Monday, March 21, 2005

Name Calling

Opponents of the growing trend of traditional Christianity and morality, primarily so-called progressives, will often use unflattering terms to describe these traditionalists. The most common I've seen are Jansenists, Pharisees, and hypocrites.


In Catholic circles, they sometimes call us Jansenists, after the followers of a posthumous book written by Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), Bishop of Ypres. Although he was otherwise orthodox, this particular book gained a great heretical following in France. The thinking in it was condemned by both secular and religious authority. The Jesuits at this time were promoting daily communion, and the Jansenists were opposed to this, for the reason that many communicants were not worthy to receive. Tradition-minded Catholics question the contemporary practice of universal reception (also for reasons of worthiness), so that is perhaps a reason why the label "Jansenist" is applied to them. The Jansenists also claimed loyalty to Rome.

The Jansenists had this reasoning: a sinner would go to Confession on Saturday, receive Communion on Sunday, and then go off for the rest of the week committing the same sins earlier confessed, only to repeat the process the following week. That doesn't seem right at all. One would hope that this sinner would have a conversion of heart, and not repeat those sins week after week. The Jansenists thought that they were not really worthy to receive, and instead would abstain from communion, sometimes for years. That is a problem, Easter Duty notwithstanding; did they deny the effectiveness of Confession?

It seems that the Jansenists were opposed to someone like me! I go to confession, receive the Lord, and then go back to my old vices, and am confessing the same sins over and over and over again. Most traditional Catholics I've met take confession quite seriously, and more than a few of them came into Catholicism with a deep spirit of repentance for a life badly lived. But not a single one claims to be perfect. But it seems that modern folks who throw around the name Jansenist see little need for confession, and instead just encourage frequent reception. Contemporary traditional Catholics also encourage frequent reception...but also frequent confession, unlike the Jansenists.

The Jansenists were known for extreme asceticism and very high moral code. Contemporary traditional Catholics also enjoy the ascetic life and promote the traditional moral standards. But we differ in one aspect: Jansenists were almost Calvinist in their theology. They thought that only the very few were elect, and they denied free will. As a result, many people taught by Jansenists felt completely worthless and instead took up a very immoral lifestyle, thinking that they had no choice in the matter. This is quite unlike current Catholic associations known for severity: Opus Dei is very positive about the possibility of salvation for all, even though it is somewhat strict by contemporary standards. It is amusing to suggest that the critics of traditional Catholics are actually Jansenist in this way; since I would guess that most folks promoting "rechurching" are Modernist in denying free will. Contemporary philosophy is materialist, and denies objective morality and free will, since it thinks that behavior is caused by genetics and the environment. They tend to be a type of secular Calvinist. The US has a Calvinist public philosophy, so I would expect many secularist American Catholics having this attitude.


Remember the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple? The Pharisee was very proud of his observance, his tithing, his fasting, and thought himself superior to the tax collector, who felt miserable and worthless. Jesus condemned the Pharisee, who asked for no forgiveness, and got none. The tax collector only asked for forgiveness, and was justified.

The antitradition group likes the analogy. We think of the Pharisees as being self-righteous and arrogant, and feeling superior to sinners. So the critics call us Pharisees. But "church people" of all denominations and ideologies tend to think that way. They love their little powers and influences, and are very proud of being a lector, an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, or of being the person who chooses the color of the banners displayed in the church. Or maybe they like their church's social justice charism or their prosperity-oriented 'health and wealth' philosophy, and feel superior for that fact. Fr. Benedict Groeschel makes the distinction between "church people" and disciples: the former already have their reward, while the latter have their reward in Heaven: a very humbling thought. The distinction does comes from humility. The Pharisee was proud, the tax collector was humble.

Historically, the Pharisees were known for their interpretation of the Law that applied it to the lives of everyday people, in normal circumstance anywhere. Their spirituality was not just about a sacrificial cult in a single temple, but a way of life for everyone, and they emphasized the idea of a priestly people of God. They built the synagogues and promoted education and literacy. It is not surprising, that when everything was in chaos among the Jews, the Pharisees kept society together and were the human instruments for keeping God's Chosen People intact. Otherwise, Hellenizing influences and foreign powers would have eliminated these people from the world. The Pharisees had as their main principles, "Be holy, as the Lord your God is holy" and "Love thy neighbor as thyself"', and indeed were the one group that was most similar to the teaching of Jesus. The Pharisees embraced the same ideas of personal holiness in, but not of, the world as proclaimed by Christ. The major difference in teaching was on ritual purity, which Christ rejects.

The Pharisees were responsible for keeping their religion intact; they did not have too narrow a view of religion, as being only for the Temple priests, which was also the practice of the Pagans, but applied it universally. They were the upright everyday men who kept the community together, taught their children in the Ways of God, and indeed even saved Judaism from near certain destruction by the wrath of Empire. Modern Jews are descended from the Pharisees. The other groups are lost forever. However, even an ancient Jewish source said that there were seven types of Pharisee; five that were foolish or hypocritical, one type who feared God like Job, and the God-loving Pharisee, like Abraham. Jesus apparently had many Pharisee friends, having dinner with them and teaching them. I would even suspect that many of his followers, those who are described as upright and holy, were Pharisees; for if they weren't of that group, they were usually described otherwise. The Pharisees fought the good fight and practiced spiritual warfare in their homes and communities, loving both King and People, Temple and Synagogue, and Ritual and Learning. Yes, some were bad, but many were heroic and exemplary.

Other groups during that time included the Sadducees, who were mainly concerned with the Temple rituals and matters of royalty and didn't care much about the holiness of the people; the Zealots, who fought a bloody and pointless revolution that ended up destroying the Temple and their country; and the Essenes who escaped the world of men and went to live in the desert. Another group were the Hellenized Jews, who embraced Greek culture and rejected the ways of the Jews. They were traitors to their people, and the tax collectors were a part of this despised group. The tax collectors were wealthy, oppressive to the taxpayers, and supported the immoral pagan Roman Empire.

This is the key to the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. The Pharisee should have known better, but showed a lack of humility. The tax collector had an immoral lifestyle, so nothing good would have been expected of him, but he begged for forgiveness. The people would have expected holiness from a Pharisee, and sacrilege from a tax collector, but Jesus teaches us that a contrite heart is what really matters.

So being called a Pharisee may actually be complimentary, unless you really are self-satisfied and have an attitude of superiority, given to appearances. Who are the tax collectors of our current age? Are they contrite? But ultimately, humility and repentance is required for all of us. And those who sin the worse and repent will be forgiven the most.


If you don't practice what you preach, you are called a hypocrite. Christ often called the Scribes and Pharasees hypocrites, for loving to show external piety while being corrupt inside. When antitradition critics see a traditional Christian failing to live up to Christ's high moral standards, they love to call him a hypocrite.

The word hypocrite means 'actor' in ancient Greek.

The only people who are hypocrites are that minority who aspire to or promote high moral standards but fail to live up to it.
The only people who cannot be called hypocrites are the very tiny minority of Saints in the world (and we know that only Jesus and Mary were sinless) and the many who do not bother living to any moral standards. So some would say that hypocrisy can only be applied to the better people. "Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue."

Sometimes, hypocrisy is levied against those who believe in a kind of double standard, although this is incorrect.

The word hypocrite was often used by the ancient Greek Sophists, who were teachers paid to train boys in the art of Rhetoric. They did not provide a liberal education, but just the skills needed to win lawsuits and argue politics with the people of Athens. The Sophists, promising victory in legal arguments, didn't have much or any regard for the truth, for actual facts could get in the way of winning. Their form of argument, using appeals to emotion, logical fallacies, and the occasional bribe, were appalling to Socrates and his followers, who called themselves Philosophers, or lovers of wisdom. As you can imagine, based on their teachings, the Sophists were known to be greatly immoral, for indeed they did not believe in morality, but instead were mainly atheistic and cynical. They would attack their moralistic enemies, calling them hypocrites, if they showed any moral failings.

Contemporary Sophists are everywhere in our culture, and they have nothing but contempt for tradition and religion, and especially for those that preach a strong moral code. In this day, as in ancient days, the charge of hypocrisy comes usually from those who do not follow a moral code, but who instead do what they will. What they do not understand is the basic message of Christ: repent. Now, I'm sure that people who are self-satisfied would see no reason to repent, and the more intellectual among them would claim that there is no universal standard against which to repent. Consider, however, the addiction model of vice: an addiction is something objectively harmful that one does habitually, but cannot stop doing. Even a good Sophist or atheist may gain an addiction that WILL cause their self-destruction, if they do not turn back, or repent. Everyone can have these same addictions, without regard to philosophy or ideology, since human nature is so constant.

Some Christians are just church people, as we said, only interested in gaining some respectability or influence; they may very well be actors or hypocrites. But many others are disciples, who are very, very sorry for their addictions, and who do want to turn back, or repent, from their otherwise certain self-destruction. But turning back is very, very hard, and sometimes small or large failures can occur, and sometimes even the loss of the desire to turn back towards life. Helping others to turn back is the best way to turn back yourself, and experience proves this. So to call someone a hypocrite, when they are preaching against the very things that they are seriously struggling against, is cruel and heartless.

I would think that many who are drawn to traditional Christianity and moral principals do so out of very hard experience. However, we may very well be hypocrites from time to time, so let this be a lesson to us, when we become lazy or backslide. We cannot be entirely sinless, but we must constantly try.

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