Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Two cheers (again) for hypocrisy

You'd think, given the Catholic Church's problems, that Archbishop Timothy Nolan of New York might have chosen a slightly different metaphor when he complained the other day about those sinister (and "well-oiled") forces in American politics that, he said, are seeking to "neuter" religion. You also had to wonder what he was thinking when he commiserated with Penn State in its recent travails (“We know what you’re going through, and you can count on our prayers”), and explained that this just goes to show that sexual abuse of children is one of those things that could happen to anyone.

Why do I have this picture of His Not Yet Eminence asking the guy sitting next to him on a hard wooden bench, "Hey—what're you in for?"

Excuse me for mentioning it, but aren't you the guys who are supposed to be above average in moral conduct and the example you set? That expectation usually comes with the territory of instructing others, in the name of God, re their moral duties and failings.

The actual occasion for the archbishop's press conference was a new foray into politics by the Catholic bishops of America, which offered another perfect illustration of the difficulties religious institutions encounter in trying to have it both ways. The bishes, claiming that "religious liberty" is under attack, announced what was basically an escalation of the political activism of the church, complete with a new document urging the faithful to cast their votes only for politicos who support church doctrine on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Religious leaders keep making a fundamental mistake in thinking the way to increase their authority and influence is to roll up their sleeves, dive into the fray, and act like everyone else. As Bertie Wooster might observe, one can either be the appointed vicar of Christ on earth, or a hard-knuckle political boss — not both. It's hard to keep your halo on straight when you're in a rough and tumble political brawl. In fact, the only source of moral authority religious leaders ever had was directly a result of their aloofness from worldly politics. The moment you start playing politics, you're no longer a minister of God (or a scientist, or any other disinterested authority above the fray) — you're, guess what, a politician.

It all reminds me once again of how much we have lost now that our leaders don't even keep up the pretenses any more. I came across a wonderful exposition of this point the other day in one of John Le Carré's (not very good) minor novels, A Small Town in Germany. The speaker is a British diplomat defending precisely the importance of keeping up the appearance of high purpose in British foreign policy:

Haven’t you realized that only appearances matter? . . . What else is there when the underneath is rotten? Break the surface and we sink. . . . I am a hypocrite. I’m a great believer in hypocrisy. It’s the nearest we ever get to virtue. It’s a statement of what we ought to be. Like religion, like art, like the law, like marriage.

Hypocrisy even once in a while shames us into doing the right thing. That's why I so much miss the days when presidents kept political fundraising and strategizing under the table and spoke a lot about lofty principles of democracy, equality, and justice. Of course it was hypocritical, and a lot of it was self-serving. But it also was what allowed this country to do genuinely great things once in a while, things we are apparently far too cynical these days even to contemplate.

If the bishops don't want to become just another special interest group, they might take that to heart. They might even try acting holy, God forbid, rather than simply holier-than-thou.