Friday, March 10, 2006

Hypocrisy[1] and Religion

My cardiologist is a very decent sort of chap, even when he is thumping away at my aorta, pushing on my left ventricle and bellowing “Breathe through your mouth.” However, my last exam became a role reversal situation when he startled me by revealing a disillusionment at his brother’s departure from a religious Order. Confused as I was, I felt that somehow I was expected to minister to my physician “minister”. But what does one say to offer consolation or even a word of explanation on Religious severance after 15 years of presumably devoted, sincere service to the Lord’s people?

The ex-religious explained his departure by his perception of “unbearable hypocrisy” of the Religious whose Community life he shared. He seemed surprised to discover that people in religion are just as selfish, lazy, manipulative and phony as the average fellow who works as a Wall Street trader or the lady who sells hats at Bergdorf Goodman. I, myself, have lived for 64 years in religious Community, given countless retreats and lectures to clergy and religious and have found similar human behaviors but that is only half the story.

How did he miss the abundant generosity, kindness and friendliness that pervades most religious Communities—even today when widespread secular narcissism has seeped into God’s own acre? Did he not meet the broken person striving for holiness who, contritely, makes amends after being sarcastic or cold to a fellow religious? Did he not see the day by day attempts at prayer in the midst of very busy and demanding service to others? Did he not see these vessels of clay wrestling with their God to make sense out of much of the nonsense of their lives? Did he never hear the testimony of saints, such as John Berchmanns who painfully admitted that Religious Community life is a Purgatory? A Purgatory which highlights and magnifies human failings as well as human splendor? Of course selective friendships and greetings are rampant as are hurts and slights and even unChristian shunning. I once lived with a fellow religious who had a list of people he wouldn’t talk to! It was a common joke to ask another Religious if he was “on the list.” Of course, there are innumerable instances of this kind of “hypocrisy.” But isn’t there another side of the coin?

I am surprised that he was surprised. My assumption is that Catholic religious know and reasonably understand the basic doctrine of Original sin whereby all of us, intelligent or dopey, young or old, healthy or ill, will be tempted to be proud, envious, lazy, lustful, angry, mean, avaricious and vengeful. The priest who is too busy or annoyed to meet the request of an anxious Catholic for sacramental Confession is, on first impression, beneath my contempt, but I try to understand that there are unconscious and conscious dynamics working in him that are beyond my awareness. It is not for me to judge. Perhaps, in every human being, we might find weaknesses and modes of behavior that might be labeled hypocrisy!

The Catholic Church teaches that there is a fundamental incompletion in all human beings. No one escapes. Only Jesus Who was God (as well as man) and His Blessed Mother (by singular theological exception) can claim true and complete integration. Even on Ash Wednesday, the Church reminds us that we are dust, and highly limited by space and time. I am surprised that a modern religious is unaware that all religious communities represent a slice of that population we call the human race. That tainted and broken human population is the pool from which come all religious vocations. Ideally, I would like my religious leaders, male and female to be perfect human beings, always loving, always, intelligent, always kind, always “there” for me! If I really believed that, I would suspect that there is “something” in the water I drink.

Yet, it seems to me that some of the most terrifying words of the gentle Jesus were reserved for those whom he called “hypocrites.” These were the ones whom He labels “whited sepulchers”……..clean looking on the outside but rotten inside. It surfaces for me a recollection of the old Roman god, Janus, who had two faces to be used expediently according to the “appropriate” situation. Clearly, there is a difference between keeping personal secrets to oneself (a moral choice) and pretending to believe something one does not (or even pretending not to believe when one does). While there is no moral need to splatter one’s total self all over the landscape, there is a vital Christian imperative to try to match one’s behavior with one’s stated belief.

In fact, this principle applies not only to religious people but to anyone who seriously pursues what we call the Will of the Almighty, the Lord, Himself. When, as reported in a New York newspaper recently, a local Rabbi cajoles women congregants to have sex with him under the guise of some kind of Jewish ritual, he is a hypocrite. As is the Catholic priest who has sexual relationships with adolescents under the pretense of helping them to mature. He is a desperate hypocrite. Or the public high school teacher who molests his intimidated students, too fearful to resist or report him. Or any son or daughter of Adam/Eve who “feigns” virtue, belief or even feelings.

How many times I have heard the old saw from fallen-away Catholics that the reason for their non-practice is the hypocrisy of Catholics who attend Mass on Sundays!! It is alleged that these Catholic hypocrites go only to show off their high couture or possibly to maintain some kind of social or professional contact. While this might be true in isolated instances, particularly with politicians who pointedly carry big, highly visible Bibles, on Sunday mornings, it is insulting to the millions of good hearted people who do attend their various denominations sincerely and with full intent of living godly lives. Who are the real hypocrites? It is fascinating to me to discover that many of the people I have encountered with that rationalization, are themselves engaging in or living with situations which are antithetical to the codes of the Great Religions. To attend services in Temple or Church might be too anxiety provoking for this critic. Attendance could mean a challenge to his laziness or his carnality or his dishonesty. To call others hypocrites becomes an excuse for him. Yet, his rationalization relieves him of a strenuous effort to please God. Those faithful persons who worship their God with dignity and silence do not need to trumpet their prayer life. They are well aware of the basic spiritual axiom: God Who sees in secret, rewards in secret. Perhaps, the noisy criticism of those who are too involved with Mammon is all the reward they will get.

If believing people (of any religion) fail in their prayers or their charity or their self control, do they repent and reform and try again? If so, then these people are truly sincere—even if they fail. The critic doesn’t even try. In one of the recent Courage[2] meetings, a newcomer to the Group who had broken free of the Gay lifestyle, commented on the absence of self loathing in the verbal witnessing of the members. His previous experience with SSA people, in other groups, had been rife with self hatred and self depreciation but the Courage people seemed pervaded with a sense of self respect. The explanation derives from the Catholic insight of the “Second Chance” and the “Constant Resurrection” (i.e. the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation). Coupled with the insistent Catholic teaching that all men and women are loved by God Who sent His Son, Jesus, to die for all of us and our sins (translated as Value of a person), the encouragement to “pick oneself up and try all over again” takes root in one’s self identity. Then the soul hears the message: Keep on trying. Keep up the good fight. Don’t quit. You are basically good if marginally wounded. Miracles do happen.

Courage teaches its members the meaning of Original sin and its illumination on human behavior. It teaches that the disciplining of the disordered tendency for same sex can be a “platform of holiness” as in the Blessed apostle Paul mode with his “ thorn in the side”. Even if the disorder is never removed, it can be contained by God’s great grace and can allow the person to reach spiritual heights he never imagined! This is not hypocrisy. This is real virtue wherein these SSA people do not “feign”. They face the facts of their lives and struggle for the sake of the Lord to achieve and maintain interior Chastity. Is it that the cynical critics dislike struggle or effort and prefer the instant gratification so cherished in modern culture?

Still, fakery (or hypocrisy) and not-revealing “things” are two different issues. Cardinal Levada, in an address to the seminarians at the North American College in Rome, recently suggested that an SSA priest would be well advised to keep his sexual ambiguity to himself. The need of some “Gay” priests to publicize their “gayness” to Catholics whose interest is more in sizzling bacon and Sunday newspapers, speaks, not to the spiritual good of parishioners, but to underdeveloped psyches playing at being Clergymen. Keeping one’s sexual preferences to oneself could well indicate some attempt at generosity in protecting the Faithful from confusion and disillusionment. To argue that such self disclosure on a Sunday morning is necessary for the priest’s own honesty is to high light the perceived priorities of the "Gay" priest. He is interested in himself and not in the peaceful growth of God’s people.

Christian spirituality necessarily involves some form of the Cross which, in effect, translates into affective love of the Lord. While human failure is inevitable, in priests and peasants, laddies and lassies, and in all children of Adam, the splendor of human goodness still shines through all the muck and hypocrisy. Let us then sing the praises, under God, of being human!

[1] “..feigning of beliefs, feelings or virtues that one does not hold or possess; insincerity” Dictionary of Houghton, Mifflin Co.
[2] a Catholic apostolate formed to assist Same Sex Attracted Persons (SSA) to pursue Chastity and holiness in the Roman Catholic style