Showing posts with label Pharisees. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pharisees. Show all posts

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Church's Hypocrites

The Church will have hypocrites for as long as it is earthly. Hypocrisy flows from the damaged and fallen nature of humankind, and so the only ultimate cure lies in the healing of that broken nature, something that only occurs with finality at the End.

Whilst the Church will always have hypocrites, this does not mean that hypocrites are a good to be treasured qua hypocrites. We all seem to recognize this at least at some level - even those bent on some brand of moral relativism see hypocrisy as immoral. Perhaps this is because hypocrisy is a sin against one of the more treasured of values these days, that of authenticity, of "being yourself." In Jesus' parlance, a hypocrite is someone who acts in such a way publicly that is not reflective of the way they are in reality. Those we now call actors were the hypocrites: they act on stage in the guise of some other person, not acting as themselves. In today's usage, a similar idea is conserved, but the dichotomy is usually presented as between what a person says and what a person does - and normally, there is some clause about being deceptive about it, which I will largely omit discussion of until the end.

Since Jesus' polemics where often against the Pharisees, and since this group is the one Jesus accuses memorably of being hypocrites (cf. Mt. 23), it is the Pharisees we think of most prominently as being hypocrites. And since our Anglophone cultural baggage derives much from the time of the Reformation, our view of the Pharisees is that they were a mean Judean sect, bent on being nasty to everyone and telling them how wonderful they themselves were, they were religious leaders who pestered everyone with their yoke of legalism and works-righteousness. In particular, they completely denied grace as a free gift and were completely unmerciful to anyone.

It seems commonplace, to accuse Church leaders of being hypocrites, or faithful Catholics of being hypocritical, by analogy with the Pharisees: totally mean to everyone, always trying to control the way to heaven by telling people what they can and cannot do, and never being merciful and kind to people (unlike that Jesus chap, the clause is sometimes added). This accusation comes from both the secular world and other groups of Catholics, and to a lesser degree from others.

Now, whether the analogy between the Pharisees as they were in history and particular Catholics nowadays holds is an interesting question. The socio-cultural context of the writing of the New Testament means that an objective view of the Pharisees in not sought - like often happens between religious kin, Christians are quick to differentiate themselves from the Pharisees in the apostolic and sub-apostolic ages. Certain myths do exist, however: for instance, the Pharisees were not religious leaders. Whilst it is common to hear talk of Jesus challenging religious authorities - something he did do, at least to some extent - his discussions and polemics with the Pharisees are not instances of this. The Pharisees were a lay group, a particular sect of Judean-Israelite religion, they were not religious leaders. They did not deny grace, did not preach works-righteousness, and I suspect they were mostly very intent on being kind and merciful (even though they probably also had a thoroughly in-group morality). The dis-analogies and myths that we think of when we hear the term Pharisee are numerous. But this is not my point, regardless.

The idea that the only way to be hypocritical is to be like our caricature of the Pharisees should be challenged, for whilst I freely acknowledge that there are many hypocritical Catholics among the faithful, I suspect that the Church's hypocrites that are hiding in plain sight are not the faithful Catholics, but the so-called "dissident" and "nominal" ones.

To be a hypocrite (in modern speech), it was said before, is for there to be a gulf between one's words and actions. If I tell people that it is always important to wash their hands before eating, but do not do so myself, I am being hypocritical. I put to the reader that when the faithful Catholic confesses, as is the true doctrine of the Church, that they are sinful in need of redemption, wrongdoers in need of forgiveness, and yet that not only they do wrong, but also others, and sometimes the wrongdoings of others are different to those which he or she commits, though all wrongdoings are immoral - they are not being profoundly hypocritical. It is true, when faithful Catholic encounters the mercy of God in the confessional, they are acknowledging hypocrisy, admitting that they have done differently to what they professed to be right. And yet, the nominal and dissident Catholics, whilst they also have this hypocrisy that arises from wrongdoing (or worse, hypocrisy arising from claiming that they commit no wrongdoing), they have a hypocrisy far more insidious, one that is not momentary in the occasion of sin, but endures further.

Quite simply, they claim to be something they are not. The litany of exceptions that flow from the phrase "I am Catholic, but..." amount to a resounding "I profess to be Catholic, yet deny it in my being." This is the essence of hypocrisy. It need not be vocalized so clearly, either: there are those who claim to be faithful and true Catholics, yet testify otherwise by their lives: "I have not been to Mass in a couple of years, but I am still a true Catholic," some might say. Perhaps they are very kind people, but let us not be held in jest: the one who claims to be Catholic yet denies that this involves gathering in communion with the rest of the Church for Mass denied in their lives that they are in fact Catholic.[1]

Or they might profess to be Catholic and deny it by their other words: "I am a true Catholic and am pro-abortion." Perhaps this person genuinely thinks they hold coherent beliefs, but in actual fact, they do not. A vegan who eats pork is either not a vegan or does not actually eat pork: the two cannot be held simultaneously. For exactly the same reason, a Catholic pro-abortionist is an oxymoron.

Now, there is some subtlety introduced when a person says "I am a progressive Catholic." Here, the terms admit reconciliation. Far too often, however, what the sentence really means is "I am a hypocrite, I claim to be Catholic when I am not." Progressive Catholicism, for most who claim to be its adherents, is the same as the Catholic buttery above - by adding Progressive as a qualifier, what is implied is that litany of exceptions to actual Catholicism, this time with some good marketing. After all, who is opposed to progress? Certainly not Catholics. But when some modern cultural fad is declared to be progress, such as the recognition of the right to kill one's child, Catholics do not reject it and hence reject progress, it is rejected for being regress. 

I could label myself "A Catholic for Change for the Better" - and if I started calling myself that, who could be opposed? But what would really be hiding, or at least obscuring, is my vision of what the Better is. I might think it would be better if all male, 19 year old students were stoned. I could say that the institution of this would be progress over the dreadful state of affairs where most of the people in that group are not stoned. Though this example is hyperbolic, the point should be clear: it is not the qualifying label that really matters, the label is chosen for PR, what matters is whether the qualifier actually negates the noun, whether claiming to be "progressive" actually constitutes a denial of being Catholic. If it does, then it is hypocrisy.

It is added by some that there are a diversity of views within the Catholic Church. This is absolutely true, there are a diverse set of views - theology would be over if there were not! One such plurality is over some soteriological questions, such as Molinism and Thomism in how to combine free will and predestination. Whilst both views cannot be correct, the Church contains people advocating both (a split which has traditionally been Jesuit-Dominican respectively). What those people tend to mean is that the Church contains views contrary to its teachings, and this is not the case. One can claim to hold to some dissident or heretical view only by deceiving either oneself or those around one, claiming to be something one is not, or in short, hypocrisy.

Let me return briefly to the clause I ignored that is often added to the definition of hypocrisy, ie, that the hypocrite not only acts contrary to their profession of belief, but also that their action is concealed, that there is deceit involved that amounts to a position of moral superiority being wrongly attributed to the hypocrite. If that qualifier is added, then the case of sin-is-hypocrisy mentioned at the beginning is not hypocrisy. However, the nominal and dissident "Catholics" still fall into the bounds of the definition, since they claim to be Catholic only deceitfully.

Perhaps the preceding has seemed overly harsh. I do not think so, I think it is important to flag hypocrisy and deceit in the Church - how can the Church reform if it does not identify the negative elements? Or perhaps it has seemed instead overly arrogant, as if I could say what is and is not Catholic. It has been my intention to keep the examples of ways in which one's Catholicism is denied to the minimum to avoid creating criteria for in-and-out, for precisely that reason. However, it is not arrogant to point out that, in actual fact, the word "Catholic" really means something. It is a word with content. As such, some combinations of the word with other terms produce logical contradictions, just like "vegan meat-eater" or, to use the canonical example, "married bachelor." Such an entity does not exist, and when someone points out that when a married man to claims to be a bachelor he is in fact mistaken or lying, it is not arrogant, it is simply applying the meaning of the words correctly.

Whilst I doubtless hope in vain, it is my hope that hypocrisy will begin not only be identified among those who do wrong, but also among those who claim the identity "Catholic" that they act contrary to.

[1] Some extreme cases could be given where somebody really is a faithful Catholic and has not been to Mass - perhaps they are imprisoned, perhaps there is absolutely no-where Mass is offered, etc. However, this is not a particularly large group, and certainly not the subject of my point here.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Beginnings of Jesus' Ministry (Matthew 3)

(Text: Gospel according to St Matthew (NRSV) )

In the third chapter of the gospel according to St Matthew, John the Baptist is introduced. Before I begin writing down my thoughts on this passage, I want to say a few words on how I am writing these blog posts: as I posted yesterday, I am going through a set reading plan, and I plan to write down my thoughts on the passages I read as I go along. Sometimes it is crucial to get some context to understand a passage, and this might be one of them, but I do not wish to expound a whole theology of baptism before I have gotten to a passage where baptism is in any sense clearly explained. If baptism has to do with repentance, why does Jesus get baptized? If baptism has to do with becoming part of the church...then what in the world is going on here? If, as St Paul says, through baptism we are buried with Christ in his death (see Colossians 2:12 - although I am undecided about Pauline authorship), then how can this possibly happen before Jesus dies, and still the question is asked, why does Jesus get baptized? When we get to later sections dealing with baptism, in particular the right part of the catechism, we may be fit to discuss these problems better. For now, the passage:

John the Baptist appears as a very impoverished man, in his living arrangements (v. 1), his clothes and his food (v. 4). He explains his purpose by quoting Isaiah - I take that verse (v. 3) to mean that John believes he is a sort of herald. This interpretation fits beautifully with how St Matthew has been building up his conception of Jesus: royal bloodline, royal homages, and now, a royal herald.

John's ministry is one of baptism, but it appears to be a baptism distinct to the baptism of nowadays - this is just a baptism of water for repentance, yet reference is made to one different from this, utilizing the Holy Spirit and fire (v. 11). Baptism also appears to involve confession, as seen in verse 6. Now, how does John react to the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism? Christians know full well that Jesus and Pharisees did not get along well - but for a first century Jew, these sections of Judaism were among the strictest and most respected. St Matthew has just done some serious juxtaposition in saying that John the Baptist is meant to "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (v.3), but then rejects the Pharisees and Sadducees.

What charges are made against this religious establishment? First, they are under wrath, although the question "who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (v.7) implies that this is not a particular anger at them. They should bear fruit worthy of repentance - John is saying the equivalent of "repentance without works is dead". The term "worthy" should stick out a bit, because being worthy of repentance is an odd concept - how do you become worthy of turning away from wrongdoing? Although it is a bit of a cop out answer, I suspect St Matthew is just saying in a pointed way "you have repented? Then show it." Again, repentance without works is dead.

John goes on to say "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." Let us not confuse this with the converse: John does not say "every tree that bears good fruit will be saved." There is no salvation merely by bearing good fruit - but John does assert that there is no salvation unless there is good fruit involved. We are dealing with good works as necessary conditions, not sufficient conditions.

Finally, we get to the odd bit I mentioned at the beginning, Jesus' baptism. It seems like John has a similar concern to me, but Jesus just responds in what I take to be "this will do - this must be done to fulfil all righteousness." What righteousness he speaks of, I am unsure. The Greek word is dikaiosune, and it often refers to the uprightness and faithfulness of God and his people to the covenant - as such, it is a word associated deeply with the covenant between God and Israel. This sheds, as far as I can tell, no light on the matter, since there is no requirement for baptism at the time. The best I can do is to suggest that Jesus trod the path that we should tread, so it is "proper" (in the NRSV translation that I read, it uses this word and not "right") to do so, for our sake.

One special note: baptism is clearly important. Over this year, I know for certain (largely because I've read large chunks of the Bible already) that baptism is going to be assumed as a thing of the past a lot of the time, and perhaps here we see why; I suspect most people got baptised straight away, just like Jesus gets baptised before he preaches a single word.