If you asked most people, “What would Jesus say about somebody who says one thing and does another?” they would reply: “Jesus called such people ‘hypocrites” and denounced them.”
This is true as far as it goes. But as is nearly always the case with our Lord, this was not the only thing Jesus had to say about inconsistency between words and deeds. Surprisingly, at other times he commended such inconsistency as a paradoxical mark of sanctity.
Consider, for instance, the parable of the two sons. Their father came and said “go and work in the vineyard” and the first son said “I will go” but then sat down and started watching the Jerry Springer show. The second son said “No way!” but then thought better of it and went. “Which son,” asks our Lord, “did his Father’s will?” Answer: the second one. (Matt 21:29-31).
Jesus’ point is that it is sometimes possible for people to be, if we may coin a word, eupocrites or “good hypocrites.” It is possible for people to be better than their word, rather than worse. Catholics would do well to look for occasions of eupocrisy wherever we can because they can afford us chances to forge links between the teaching of Christ and the heart (rather than the mouth) of those to whom we speak.
Take, for instance, the typical non-Catholic Christian who says he accepts only “Scripture Alone”, yet stoutly defends Trinitarianism. Such a one actually believes in Sacred Tradition far more deeply than he realizes, for the dogma of the Trinity is not clear in Scripture alone and is only defined by the Church’s Magisterium in light of Sacred Tradition. Whatever he says, the fact is, he believes in at least some Sacred Tradition and the Catholic can, once this is pointed out, bring him step by step toward the fullness of this reality (if he is willing to face the inconsistency of his words and deeds). Likewise, the atheist (like Nat Hentoff) who says he believes we are products of chance yet who fights like a tiger for the life and dignity of unborn children is a glorious eupocrite, acting in a heart obedience to the Father’s command even though his mouth is saying “no” to God’s existence. Catholics therefore do well to look, not merely at the rhetoric, but at the actual life of those who claim to reject God’s teaching. Does this one “reject the authority of bishops” yet accept the canon of New Testament Scripture defined by the Bishop of Rome? Does that one claim “no creed but the bible!” yet affirm the the Holy Spirit as the Third Person of the Trinity as defined by the Nicene Creed? If so, then whether these people know it or not, they are eupocrites, and like the second son, are obeying the Father to some degree, whatever they say (or think) they believe.
Matthew 25 describes this same curious phenomenon in the form of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The Sheep whom Christ blesses and welcomes into the Kingdom are those from among the nations who never dreamed they were saying yes to Jesus when they said yes to the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned. That is why they say “Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, etc?” Indeed, a great many of them may very well have imagined they “weren’t Christian” because they had rejected some poorly understood verbal formula or because they rejected some bad painting of Jesus that hung on the wall of Sunday school years ago. Yet by their fruits, not their formulae, they were known for they were more deeply Christ’s than they themselves realized.
None of this, of course, implies that “we’re all really saying the same thing” or negates the Church’s duty and privilege of bearing witness to Christ. None of it is to say that those who articulate substantial differences with the Church’s revelation are simply to be excused, ignored, or unanswered by a solid proclamation of the Catholic Faith in its wholeness. But it is to say that those to whom we bear witness will often have hearts which have been secretly prepared by the Light who lightens every heart in His own secret way. Our task is to find the soil the Spirit has prepared for the seed of the word; to be faithful workers in the Vineyard till the day when those who thought they were saying “No” to the Father think better of it and take up their place in his Kingdom.