What’s the difference between a hypocrite and a sinner? They look an awful lot alike. The hypocrite presents himself one way and then acts another. The sinner deliberately chooses what he knows he should not choose. They both suffer an interior division. Indeed, we ourselves may feel like hypocrites when we sin, when we choose contrary to what we believe. Still, we sense a difference between the two. We rightly intuit that not everyone who sins is for that reason a hypocrite.
The distinction lies in this. The hypocrite has made peace with the division within himself; the sinner fights against it. Now, he might fight poorly and fail more often than not, but he nevertheless keeps pushing against that interior dis-integration. The sinner repents and tries to conform his life to what is true. The hypocrite refuses to repent and instead tries to twist reality to fit his way of living. He has, perhaps without even realizing it, grown comfortable with his interior division.
The difference between the hypocrite and sinner explains why we react so differently to them. We might grow frustrated or angry at a man’s sinfulness, or we might pity him his weakness. But a hypocrite is different. We sense that he suffers a deeper, more fundamental dishonesty. He is dangerous in a way that the sinner is not. While the sinner loses his way occasionally (perhaps often), the hypocrite has lost his compass.
This is the difference between the two sons in our Lord’s parable. (Mt 21:28-32) While both sons do wrong, the first son is capable of repentance and the second is not. The first sins in his defiance; the second has grown comfortable in his duplicity. The first is simply a sinner; the second a hypocrite.
As with many other parables, our Lord directs this one “to the chief priests and elders.” The point is not simply that these men have sinned. Our Lord clearly distinguishes them from sinners, from the tax collectors and prostitutes entering the kingdom of God before them. No, there is a flaw within them deeper than sinfulness, worse than any specific sin. They are men who have grown comfortable with the division within them, who have traded integrity for power. They are, as Jesus declares elsewhere (cf. Mt 24: 13-29), hypocrites.
We have a visceral reaction against hypocrisy precisely because we sense its disintegrating power in the person. The hypocrisy involved in Church scandals angers us more than the actual sins. Likewise, the hypocrisy of our all-too-prominent pro-abortion Catholic politicians is in some ways worse than any particular sin or even a habitual moral failing. They have grown so comfortable with their interior disintegration that they can blithely claim the Catholic mantle and champion the pro-abortion cause.
The opposite of hypocrisy is integrity – that quality that guards the unity of the person. Integrity makes a person an integer instead of a fraction; it guarantees that he is whole and entire, not divided. The man of integrity has combined and united – has integrated – all the various aspects of his life. What he believes, thinks, says, and does are all one. And while integrity is technically not a virtue, it – or at least the desire and striving for it – makes virtue possible. And the virtues in turn help to deepen that integration.
Due to original sin, we all experience division and conflict between what we know is good and true, on one hand, and what we desire and choose on the other. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rom 7:15) When we sin, we exacerbate that division and risk drifting into hypocrisy. When we repent we find healing for that division. Simplex fac cor meum, the Psalmist prays (Ps 86:12): make my heart simple, whole, and entire.
The world expects Christians to be first of all men and women of integrity. Indeed, how much damage has the hypocrisy of Christians caused the spread of the Gospel. How, then, do we grow in integrity of heart?
First, by devotion to the truth. Note: not just an interest in the truth but a desire to conform ourselves to it; not just to know but to respond to the truth. After all, the hypocrite himself might be able to recite profound truths. But he doesn’t conform himself to them. Saint James warns us not to be the kind of person who finds the truth interesting but not determinative:
[B]e doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing. (Jas 1:22-25)
Or, as Venerable Fulton Sheen put it, “If you don’t behave as you believe, you will end by believing as you behave.”
Second, a devotion to the Sacrament of Penance. The difference between the sinner and the hypocrite is that the sinner repents. Our growth in integrity of heart requires not just the occasional visit to the confessional but the realignment of our will with God’s by frequenting that sacrament. In Confession, we no longer try to remake reality on our own terms but bring our lives into conformity with God’s will.
Perhaps the most common accusation against Catholics (and Christians in general) is that we are hypocrites. Granted, that slur is often thrown without cause. Nevertheless, let’s make every effort to ensure that, although we remain sinners, we’re not hypocrites.
*Image: Dante and Virgil looking upon hooded hypocrites by Gustave Doré, c. 1869 [Canto XXIII Bolgia 6, from The Divine Comedy: Inferno]