If a man was to read the gospels with a fresh mind, that is, without any pre-conceived notion of Who Jesus is and what He was trying to accomplish, he would quickly conclude that one of the worst sins was hypocrisy. And in a certain sense, he would be right. There is no group of sinners that Our Lord singles out more often than the hypocrites. Knowing His profound distaste for this particular sin, it is not surprising that we, His followers, should vigilantly avoid it and keep any traces of it from creeping into our lives. In many ways this should be one of the easiest sins to avoid because it is also one of the easiest sins to identify in ourselves. We should know when we are posing to be something we are not. But this may be oversimplifying the case because it has a subtle way of insinuating itself into our spiritual lives and spreading like a weed. Therefore, it is fruitful for us to examine this vice more closely.
If lying is to signify by words something different from what is in one’s mind, then dissimulation is a form of lying in which the outward deed does not correspond to the inner intention. To the topic at hand, hypocrisy is a type of dissimulation when a “sinner simulates the person of a just man” (ST II-II q.111, a 2). Like all offenses against the truth, when practiced enough, one forgets the truth and begins to believe the untruth. One starts seeing himself as just. This was why Our Lord was so harsh with the Pharisees—they had become blinded to their hypocrisy and only by shining His light that the Truth could they be set them free.
Hypocrisy’s Deadly Roots
Rightly recognizing its capacity to kill our spiritual lives, we do all we can to avoid it. The problem however is that we do too much, mostly because we have failed to make an important distinction. St. Thomas doesn’t say that you must do everything with perfect intention in order to avoid hypocrisy. That, unfortunately is the way most of us think of hypocrisy. No, instead he says that hypocrisy consists in the intention of presenting ourselves as just. An example might help see the distinction more clearly. Two men enter an adoration chapel and prostrates themselves before the monstrance. The first man does so in order to be seen by others and be thought a holy man. His is an act, not of piety, but of hypocrisy. The second man does so, not because he wants to adore Our Lord, but because he has always been taught that is what you are supposed to do with only a vague awareness of why. This is far from being a perfect intention, but it is not hypocrisy.
This description helps to clarify why Our Lord spent so much time pointing hypocrisy out. It can, and usually does, become a sin of those who have advanced a certain amount in their spiritual life. At first, we have little interest in appearing to be religious and we may even have reason to hide it. But as our friends change, our vanity can be directed towards our “spiritual” friends and hypocrisy creeps in. A hypocrite has to see some value in faking it and thus it is a more “advanced” sin. This makes Our Lord’s command to “go into your room and shut the door” (Mt 6:6) invaluable for avoiding hypocrisy. We should perform acts of piety as if we have only an audience of One.
There is a further dimension of this that merits some explanation as well. It is a fear of hypocrisy that keeps us from performing certain acts of piety. This fear causes us to confuse the false piety of hypocrisy with weak acts of genuine piety. We hold out until we can get fully behind what we are doing. For example, a person sends you a novena to St. Joseph, asking you to pray it. Deep down you believe novenas work, but you feel like you mostly would be going through the motions doing it. If only your faith was a little stronger than you would do it. Therefore, to avoid “feeling” like a hypocrite you don’t do it.
It should be clear that to do the novena would not be hypocritical, but what is not clear is that you will never get to the point where your faith is “a little stronger” without doing acts that are weaker. Faith and the accompanying virtue of piety are habits in our soul and only grow when they are exercised. By starting with the weak, imperfect acts, they eventually grow to full bloom. This is not merely going through the motions, but instead adding a little more fervor, a little stronger intention, each time we do them. With each repeated act, God does His part by strengthening these virtues further because He will not be outdone in generosity. Before long you not only develop a devotion to St. Joseph, but the Communion of Saints becomes not just a sterile dogma, but a living reality in your life. This cannot happen however without those first weak baby steps. “I believe Lord, help my unbelief!”