What’s the difference between a hypocrite and a sinner? They look an awful lot alike. The hypocrite presents himself one way and then acts another. The sinner deliberately chooses what he knows he should not choose. They both suffer an interior division. Indeed, we ourselves may feel like hypocrites when we sin, when we choose contrary to what we believe. Still, we sense a difference between the two. We rightly intuit that not everyone who sins is for that reason a hypocrite.
The distinction lies in this. The hypocrite has made peace with the division within himself; the sinner fights against it. Now, he might fight poorly and fail more often than not, but he nevertheless keeps pushing against that interior dis-integration. The sinner repents and tries to conform his life to what is true. The hypocrite refuses to repent and instead tries to twist reality to fit his way of living. He has, perhaps without even realizing it, grown comfortable with his interior division.
The difference between the hypocrite and sinner explains why we react so differently to them. We might grow frustrated or angry at a man’s sinfulness, or we might pity him his weakness. But a hypocrite is different. We sense that he suffers a deeper, more fundamental dishonesty. He is dangerous in a way that the sinner is not. While the sinner loses his way occasionally (perhaps often), the hypocrite has lost his compass.
This is the difference between the two sons in our Lord’s parable. (Mt 21:28-32) While both sons do wrong, the first son is capable of repentance and the second is not. The first sins in his defiance; the second has grown comfortable in his duplicity. The first is simply a sinner; the second a hypocrite.
As with many other parables, our Lord directs this one “to the chief priests and elders.” The point is not simply that these men have sinned. Our Lord clearly distinguishes them from sinners, from the tax collectors and prostitutes entering the kingdom of God before them. No, there is a flaw within them deeper than sinfulness, worse than any specific sin. They are men who have grown comfortable with the division within them, who have traded integrity for power. They are, as Jesus declares elsewhere (cf. Mt 24: 13-29), hypocrites.
We have a visceral reaction against hypocrisy precisely because we sense its disintegrating power in the person. The hypocrisy involved in Church scandals angers us more than the actual sins. Likewise, the hypocrisy of our all-too-prominent pro-abortion Catholic politicians is in some ways worse than any particular sin or even a habitual moral failing. They have grown so comfortable with their interior disintegration that they can blithely claim the Catholic mantle and champion the pro-abortion cause.