Dr. Dennis McInerny Series – Hypocrisy

by Dr. Dennis Q McInerny
January 2004

To bring up the subject of hypocrisy is almost automatically to bring up the subject of the Pharisees, for it was the Pharisees whom Our Lord roundly castigated again and again for their hypocritical behavior. Indeed, so close is the connection in our minds between hypocrisy and the Pharisees that we regularly use the term “pharisaical” as a pointed synonym for “hypocritical.”

When we consult St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of hypocrisy, we discover that he sees it, regarded generally, as virtually identical with what he calls simulatio. My Latin dictionary provides an illuminating list of definitions for that word, as follows: “a falsely assumed appearance,” “a false show,” “feigning,” “shamming,” “pretence,” “insincerity,” “deceit.” The sum total of the meaning conveyed by that list gives us, I think, a pretty good idea of the nature of the subject which is before us.

We are all capable of acting hypocritically at times, which is just how we act when we attempt to put ourselves forward as something which we are not. But the hope is that none of us are full-time hypocrites. A person who qualifies for the undesirable status of hypocrite would be someone who has become habituated to deceitful behavior. It is a way of life for him. Those who are acquainted with the very high regard St. Thomas had for truth will not be at all surprised to learn that he unhesitantly identifies hypocritical behavior as sinful behavior. Hypocritical behavior is not necessarily mortally sinful, but it can be so. What makes all hypocritical behavior sinful, either mortally or venially, is the fact that it is in its essence an affront to the truth. The hypocrite is, at bottom, a liar.

A lie, St. Augustine tells us, consists in a radical discrepancy between what a man knows and what he says. The liar knows X is Y; he says X is not Y. The hypocrite lies not only with his tongue, but with all of his actions. We can say without being melodramatic about it that the hypocrite’s whole life, everything he does, represents an ongoing lie. The purpose of lying is to deceive. The purpose behind the hypocrite’s elaborate program of calculated deception is to make people believe that he is someone other than he truly is. And, of course, the deceit is aimed in only one direction: the hypocrite intends that people should think him better than he truly is. No hypocrite pretends to be worse than he actually is. To be sure, some people do pretend they are worse than they actually are, but that represents an altogether different problem, which is called false humility.

All sin is sad, but there seems to be something especially sad about the sin of hypocrisy, for it amounts to being nothing more than a concentrated and sustained exercise in shallowness. The committed hypocrite is singularly lacking in depth. There is not much inwardness at all to him. His every effort is dedicated to preserving surface realities, to maintaining a fake facade. He is a consummate actor, but he performs in a drama which, if played out to the end, can be counted as nothing other than a tragedy. For the hypocrite, the show must go on, because, for him, the show is all there is. In castigating the Pharisees, Our Lord called them “whited sepulchres.” They appeared beautiful from the outside, but inside there was but dead men’s bones—that is to say, spiritual lifelessness.

Can a person be designated a hypocrite if he sincerely believes himself to be what in fact he is not? For example, am I a hypocrite if I sincerely believe myself to be a saint, and conduct myself according to that belief, when, in fact, I am the farthest thing from being a saint? According to St. Thomas’s interpretation of the nature of hypocrisy, that would seem not to be an instance of the sin. To understand his reasoning here we must recall that one of the definitions for simulatio which we cited above was insincerity. So, if I sincerely suppose myself to be a saint, I am certainly sorely deluded on that score—and that in itself brings with it a whole host of problems—but I would not be a hypocrite.

For St. Thomas, the genuine hypocrite is one who knows that he is not what he publicly purports to be, and who knowingly sets out to deceive. The hypocrite is devious, but he is not deluded as to the true state of his soul. We can better appreciate this point by keeping in mind the fact that the hypocrite is essentially a liar. That is the core of his identity. A liar cannot really be a liar if he thinks, when he lies, that what he is saying is the truth. Just as the actor on the stage who is playing Hamlet knows that he is not really Hamlet, so the hypocrite, who, let us say, is acting the role of a virtuous person, knows that he is not really a virtuous person. But just as a talented actor can convince an audience that he is really Hamlet, so a dedicated hypocrite can convince the people with whom he associates that they are dealing with a really virtuous person.

The simple fact that there is not perfect harmony between one’s external behavior and one’s inner moral state does not in itself make one a hypocrite. It is only with the perfect that there is perfect harmony between the internal and external man. In discussing this point, St. Thomas suggests the example of a young man who is new to the monastic life and whose edifying external behavior does not reflect his still quite imperfect internal state. But he is not trying to deceive anyone by behaving as he does. Rather, he intends that the systematic efforts he gives to the performance of praiseworthy external actions will have a salutary effect on his internal actions. In other words, he acts as virtuous people act because he earnestly wants to become virtuous himself. To imitate virtuous behavior in order to gain virtue is not to act hypocritically. In fact, it is to act prudently. This way of proceeding was to be highly recommended by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, some 400 years after the time of St. Thomas.

We are all very alert to the hypocrisy we perceive in other people, considerably less so to the hypocrisy that resides in ourselves. But our reaction in this respect is scarcely limited to the sin of hypocrisy. We typically have eagle eyes for the failures of our fellows, but turn into veritable bats when it comes to seeing how we ourselves fall short of measuring up to the mark. This observation is not to be taken as an invitation to complacency with regard to the real existence of hypocrisy, nor to the very great danger it poses, especially for the Church. But we should have a lively awareness of the large difficulties that attend the accurate identification of hypocrisy. It is one thing to know the correct definition of hypocrisy, it is quite another to be able to specify with certitude an actual instance of it.

To see how that is so, let us remind ourselves that hypocrisy is essentially lying. To know with certainty that a liar is a liar, we have to know that the liar knows that what he is saying is not true. In other words, we have to be able to read minds as well as lips. Reading the minds of others is not only very tricky business but, from a spiritual point of view, extremely risky business. And, in the final analysis, it is not the kind of business any of us should ever want to get into. We would all do well to follow the sage advice of St. John of the Cross, and devote our energies toward the difficult task of developing within ourselves a permanent attitude of tranquil unconcern about the state of soul of other people. Each of us has a full-time job on his hands just trying to keep his own house in order.

Dr. Dennis Q. McInerny’s articles have been published in the FSSP North American District Newsletter many times through the years and will soon be published in the upcoming book Perennial Wisdom Volume II by Fraternity Publications.

February 8, 2010