There’s nothing more popular these days, either in the Church or the surrounding culture, than attacking hypocrisy or moral pride: Pope Francis talks about it all the time, and slinging accusations of it back and forth has become something of a pastime among Catholics of differing traditions. Of course, the Other Side uses it as a “shut up criticism free” card whenever anyone dares to criticize their behavior or suggest that perhaps their way of life isn’t the most conducive to health and happiness.
I think this is a very dangerous state of affairs for the Church, and that we seriously need to downplay this kind of talk, especially with regards to one another.
In David Copperfield we have one of Dickens’s more interesting villains; Uriah Heep. Heep is a man of lower class and oily manners, constantly talking about how “’umble” he is and affecting submissive manners towards his social superiors. Before long, however, it becomes clear that Heep is an ambitious, selfish, amoral man whose humility is a blind that he uses to manipulate and control those around him. In fact, he loathes the rich, well-mannered, ‘respectable’ people, like Copperfield himself. He is eaten up with envy and considers all their good manners, morals, and ‘respectability’ to be nothing but pride and hypocrisy.
To take another literary villain, consider George Wickham in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, who blames Darcy for the ‘pride’ that led Darcy to refuse to continue supporting him after he had already given him several thousand pounds, which Wickham had squandered on immoral, lascivious, and idle living. Wickham likewise accuses Darcy’s sister of being proud because she had come to her senses in time to avoid being seduced by him. Basically, ‘proud’ to Wickham means ‘anyone who presumes to be more moral than is convenient to me.’
Now, neither Dickens nor Austen lacks for examples of real pride, snobbishness, and hypocrisy. In David Copperfield we have the merciless Murdstones, the snobbish Steerforths, and the cruel Mr. Creakle. In Pride and Prejudice we have the haughty Lady Catherine, the unctuous and ridiculous Mr. Collins (who is offended by Elizabeth’s refusal of his marriage proposal), and the snobbish and hypocritical Bingley sisters, who look down on everyone they consider below their circle, despite the fact that their money all comes from trade. But both authors had the moral subtlety to know that those who lack morals, or who are deficient in that line, very often compensate themselves and sooth their own self-loathing by accusing their superiors of being proud, hypocritical, and self-righteous.
So there is a great danger in warning against moral pride and self-righteousness; the danger is that it is extremely easy to accuse anyone with any morals of having that particular sin. Practically any act of virtue, prudence, or good-judgment is sufficient to render an accusation of self-righteousness plausible.
I’m not, of course, saying that there is no such thing as self-righteousness or that we shouldn’t be on guard against it. What I am saying is that we should be extremely hesitant to either make that accusation or believe one that is made by others. We should be very careful when and how we bring it up. To speak against clear, easily-defined sins is far safer (for our own spiritual wellbeing) and, without a doubt, far more needed in our current world.
Moreover, to speak against moral pride is easy; as I say, everyone does it, and everyone feels confident that they know someone who has it. Very few people feel ‘attacked’ by it (unless specifically directed at them), and those who do tend to be sufficiently morally aware not to resent it. Most of us, when we hear a lecture on moral pride, can take refuge in the assumption that we are decent people who bear no one any ill will (meaning that we feel fairly calm and amiable at the moment) and easily redirect the admonition to our neighbor who dared to lecture us on our parenting techniques the other day.
To speak against one of the favorite sins of the moment, such as fornication, pornography, laziness, self-indulgence, abortion, homosexuality, and so on, however, is another story. These are things that either you do or you don’t; if you do, you can’t hide from that fact by a pleasing self-assessment or fob it off as being directed at someone else. They are concrete facts, and your only two options are to reject the admonition outright (which is uncomfortable in itself) or to regret that you did such things. In either case, I believe it to be far more useful in awakening the conscience than attacks on hypocrisy and spiritual pride, though these may be the deadlier sins.
Now, I know some of you are thinking “But Jesus attacked hypocrites all the time! In fact, He was much harsher with them than with anyone else.” Yes, but we must remember two things: first, Jesus could look into men’s hearts and know that they were hypocrites: we can’t. Second, Jesus never hesitated to call out the more prosaic sins either, but these were more or less common knowledge at the time: everyone knew them. No one had to be told that stealing, fornication, adultery, and self-indulgence were wrong, but they did need to be told that a rotten interior life necessitated repentance as well. That is not the case of the modern world. Today, everyone knows the importance of the interior life, but comparatively few people know or understand the basic principles of practical wisdom. We don’t need to be told not to be hypocrites as much as we need to be told not to be selfish, greedy, lustful, and lazy. These days the story of the publican and the Pharisee would almost be reversed: the publican would pray “I thank you Lord that at least I am not a hypocrite like that Pharisee over there! I may steal, extort, sleep around, and laugh at my neighbors’ pain, but at least I’m not a hypocrite!”
This doesn’t mean we need to be ‘flinging accusations’ around or anything; only that when we talk about morality, we should focus on warning against the specific, unmistakable sins more than the vague, non-concrete ones. Not that we should ignore these (they are, as noted, among the most dangerous), but that we should be careful about how we approach them. Besides, a man only becomes aware of his spiritual pride by being aware of his real sins: if he’s able to ignore them, he likely won’t be aware of his own hypocrisy. To be aware that we commit real and disgusting sins regularly, and that we want to do so is to recognize that we are not a very fine person after all. To awaken a man to the obvious sins is also to awaken him to his pride. Not always, but I think far more often than a direct attack on spiritual pride does.
In short, to warn against hypocrisy is at least as dangerous as a simple condemnation of obvious sins. We should warn against both, but the latter should be much more the focus of our efforts, while the former should be approached with great caution lest we encourage the very thing we seek to cure.