Thursday 7 March 2013

The Cardinal Sin of Hypocrisy

The word hypocritical has been applied to Cardinal O'Brien a lot, recently.

Which is odd. Practically every day for many years, he has proclaimed himself a sinner in public. 'I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters...'

A hypocrite is one who proclaims himself to be better than he is, not someone who upholds higher values than he is able to live up to.

That is an important distinction, because if we do not make it, the only alternative is to say: these are the values I am able to live up to (however low or non-existent they be) and such is perfection.

To take the simplest example: I believe it is right to tell the truth and wrong to lie, in nearly all circumstances.  However, I still find myself telling lies for trivial reasons: to save embarrassment, to make myself look better, to improve an anecdote, and so on.  However, that is not hypocrisy; it is simply sin.  It would only be hypocrisy if I proclaimed 'Lying is wrong, and of course, I never do it.' Otherwise, if hypocrisy meant simply inconsistency, I could only avoid it (assuming I will never completely overcome my propensity to tell the occasional fib) by proclaiming that lying is OK.

Cardinal O'Brien, of course, was damned (in the eyes of many) wherever he stood.  Either he was a celibate talking about sexual behaviours of which he had no knowledge or experience, or he was someone talking about sexual behaviours of which he had some knowledge and experience.  I can't help feeling that it was his condemnation of the behaviours, more than the issue of his experience or lack thereof, that provoked the ire of so many.

From a Catholic point of view, he was of course a sinner.  In that he is not unique.  Our Lord and Our Lady apart, that's what the Church is made of.  Sinner is the raw material for saint.

It may well be, indeed I think it highly probable, that he was a penitent sinner.  If he sinned many years ago, and confessed his sin, and did penance; then that sin is forgiven  One could argue about the restitution owed to any whom he has offended or injured in sinning, but we do not know enough about the case.

However, that perspective does raise the interesting question as to whether, with that in his past, he should have spoken out so vehemently against that particular category of sin.  For what it is worth, I think he was right to do so.  The reformed sinner knows the sin from the inside.  He knows how depraved and ultimately unsatisfying sin - any sin - actually is, compared with the anticipatory promise made by the Devil.  How should he keep silence?

Perhaps, and I am inclined to think this may be the case, it would have been wiser and more honest to proclaim himself a sinner in this regard, historically, as part of the context of his condemnation.  But I can fully understand why he may have decided not to do so: we have created a culture so toxic that it could well have put an end to his ministry (as indeed it has done now) and brought opprobrium on his office and the Church he loves (as indeed it has done now).

Of course, he should not have sinned in the first place: but before you cast the first stone, do a full, life-long examination of conscience...

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