Updating Hypocrisy

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I guess I’m supposed to “update” my theological terminology now (i.e., a “paradigm shift”) and should not keep repeating old terms and slogans. I’m not sure one can express the same thing in completely different words.  The poet Robert Frost once replied to someone who asked him to “explain” one of his poems: “Oh, you want me to express what the poem says in different and worse words.”

Am I really going to find better words than St. Augustine or St. Athanasius, let alone Jesus? Count me skeptical.  But I’m nothing if not submissive to the authorities. So I’ll try.

I’ve written about priests who, when asked for a prayer, did not pray to God, but merely asked everyone to “be mindful” of something, as for example: “Let’s be mindful of the poor,” or “Let’s be mindful of those suffering from the earthquake.” I suggested, perhaps somewhat unkindly, that this was a kind of hypocrisy.

“Hypocrite” comes from a Greek word meaning “actor.”  A “hypocrite” is pretending to be something he is not, the way an actor pretends to be someone (Hamlet, Henry V, or a cowardly lion) he is not.  “Being mindful” is not a prayer, and one should not play-act as though it is.

I have no trouble with mindfulness.  I need to be more mindful. And mindful meditation can be a good preparation for prayer.  But it’s not prayer, so we should not pretend it is.

But if that’s not clear, consider another example.  There is a story about an Anglican bishop who, when asked by someone about God, replied: “How would I know?”  Well, dear sir, if you don’t, then why are you wearing that cassock and gallivanting around enjoying the privileges of that position?

Those who pretend to be something they’re not, so that they can enjoy the privileges of the institution, those who put on the outward cloak of Christian, Catholic faith but do not possess it, what else can we call them but “hypocrites”?   They’re play-acting; they’re playing “dress up,” and not just in the clothes they wear.

Christ described the religious hypocrites of his day as “blind guides,” “serpents” (presumably like the one in the Garden of Eden), “a brood of vipers,” and “whited sepulchers full of dead men’s bones.”  Those words are all pretty clear. But if I were to make the requisite stab at “updating” them, I suppose I would have to go with one from my science background: parasites.

I am not using the term “judgmentally,” however, merely in its technical sense. Technically speaking, a parasite is a creature that lives on or in a host organism and gets its food from or at the expense of its host.

“Ectoparasites,” for example, include “blood-sucking arthropods such as mosquitoes (because they are dependent on a blood meal from a human host for their survival),” but the term is generally used more narrowly “to refer to organisms such as ticks, fleas, lice, and mites that attach or burrow into the skin and remain there for relatively long periods of time (e.g., weeks to months).”


Parasites not only cause disease in their host, but they are also “vectors,” or transmitters, of many different diseases to others, often causing “tremendous morbidity and mortality from the diseases they cause.” Sound familiar?

Now, this is a technical description, not a “judgment,” although this is a little like when friends of mine in college would say something like, “That guy’s a total idiot,” but then would add: “But I mean that in the nicest way possible.”  In that spirit, I suppose I could say, “I am simply saying they’re ‘parasites.’ Whether that’s a ‘bad’ thing depends on one’s cultural perspective – doesn’t it?  Isn’t that the new theological paradigm?”

So look, if you don’t accept Catholic doctrine, fine. Plenty of people don’t. But please, don’t wear clerical garb and take money from people who think they’re giving it to people who do.  None of the working poor in America puts those precious few dollars in the collection plate so a bishop can undermine the teachings of the Church.  So too, people didn’t sacrifice over centuries to build those beautiful cathedrals in Europe so today’s bishops could reject everything they built those cathedrals to represent and support.

I recently heard these words at Mass and, personally, I found them terrifying.  I wonder how a bishop would hear them:

And now, O priests, this commandment is for you:
If you do not listen,
if you do not lay it to heart,
to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts,
I will send a curse upon you
and of your blessing I will make a curse.
You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction;
you have made void the covenant. . .
says the LORD of hosts.
I, therefore, have made you contemptible
and base before all the people,
since you do not keep my ways,
but show partiality in your decisions.
Have we not all the one Father?
Has not the one God created us?
Why then do we break faith with one another,
violating the covenant of our fathers?

Yikes!  But if you want to make a new church, fine.  God bless you.  But go build your own buildings.  You don’t get to keep the ones built by Catholics for Catholics.  If you don’t want to be a Catholic in the way those people envisioned, fine, go advertise yours as “the Holy ‘Catholic’ Church without Christ,” where no one is raised from the dead, and no one died for your sins because there is no sin.  (Kudos to the prophetic Flannery O’Connor).  But don’t live by attaching yourself to a living thing and sucking the life out of it.  That’s not progressive, it’s parasitic.  And kind of disgusting.

So that’s my “updating” of the old terminology.  I’m not sure it’s better. But as I said, I’m nothing if not submissive to authority.


*Image: Painted by Himself (aka, Self Portrait) by Jehan Georges Vibert, c. 1870 [private collection]

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Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.