founder of Christianity. But for the most part, an epic history which is as fascinating as it is informative.) In that book, Montefiore quotes Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993:

“Everybody has two cities, his own and Jerusalem.”

I think that’s true. Jerusalem certainly stirred something in me, as it did in our Lord himself:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:37)

If it’s not on your bucket list already, add it: a visit to Jerusalem.

Concerning Cardinal Pell

Concerning Cardinal Pell

The charges against Cardinal Pell are another distressing blow to us Catholics. Speaking personally, I share the Cardinal’s hope that this development is a good one, putting an end to ‘trial by media.’

Fr Paddy has prepared a document related to this issue which he is distributing in the Hamilton parish this weekend. I have also prepared copies which you’re welcome to take home and study.

I won’t repeat what is presented in the document, but I will briefly repeat remarks I’ve previously made on the subject of the clergy abuse scandal, and our response as Australian Catholics.


In the first place, we must never forget our Lord’s parting words to his disciples: “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you. A peace the world cannot give, is my gift to you.”

This is a gift that is readily available to us, again and again. When bad news, or anything else in the world distresses us, depriving us of God’s peace, we need only “plug into” the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, for example, for every minute spent watching distressing content on TV, such minutes might be matched in contemplation of an icon or holy picture. For every minute spent reading distressing content in newspapers, another minute might be spent reading the Holy Gospels.

In relation to the present news, these practices can remind us that Christ is the head of the Catholic Church. He is the reason we are Catholic. And he is always present to us here, in the tabernacle. In the Eucharist we have the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

Insofar as we foster a spirit of prayer and supernatural outlook, we will never be deprived of the Lord’s peace for long.


In the second place, it’s good to remember that the clergy abuse scandal is not a distraction from the Church’s mission; it is part of the mission the Lord gives us.

St Vincent de Paul famously advised:

Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. So when you leave prayer to serve some poor person, remember that this very service is performed for God.

A similar lesson might be applied to present events. We can pray, with real optimism and confidence, that good comes from the Church’s present humiliation.

In some respects, I think the Catholic Church has become a scapegoat. As long as our larger society can rail against crimes in the Church, it can ignore the horrendous crimes our present generation of children must navigate. But eventually, the painful trials and healing which we have experienced in the Church will need to be experienced in other sections of Australian society. And the Church will then be a light to the nation, because the Church is Christ. And he’s done all this before — bearing the cross, enduring impenetrable darkness, and ultimately overcoming the darkness.

So, to paraphrase St Vincent de Paul:

Do not become upset or feel guilty because the evangelising mission of the Church is interrupted by the fallout and response to the clergy abuse scandal. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. Remember that this very service is performed for God.

None of this is a distraction. This is where we need to focus our energy. Our prayer. It may be painful to us individually, and as the Church, but this is where God has called us. And God knows what He is about.

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