Why does the Pope trot out antisemitic tropes?
Pope Francis. Credit: Giulio Origlia / Getty   

Pope Francis loves to reference the Pharisees and hypocrites in his sermons. Whether it is corruption in the priesthood or the European attitude towards refugees, it has become one of his things. Last Sunday, the Pope again used his address at the Angelus to return to this well worn theme. Admittedly, the gospel reading from Mark was all about Jesus’s reaction to the “scribes and Pharisees” who challenge Jesus’s followers for not following the Jewish law. But it was classic Francis: “The hypocrite is a liar, he’s not authentic,” he told his audience. “A man or woman who lives in vanity, in greed, in arrogance and at the same time believes and pretends to be religious and goes as far as condemning others, is a hypocrite.” Many took this to be a reference to the abuse scandals that have rocked the Church in places such as Ireland, from where he has recently returned.

Today’s Christians should be far more circumspect in referencing the Pharisees as Francis regularly does

There are multiple examples of Francis using ‘Pharisee’ as a term of abuse. Let one more example stand for many. Last October, at Mass in Casa Santa Marta (St Martha’s guesthouse) where he lives, he said: “Three months ago, in a country, in a city, a mother wanted to baptise her newly born son, but she was married civilly to a divorced man. The priest said, ‘Yes, yes. Baptise the baby. But your husband is divorced, so he cannot be present at the ceremony.’ This is happening today. The Pharisees, or Doctors of the Law, are not people of the past, even today there are many of them.”

Now, I don’t dissent from the general sentiment of these pronouncements. Francis is a good man, wanting to shift the Roman Church in the right direction. And nor do I think Francis is unique in laying so much emphasis on his condemnation of Pharisees and their hypocrisy – Christians have been attacking the Pharisees since the earliest days of the Christian proclamation. Hence ‘Pharisee’ long ago became a code work for religious hypocrisy in general.

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But there has always been something basically racist about this association: Pharisees are Jews, and Jews are shifty, untrustworthy, hypocrites. Given the long and violent Christian persecution of Jews, today’s Christians should be far more circumspect in referencing the Pharisees as Francis regularly does.

So who were the Pharisees, and what did they stand for? At the heart of the philosophy of the Pharisees was a belief that priesthood was not a special category of people who went about their business in the Temple, but that the priestly task was a responsibility for all Jews. As God said to Moses up the top of Mount Sinai: “Now, therefore, if you will attend to My voice and guard My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasured people, above all the nations. For all the earth belongs to Me, but you shall be to Me a royal priesthood and a holy nation.”[1 Exodus 19:5] In other words, all Jews are called to be priests. So what is required of priests is required of all Jews.

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The Pharisees took this seriously. Religion was not simply a matter of what one did at the Temple, and it was not something for a special cast of people. It was required of all – at least, all Jews. The Protestant reformers later called this ‘the priesthood of all believers’. On the one hand, then, this required an intensification of domestic holiness, and an extension of the rules that applied to Temple priests to everyone in the Jewish world. So yes, the Pharisees required a far greater strictness in the way that faith was lived out, day-to-day. But it was also an attack on the sort of thing we would now regard as a supreme religious hypocrisy – i.e. the idea that religion is confined to church/synagogue/temple and not for everyday life.

St Paul was himself a Pharisee. As the book of Acts makes clear, many of the early Christians were also Pharisees. But most important, when the Temple was destroyed in AD70, it was the theology of the Pharisees – by placing the religious emphasis as much outside the Temple as with it – that was able to survive this greatest of religious calamities. It was the theology of the Pharisees that formed the basis of what came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism.

Consider, for instance, the important midrash, or exposition, in Avot d’Rabbi Nathan:

“The Temple is destroyed. We never witnessed its glory. But Rabbi Joshua did. And when he looked at the Temple ruins one day, he burst into tears. ‘Alas for us! The place which atoned for the sins of all the people Israel lies in ruins!’ Then Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: ‘Be not grieved, my son. There is another way of gaining ritual atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving-kindness.’”

I want to stand and applaud Rabbi ben Zakkai. Loving-kindness and the study of the Law – these came to replace the Temple as the glue binding Judaism together. The Pharisees made this transition possible, and good for them. They kept the faith alive. Christians should start to re-assess their historic antipathy towards Pharisees, and Francis should take be taking the lead on this rather than constantly repeating this classic antisemitic trope.

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But one more thing, a postscript to the above. What, I want to ask, is so very wrong with hypocrisy? There are two sorts of people in life: hypocrites and cynics. Hypocrites aim high morally and often fail. Cynics think the whole aiming high thing is a waste of time. They assume there is no point to moral aspiration. So “why bother?” they say – at least, then, no one will be able to draw attention to the gap between our aspiration and its reality. Well, of the two, give me an honest hypocrite any day of the week. At least they try.

In reality, all of us are hypocrites, more or less. It’s just that some of us admit it and some of us don’t. And if this is so, then the only people who really deserve to be disparaged as hypocrites are the people who deny that they are.