Hypocrisy is a universally condemned trait. Everyone detests a hypocrite who preaches the things that he does not practice. “Practice what you preach,” goes the age-old saying. Ideally, we would act according to what we proclaim to be true and good. However, if we do not practice what we preach, does it mean that what we preach is false? And is it necessary to practice a truth before preaching it? In this essay, I will defend hypocrisy not as acceptable behavior but an inevitability that arises from imperfect humans striving to live perfect truth and goodness in a fallen world.
I’m an occasional user of Reddit, a social media site where people discuss sundry topics. In my interactions with other users, I have noticed that holding a moral opinion on any subject is immediately attacked by referencing cases of hypocrisy. For example, if I were to say lying is wrong, someone will immediately question whether I had never lied in my entire life. When Church teaching about helping the poor is mentioned, someone will describe an occasion when some Catholic (especially a member of the clergy) failed to follow their own Church’s teaching, thus supposedly proving that the Church’s teaching is false. When a politician votes against abortion access, someone will uncover a past instance when that politician was involved in an abortion, thus supposedly falsifying the anti-abortion position. The only people who are safe from these kinds of rebuttals are those who profess a you-do-you morality that does not impose any demands beyond do-not-bother-me.
Some Catholics inadvertently espouse the you-do-you morality when they preach that God loves everyone and everything they do. These Catholics avoid calling out wicked acts, and dislike talking about repentance because they supposedly believe in God’s infinite mercy and love. God does love everyone, and we know this from our very existence because God loved us into being and keeps us in existence. However, God also wants us to be good. Jesus’ teachings on morality and eternal damnation would be pointless if God accepts wicked acts by humans just because He loves everyone. As His beloved, God wants us to be good and loving to others. And so, there is merit in preaching goodness, even when we might fall short of the standards we are preaching.
As Catholics, we ought to strive for good lives because Jesus commanded us to “be perfect just as our heavenly father is perfect.” Thus, even though we will be criticized for our hypocrisy when we fail, we ought to encourage each other in leading good moral lives such that we open ourselves up to God’s love, joy, and peace.
When people attack a teaching by criticizing the behavior of the messenger, they fail to distinguish between truth and authority. Truth does not depend on the person preaching it because truth is objective. If objective truths did not exist, then any discussion on moral codes is meaningless because two persons could have opposing views on the acceptability of murder and both would be correct from their subjective standpoint. Murder being right and wrong at the same time is absurd. Thus, though humans may err in interpreting truth, truth itself is objective and outside of humans.
Ideally, the person speaking the truth would be a paragon of living that truth. He would show us how to live the truth by his example, and thus, he would draw authority from his moral high ground. However, that is rarely the case. Even Mother Teresa was criticized for not doing enough to help the poor. But because truth is independent of humans, helping the poor would be a good idea even if Hitler supported it. While hypocrisy undermines the authority of the messenger, it does not change the truth of the message.
Due to our fallenness, living a virtuous life is hard. Any teaching about moral goodness is near impossible to live in its entirety. For example, I profess to be vegan, but I sometimes fail by eating non-vegan cookies. I wish I could do better in not participating in cruelty to animals. But I find it hard to stop myself when I see a chocolate chip cookie. In this case, my inability to perfectly live the vegan philosophy of non-violence does not disprove the entire vegan philosophy of compassion for animals. Just because I can’t be perfect doesn’t mean I have to be indifferent to the plight of animals. Veganism as a philosophy of non-violence has merit despite this vegan’s inconsistent behavior.
Jesus rightly railed against hypocritical Pharisees on multiple occasions using stern language. However, we need to distinguish between two kinds of hypocrisy. One kind of hypocrisy involves a person condemning and persecuting others while being blind to his faults. In this case, he imposes his will on others for the sake of power and honor. Pharisees were powerful people in their society and they drew their power from being in positions that preached and required moral excellence. However, they did not live up to their own preaching, and instead of having the humility to accept their faults, they oppressed the laity who had similar faults as them. Jesus condemns this kind of hypocrisy and denounces them because “they preach but they do not practice, appearing righteous on the outside, but inside are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.”
The other kind of hypocrisy, which I advocate for acceptance of, is a behavioral inconsistency in which a person, while recognizing his flaws, still wants to point to the goodness and truth of a virtuous life. This second kind of hypocrite is humble about his inability to live the high truths he preaches. He accepts his fallenness as a human and asks for God’s grace to live a good life. This person preaches goodness not to portray himself as morally superior, but to encourage and guide all people toward living God’s commandment of love.
We also need to distinguish between “we are all sinners” and “there is no point in talking about being good” because we can be sinners, and aspire to a high moral standard at the same time. I believe that Christians who profess a radical moral code of love can speak in the public sphere even when they don’t live up to the standard they preach. We do not need to cede the public square to the moral relativists and the laissez-faire types just because we fear being labeled as hypocrites. We must, however, be open and transparent about our failings and not portray a holier-than-thou image for ourselves.
Furthermore, an openness to accepting the discrepancy between our preaching and our practice will keep us open to new ideas. I have noticed sometimes that we refuse to change our minds on hearing good arguments because we worry about being labeled as hypocrites for not living up to the new moral standards of that viewpoint. Consequently, to prevent being labeled as hypocrites, we preemptively reject truths that may challenge us. By humbly accepting our hypocrisy on the other hand, we will be more amenable to acknowledging the truth even when we know we will fall short of living that truth.
We cannot wait until we are perfect to preach the truth because we will never be perfect. If only the perfect are allowed to preach, then only Jesus can preach about moral truth and goodness. Instead, we imperfect humans should preach truth from a place of love, as a way of willing the good of the other. Harold Kushner writes in his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, “When we set high standards for people and ourselves, it’s not because we are overly scrupulous or judgmental. But because we believe that we are meant for so much more than moral lassitude. I don’t have high standards for a cat or a toddler because that would be illogical and unfair.” Humans are meant to preach and attempt to live by high standards even when we fail repeatedly.
As in inhabitants of an imperfect world, let us be kind to those who preach but may not be consistent with the truth they are preaching. They may be trying their best, and are still failing. And let us be open to the truth because God sends His message through imperfect humans such as you and me.