Hypocrisy, grace and a fallen cardinal

The downfall of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s senior Roman Catholic cleric, has not shown the press at its best. While the Observer, the Guardian newspaper’ Sunday edition, deserves high praise for breaking the story of the cardinal’s misconduct, a number of stories have adopted a gleeful and sanctimonious tone. Sex and religion sells newspapers – – but coupled with sloppy language and malicious hyperbole good reporting can be squeezed out of a story.

On 3 March 2013 Cardinal O’Brien admitted “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.”

The Guardian reported that Cardinal O’Brien:

… who was forced to resign by the pope last week, has made a dramatic admission that he was guilty of sexual misconduct throughout his career in the Roman Catholic church. … The former archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, and until recently the most senior Catholic in Britain, apologised and asked for forgiveness from those he had “offended” and from the entire church.

… O’Brien’s resignation was remarkable in its speed; his apology is all but unprecedented in its frankness. Many sexual scandals or allegations of misconduct against individuals or the wider church have dragged on for years.

A second story by the Guardian commented that the cardinal’s real sin was not his abuse, but his hypocrisy.

In purely human terms, the story of Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation is tragic. He had spent a lifetime reaching the upper echelons of his church, but after allegations of inappropriate behaviour made in the Observer last Sunday his fall from grace took just 36 hours. Not one of the four complainants takes any satisfaction from that. This is not about the exposure of one man’s alleged foibles. It is about the exposure of a church official who publicly issues a moral blueprint for others’ lives that he is not prepared to live out himself. Homosexuality is not the issue; hypocrisy is. The cardinal consistently condemned homosexuality during his reign, vociferously opposing gay adoption and same-sex marriage. The church cannot face in two directions like a grotesque two-headed monster: one face for public, the other for private.

Other outlets took up the theme of hypocrisy with Salon offering the most over-the-top piece that I have seen so far. Under the title, “Cardinal ‘Tyranny of tolerance’ O’Brien is a hypocrite of the worst order”, Salon published a puerile screed that began:

He was a homosexuality-condemning cardinal who is now embroiled in a tale involving his alleged “drunken fumblings” and unwanted advances toward other men. Well, at least this one’s a Catholic Church scandal that doesn’t involve children. Progress, maybe?

Standing outside of the issue of the cardinal’s misconduct, the journalistic question I would question in these reports is the assertion that Cardinal O’Brien is a hypocrite.

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Hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another. Here the cardinal is accused of hypocrisy for promoting traditional Christian moral virtues while having failed to live up to them in his private life. An example of hypocrisy familiar to most GetReligion readers would be the scene from the movie Casablanca. Ordered by the Germans to close Rick’s Café, Capt. Renault states he is shocked to find that gambling is taking place in the club. Gambling is illegal Capt. Renault states just as he is handed his winnings from the croupier.

Hypocrisy is different, however, from failing to practice a virtue that one preaches. In Rambler No. 14 Samuel Johnson distinguished between hypocrisy and moral failing.

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

If the cardinal were engaging in homosexual activities today while preaching the necessity of upholding traditional moral standards, he would be a hypocrite. However, no evidence has been presented that the cardinal has done this. My colleague, Peter Ould, wrote about this scandal:

If Keith O’Brien was publicly teaching one thing and privately practising another, then that’s hypocrisy. If on the other hand he sinned in the past, repented and then taught that such behaviour he had engaged in was sinful, that’s not hypocrisy, that’s grace.

And it is this distinction the secondary reports in the Guardian, Salon and other newspapers do not seem to comprehend. I do not know the full story but before I would accuse the cardinal of hypocrisy I would want to make sure that he was the being a hypocrite. Did he repent? Did he seek absolution for his sin? Or is he a reprobate who did not see his conduct as having been wrong — until his story was printed in the Observer? These questions need be asked before the assertion of hypocrisy is made.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien has committed a thought crime — he teaches that homosexual conduct is immoral while being subject to sexual temptation himself. He has fallen short — but does he teach something he does not believe?

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  • Jerry

    I don’t understand your point about a “thought” crime. He admitted to deeds not thoughts. Cardinal O’Brien admitted he was guilty of certain albeit unspecified deeds involving men. He certainly preached the doctrine of the Catholic church, did he not? So in what way did he not meet the test of your definition? Hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another. since he preached the doctrine of the Church and has admitted acting differently.

    • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

      I think the issue is that “hypocrisy” has been over-simplified to merely “saying one thing and doing another.” The cardinal clearly meets this definition of hypocrisy.

      But there are different kinds of saying, and doing. For example, rational people recognize the difference between a mistake and a lie. If I say, “Since 1776, the U.S. Constitution has stood…” and someone points out to me my error, they will most likely accept that I made a mental mistake rather than a deliberate attempt to deceive.

      Likewise with actions. There’s a clear difference between an act of weakness or passion – say, having a drink too many, or eating more of that chocolate cake than I intended – and a deliberate choice, such as pounding down a fifth of vodka to drown my sorrows.

      Hypocrisy implies a deliberateness about both words and actions: either a person intended to deceive with their words, or they held themselves to a different standard than their words imposed on others. It is an accusation that someone is either a liar or a cheat or both.

      This is why the accusation of hypocrisy is significant: is the cardinal a liar about what he believes to be right and wrong? is he holding himself to a different standard than he taught as a Catholic bishop? Or does he genuinely believe what he taught, but acted thoughtlessly or weakly? Does he hold himself to the same standard he presents to the world? If the latter, he is a sinner and possibly a criminal, but he is not a hypocrite.

  • Kate

    “Hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue”

    Bon mots aside, a more accurate definition is to say that the hypocrite holds others to standards he does not apply to himself. We have no way of knowing what standards the Cardinal held himself to, except that IF he privately held the same as he publicly confessed, that he fell short of that standard. Did he believe himself to be sinning? Did he seek out confession and absolution? Did he wrestle with his temptations? We don’t know, but if he did then he is not a hypocrite. The assumption seems to be that he doesn’t actually believe that homosexual behavior is sinful, and that if he did, he would never have made the sexual advances that he did. That’s possible, but I don’t think we have enough evidence to conclude that yet, and this seems to me to be the journalistic criticism made here.

    I am not a hypocrite for falling prey to the temptation to lie to get out of an awkward social situation, despite teaching my children that lying is wrong. I am a sinner. If I believed that there is nothing wrong with lying when I do it but taught my children not to lie because I dislike being lied to, that would be hypocrisy.

  • Will

    I get the strong impression from those around me that “hypocrite” now means simply “disagrees with me”, on the excuse that “We KNOW that they don’t REALLY believe that..” claiming the ability to see into hearts. Or perhaps it is “We KNOW that NOBODY can POSSIBLY believe that.”

  • sari

    Whatever the Archbishop’s heart, it is clear that he was guilty of repeatedly sinning the same sin while he was in a position that requires a higher standard of behavior. And though not explicitly stated, it appears that he came out, so to speak, not as a matter of conscience but because he knew he was about to be exposed. So whether or not he is truly hypocritical, he certainly appears that way and that seems to be what the press is saying.

    To put it another way, should we expect him to be treated differently than the politician who commits adultery despite admitting to his sin and asking forgiveness? Should clergy be exempt from the same criticism that is leveled at secular figures in positions of authority?

    • Patrick

      Since when is adultery disadvantageous for politicians?

      • Jerry

        There’s a very VERY long list of politicians with ruined careers due to adultery.

  • helen

    To put it another way, should we expect him to be treated differently than the politician who commits adultery despite admitting to his sin and asking forgiveness?

    Considering that politicians with those failings consider themselves fit to run for President,
    maybe O’Brien should want to be Pope!?
    [Not such a hot analogy, sari!]

  • sari

    Helen,
    I refer to the media’s treatment of public figures who say one thing and do another, not what politicians think of themselves. The press was unkind to politicians who campaigned on a moral platform and were later caught doing what they condemned.

    My question was: should clergy get a pass because they’re clergy or should they be held to the same standard as non-clergy? Whether or not one apologizes to G-d is, to my mind, irrelevant to this conversation, especially when the sin hurts other people. To compare the Archbishop’s actions to overeating is to minimize how his actions, and those of other clergy, directly affected other people. More than stepping down, I would like to know whether he’s stepping into a comfortable retirement at the Church’s expense and if the men he molested have received counseling or any sort of remuneration for his actions.

    • Patrick

      He didn’t molest any men, he made sexual advances towards them, appreciated or no.

      It’s not the end of the world for anybody.

  • Thinkling

    The journalistic point here seems to hinge on the accuracy of the word “hypocrisy” in its usage, not the objective wrongness of the Cardinal’s actions (obvious) nor the newsworthiness of same (likewise).

    Folks here have put forth different shades of meaning, but for the most part they boil down to professing to believe something one does not actually believe, which is the actual meaning per the OP. It has nothing to do with acting counter to anything, professed or otherwise. As one writer put it, “Not practicing what you preach is not hypocrisy, that would be sin. Hypocrisy is not believing what you preach.” Change “sin” to “moral failing” to reach a wider audience and that is what we have here. I thus agree with the proposition that there is no evidence the Cardinal is (or was) a hypocrite. Sinner now, well duh.

    So, with this in mind, this piece makes me entertain the interesting general question, why do reporters so often misuse this word when referring to run of the mill wrongdoing? Gut reaction is they want to exploit the gravitas this word has that “wrongdoing” etc do not. Much like the word “hate” (or more rightly, “hatred”) is often used when what is really meant is “disagreement”. The former hit the audience’s impressions much harder. Whether this gravitas is desired merely to hook the reader or additionally to advance the desired framing of the story is an exercise left to the reader (or GetReligion).

  • Kevin

    Hypocrisy is not reaching one thing and doing another; it’s teaching one thing and believing another.

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  • Ravabelli

    It’s clear O’Brien was not guilty of hyopcrisy.
    He only argued vehemently against consensual homosexual love. He sought non-consensual predatory sex with those priests left in his charge. That is not the same thing at all.


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