Hypocrisy and theatrics: a response to Chase Padusniak

I like Chase Padusniak. His Patheos-hosted blog Jappers and Janglers is often for me a welcome break from the theological-liturgical polemics, couched in strictly ecclesial language, which mark much of the Catholic blogosphere (including this site). Of course, “like” doesn’t imply “agreement”. The content of J&J, refreshing though it be, sometimes betrays the fact that neither Chase’s background nor his primary interest lies in theology. A doctoral student at Princeton’s Department of English Literature, his research on “late medieval insular mystical literature, Middle English poetry and poetics, Hermeneutics, Phenomenology…” is doubtlessly informed by philosophy and theology, for no one with an interest in the medieval can ignore them. It goes without saying that there is nothing per se objectionable in these interests; however, when Chase writes Catholic commentary as a Catholic, some of his posts might benefit from the tools and methods which theologians take for granted.

Wherefore I turned a critical eye toward a recent post of his entitled “Hypocrisy: a Christian virtue” (please read it post before continuing here). True to form, Chase’s provocative titles lure the reader’s interest before proceeding to his signature nuanced expositions. Yet, he begins with a disclaimer: “What follows is exploratory and suggestive. I don’t consider myself an ethicist, nor do I have a wholly transparent and satisfactory resolution to the problem interrogated in this blog post. I ask you, dear reader, to please read it in that spirit.”

In that spirit, what follows is intended to be a clarification of terms and an extended sed contra, intended in all charity.

How can hypocrisy be virtuous? Chase commences:

Hypocrisy is supposed to be a bad thing; Christ denounces it in the Gospels; virtually no one self-identifies as a hypocrite. Yet, what Jesus attacks is not exactly what we mean when we use the term. According to Merriam-Webster, its “simple definition” is “the behavior of people who do things that they tell other people not to do: behavior that does not agree with what someone claims to believe or feel.”

Chase then examines Matthew 23:1-7 (in which Christ denounces several instances of Pharasical hypocrisy), and concludes that

thus far, His definition seems to accord with our normative one [the simple Merriam-Webster definition, or, “not practicing what is preached”]. The Pharisees do not do what they say. I propose, however, that that is not all that they are doing wrong. It is not their failure to live up the Law that is the problem. More fundamentally, they fail, but expect perfection of others; they pretend to have it all figured out. Essentially, then, they lack humility.

Chase proceeds to verses 10-13 of the same chapter and infers that

as the Christian faith teaches, it is okay to fail to practice what one believe; in fact, we all do. None of us is perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. The problem lies not in our failure, but in our pretending that our failure is success, and thus passing it off to others as an ideal. In this sense, it is absolutely okay not to practice what one preaches, as long as one strives to do so. Forgiveness is available for the penitent.

He continues:

God asks crazy things of us, like giving away our possessions, forsaking our parents, and, for that matter, belief in a human incarnation of Himself. From that point of view, the question should not be “how can this be what God is saying,” but “how can I actualize these commandments in a fallen world?”

Here, hypocrisy enters the picture. Very few of us will actually give away all of our possessions to follow Christ; very few of us will denounce our parents, should they be disbelievers; very few of us even manage to get through the day without lustful or covetous thoughts! But all of these are requirements for taking up the Cross. The answer, it seems to me, is not to say “well, that’s difficult,” and instead to admit that we fail, repent, and strive to do better: to cut out our vicious thoughts, to detach ourselves from possessions as much as possible, and even to discern how we can stop pretending knowledge is something we can “own.” In this sense, it is okay to be a hypocrite (using our normative definition).

No Christian worthy of the name can fancy oneself morally or religiously perfect, nor can one deny that the Lord pardons those who fail his high standards and yet who seek his forgiveness in spiritu humilitatis et animo contrito. But qui bene distinguit bene docet; it thus behooves us to distinguish the sin from subsequent contrition. Forgiveness is pursuant to confession and contrition; confession and contrition in turn require an acknowledgement that the sinful act is not okay. To be sure, God permits sin in as much as he gives us free will, but as Chase says, “I must accept that what I did was wrong, not make excuses or pretend my depression should stop me from the work of self-betterment.” Asking for pardon ex post facto does not turn the peccatum into a bonum. Bringing good out of evil (as God often does) does not abolish the evil. Saying sorry doesn’t make the fault itself okay. Otherwise, why beg the mercy of God (or of anyone)?

Chase goes to great lengths to emphasize how we all fall short of Christ’s mandates, but never really tries to explain why or how hypocrisy is virtuous. Rather, he shifts away from discussing the purported “virtue of hypocrisy,” proceeding instead with a general examination of the wounded human condition and concluding with an admirable exhortation to penitence. Surely, the call to repentance is, as Chase says, “at the heart of Christianity”, but this scarcely makes hypocrisy a virtue. The real virtues we should distill are penitence and humility.

Chase doesn’t consider himself an ethicist; neither am I an ethicist nor a moral theologian.  This may be all well and good, for although we are dealing with moral actions and judgments, we are must firstly interpreting Scripture; thus, our starting point is not ethics but exegesis.

Thus, we must at the outset reject the Merriam-Webster “simple definition” [read: “colloquial understanding”] of the word “hypocrisy” to dictate the terms of our discussion. What we find in the actual Gospel text is, unsurprisingly, the Greek cognate which is the root of our English term, which opens for us a depth of meaning absent in most English dictionaries. As any biblical concordance will attest, the word ὑποκριτής finds its origin in the language of the theater; it refers to the actors who, by wearing the dramatic masks, play the part of another character; in other words, a pretender.

In the Septuagint, the verb ὑποκρίνομαι was used to translate the Hebrew חָנֵף (chaneph), meaning, “to defile”. By the time of Christ, ὑποκριτής had taken the meaning of a two-faced person, with the pejorative connotation familiar to us. In any case, the word carried in New Testament times, as it carries for us today, an unequivocally negative connotation. Most importantly, there is an implication of malicious deception and willful dishonesty in the Greek that Merriam-Webster fails to convey in English.

When we keep in mind the theatrical origin of the word “hypocrite”, the full import of Matthew 23, especially verse 5, comes into vivid relief: “All their works are performed to be seen”. It becomes clear why, in Matthew 6, Christ condemns those who “disfigure their faces while fasting” as hypocrites. Proscriptions against hypocrisy throughout the New Testament, especially in Matthew but also in the Pauline epistles, likewise suggest this “exhibitionist” character of hypocrisy. Hypocrites reckon themselves performers on a stage, seeking public adulation for their public acts of piety while lying about their own defects. Finally, the Lord confirms this understanding of hypocrisy (as a public act) by way of contrast when he suggests the remedy: it is not enough merely “to admit that we fail, repent, and strive to do better,” but to repent and do penance in private (again, cf. Matt 6).

I still remember the liturgies from my Catholic elementary school days in which the texts were taken from a “children’s lectionary” and from the “Eucharistic Prayers for Children” (the latter of which are now defunct, praise God). I do recall, for example, how on Ash Wednesday, the word “hypocrites” in the Gospel was translated as “show-offs” in the school Mass. While those adapted texts were generally gravely deficient, there was some shred of correctness in that particular rendering.

An authority no less than Thomas Aquinas, standing on the shoulders of Gregory, Isidore, and Augustine, recognized both the theatrical and deceptive nature of hypocrisy (which he finds equivalent to the sin of dissimulation).

On the contrary, Isidore says (Etym. X): “‘Hypocrite’ is a Greek word corresponding to the Latin ‘simulator,’ for whereas he is evil within,” he “shows himself outwardly as being good; ‘hypo’ denoting falsehood, and ‘krisis’, judgment [‘hypo’ enim falsum, ‘crisis’ iudicium interpretatur].”

I answer that, as Isidore says (Etym. X), “the word hypocrite is derived from the appearance of those who come on to the stage with a disguised face, by changing the color of their complexion, so as to imitate the complexion of the person they simulate, at one time under the guise of a man, at another under the guise of a woman, so as to deceive the people in their acting [ut in ludis populum fallant].” Hence Augustine says (De Serm. Dom. ii) that “just as hypocrites by simulating other persons act the parts of those they are not (since he that acts the part of Agamemnon is not that man himself but pretends to be), so too in the Church and in every department of human life, whoever wishes to seem what he is not is a hypocrite: for he pretends to be just without being so in reality.”

Within this same quaestio (#111, Summa Theologiae), Aquinas considers hypocrisy as the simulation of a virtue [hypocrita enim simulat quamcumque virtutem]. How, then, can the malicious deception and wilful dishonesty involved in hypocrisy be construed as a virtus (which, pace Fr. Z, signifies “manliness, strength, courage, aptness, capacity, power”)?

I submit that there is no virtue in hypocrisy. Chase’s admittedly clever endeavor to eisegetically derive a positive meaning from what is clearly a derogatory term seems hardly in accord with the plain ipsissima verba Jesu. One should not confuse terms, much less terms so opposed or diverse as “virtue” and “hypocrisy”. Nor is hypocrisy (as the New Testament knows it) understood as broadly as Chase (or Merriam-Webster) understands it. The biblical understanding of hypocrisy is not the mere “failure to live up to the Law”; hypocrisy is said failure coupled with the willfully deceptive appearance of holiness. An instance of an honest Christian making a mistake and sincerely asking for forgiveness is nowhere near the scope of Christ’s words when he excoriates hypocrites; rather, in the Gospel, the Lord reserves that terrible title for those who obstinately hide their impiety behind the mask of public piety; in them He sees in them not virtus, not strength, but a conscientious deception which recalls the Deceiver who first preyed upon the weakness of man.

In the final analysis, Chase rightly extols the virtues of humility and penitence, as seen in his lengthy citation of Andrew of Crete. Would that he guided us to that conclusion directly; would that he readied the way and prepared a straight path, instead of embarking on a roundabout journey of verbal theatrics into the exaltation of a sin.

Forse la diritta via era smarrita.

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