Is anything worse than being a hypocrite?

Father Steve Mattson on Dec 5, 2020

A few days ago, I shared the sobering allegations made against a stalwart of Catholic orthodoxy, Fr. George Rutler. He has, as I mentioned on Thursday, denied allegations of sexual assault and has told his parishioners not to believe stories that were reported about what happened.

His case is a helpful reminder that we priests are called (and will be held) to a higher standard, morally speaking. And if it ends up that he is in fact guilty of the alleged assault and/or of viewing gay pornography. Fr. Rutler will be called–for good reason–ahypocrite.

It is obvious to those who know Fr. Rutler, have heard his preaching, or read his writing, that he would surely condemn the behavior in question. In fact, in October, he gave an interesting interview about his new book on holiness. His comments, as usual, were on point:

Our Lord wept over Jerusalem. But he wasn’t neurotic about it. He wept out of love, and he had a solution. Orthodoxy is not enough. You have to live the Faith. You have to be supernatural and confident in God’s grace. Our Lord did not tell us to go out into all the world and bash the heretics. He told us to go out and preach the Gospel.

Living the faith and preaching the Gospel are what Fr. Rutler has been known for, which is why the heartache some Catholics are experiencing is so devastating.

Who knows? Perhaps in the end this will all prove to be a “deep fake.” But, then again, he might be guilty.

Either way, things are going to be painfully hard for Fr. Rutler. If he’s innocent, he will always have to contend with the allegations that have been made, and be dogged by the digital memory that never forgets nor forgives. If he’s guilty, he will have the opportunity to acknowledge his own failures and model for us the conversion he has preached about for decades. Everything he has done will have an asterisk, and he’ll be labeled a hypocrite.

Given that possibility, I can’t help but wonder what ramifications such a label should have in his case. Some seem to believe that being labeled a hypocrite is the death-sentence for a preacher. And there’s no doubt that it is serious. But how should this recent revelation influence the way we view the ministry he has already performed? It places it under a certain cloud, to be sure, but to my mind, it shouldn’t “cancel” him or his ministry.

I say that because of how effective his ministry has been. Even if his parishioners and countless “fans” feel dazed, if not betrayed, surely part of their heartache is a consequence of the powerful effects of his preaching and ministry. He helped strengthen the Catholic faith that now heightens their sense of scandal.

This brings me to an unexpected conclusion. Even if Fr. Rutler is shown to be a hypocrite, I am certain that his parishioners are better off having had him as pastor than they would have been with a pastor who regularly called Church teaching into doubt or offered pablum from the pulpit. That is to say, hypocrisy is better than heterodoxy or heresy.

More to the point, even if these allegations prove true, they do not outweigh the good work he has done. No sinner, even a priest-sinner, is defined by his worst moments. And our good works, including the good works of faith of a sinful priest, cannot be erased by sins, even when those sins shout hypocrisy!

I think this analysis is consistent with the back-handed compliment Jesus gave to the scribes and Pharisees: “[D]o and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice” (Matthew 23:3, NABRE). At least they preached the truth!

Please pray for priests, including, of course, Fr. Rutler.

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