Don’t be deceived by Appearances

Christ on the Cross (detail) by Velazquez

When all is not how it seems…

Have you ever played a part, taking on a role of someone else? Some might think back to an occasion when they participated in a school play. Others might think about their roles in business or sales, or even within the home as parents when they might have employed the “good cop – bad cop” approach to resolve a problem. But, what I am thinking of here is more fundamental and of  vitally greater importance to our spiritual health.

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines hypocrisy as “…the pretension to qualities which one does not possess or… the putting forward of a false appearance of virtue or religion.”

At the outset, it is important to make a distinction between a person who deliberately acts in such a manner and another who strives to do the will of God and fails. The first person intends hypocrisy and is guilty of that grave sin while the other does not and therefore is not guilty, at least, of hypocrisy.

We all know that we struggle with the latter – that is, we all fall short even when we do not intend to. But more seriously, many are guilty of the former as well. It is up to each of us to know, through a regular examination of conscience, into which category we fall.

The Second Vatican Council, in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Guadium et spes), warns us of two grave errors of our times by reminding us that we are citizens of “two cities”.

“They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation.” (GS 43)

In other words, there is the erroneous notion that our earthly duties according to our state in life are of no consequence and that somehow, neglecting these responsibilities is virtuous in the pursuit of the Kingdom. For example, in the case of those who are called to financially support the family, the ordered and reasonable pursuit of work and career consistent with the moral life is a support to our vocation of seeking the Kingdom and is a part of God’s Will for us. Neglect of this responsibility under these circumstances, for other than truly moral reasons, is itself a sin. Likewise, a member of a religious community can also be guilty of shirking those earthly responsibilities that he or she has been assigned for the support of the community when they neglect them.

Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life.” (GS 43)

In this case, one we witness all too often, a person gives the appearance of being holy while at church or when performing some spiritual obligation, but is a totally different person when in the home, workplace or public square.

Both of the above are serious sins and they involve, in one manner or another, intended or not, the sin of hypocrisy.  That is, in each case the person gives appearances of being holy, but his actions are way off the mark. Whether or not the person is actually guilty of hypocrisy, he is nonetheless  guilty of a grave scandal. I suspect, even without data, that the second error above is far more prevalent.

The Council wants us to grasp the seriousness of these attitudes and behaviors, so it reminds us of the strenuous efforts and warnings of the prophets of old and of Jesus Christ to make this grave error known. To either (1) neglect our temporal duties in pursuit of our spiritual goals or (2) to practice our faith at church and nowhere else is one of the grave scandals of our time – one that keeps us from growing in Christ and discourages others from knowing Him in the first place. This is why the Council goes on to say:

This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. Long since, the Prophets of the Old Testament fought vehemently against this scandal and even more so did Jesus Christ Himself in the New Testament threaten it with grave punishments.” (GS 43)

What are we to do?

There are several distinct points which come to mind in regards to how one should address this problem and they all begin with ourselves.

  1. Jesus warns, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” (Luke 6:42) – The solution begins not with us correcting others, but with correcting ourselves. How can we hope to effectively help others overcome their hypocrisy when we are hypocrites? The right approach is to address our own failings while striving to lift up those around us who are in need.
  2. We must examine our conscience daily to come to know the truth of our behavior. This examen needs to be grounded in a proper understanding of our call to holiness.
  3. This call brings with it both spiritual and earthly responsibilities. Living a moral life integrates our faith throughout the whole of our lives. For example, we must not sacrifice our vocation for our career, yet neither can we shirk our earthly responsibilities proper to our state in life.
  4. We are to live an integrated life. It is not acceptable to God to attend to Him and His Will only at Church. We must carry that faith with us and allow it to inform the remainder of our lives, no matter the setting. Our interior life must be reflected in how we live our exterior life.
  5. It is pride that most often obstructs our spiritual progress. We either think that we know best or we care more for the praise of men than the praise of God. The antidote is surrender to Christ in humility and sincerity.

The words of St. Paul are a good place to start. “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:3-8)


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About the Author

Deacon Michael Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplain of the St. Peter Chanel Faith at Work Business Association and co-founder and Chaplain of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

He and his wife have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

NB: The views I express on this site are my own. I am not an official spokesman for either my parish or diocese.

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