Canto 23: Woe to You Hypocrites

maskBy Jonathan Schott

Apparently, King Frederick II liked to execute people by placing them in lead and melting it around them [cf. line 66]. How horrible! This is the image Dante is trying to get across when he describes the lead-laden cloaks of those we encounter in this pocket—the Hypocrites. On the outside, to all appearances, these cloaks or coats are “gilt in blinding gold”, but on the inside, for the wearers who are condemned to wear them as punishment, they are cloaks of heavy lead [lines 65-66]. What a powerful image of hypocrisy—looks good on the outside but look inside and it’s a different story.

What is the sin of hypocrisy? The hypocrite professes certain beliefs publicly but chooses to give himself permission not to abide by those beliefs in his private life. He is a pretender, a fake. And yet there is an aspect of the hypocrite that allows us to apply this sin to a broader class of people than just the pretenders of the sixth bolgia. If the hypocrite suffers from a disconnection between his beliefs and behavior, then so does pretty much everyone who aspires to high moral or religious ideals and yet sometimes fails to live up to those ideals. In this sense, maybe you and I and pretty much everyone who aspires to follow Jesus is a “hypocrite.” And can we not see ourselves in some of the hypocritical characters who show up in Canto 23?

Take a look at the two “Jovial Friars” with whom Dante and Virgil speak. In addition to their commitment and vows before God as members of a religious order, these guys were entrusted with the care of Florence. Clearly, they messed up! They have landed in this place because of their failure to live up to their trust. Have we ever let others down who have trusted us?

And then there is the hypocrite who lies naked, crucified on the ground. The other hypocrites, all loaded up with their heavy lead cloaks, walk over him for all eternity. Who is this doormat of a spirit? This is Caiaphas. He is the one who “advised the Pharisees that it was fit to martyr one man for the people’s sake.” This is an allusion to the gospel passage in which the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, ostensibly for the well-being of his own Jewish nation, advised that Jesus be executed (Jn 11:50). But was he really acting for the good of his people? Or was the outcome of his seemingly altruistic advice really in the interest of his people? Have we ever posed as concerned citizens when really we were operating with less than selfless motives?

Joining Caiaphas in his supine crucifixion is his father-in-law Annas and the rest of “the other councilors who sowed the seeds of evil for the Jews.” These men, Caiaphas, Annas, and a other Jewish leaders, all sat in judgment over Christ. It was these men’s condemnation of Jesus that “sowed the seeds of evil for the Jews” [line 123]. What are these “seeds of evil for the Jews”? At least one commentator, Anthony Esolen, sees a touch of anti-Semitism in this line. He writes, “Medieval Christians held the Jews particularly responsible for Christ’s death, citing the curse of the crowds before Pilate: “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25). They saw the fulfillment of this curse in Titus’s destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70…and, with shame be it said, in the Jews’ subsequent diaspora and their maltreatment at the hands of Christians.”

Assuming Esolen’s interpretation of this line is correct, what should we say about this? What light might we be able to shed on some of the darker corners of our own Catholic Christian history? Medieval Christians might have been on relatively solid grounds when understanding Matthew 27:25 in connection with the destruction of the Jewish Temple in AD 70. But it would be an understatement to say that they were on shakier grounds when using this passage to justify discrimination against and even sometimes violence towards Jewish people. Might this not be an example of situational irony? A canto dedicated to the vice of hypocrisy becomes an opportunity to talk about its author’s hypocrisy.

American culture has been especially open and receptive to the Jewish people. This would also extend to American Catholicism. Nonetheless the history of anti-Semitism amongst Catholic peoples as a whole has been serious enough that the Second Vatican Council had to go out of its way to correct any impression that it was actually part of the Catholic faith that the Jewish people are responsible for the death of Jesus.

“True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. […] All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ” (Nostra aetate 4).

This is what I meant above when I said that none of us are exempt from being hypocritical, at least in the broader sense of the word. Dante himself is not exempt. In his efforts to show us that being a hypocrite will land you in one of his pocketed circles, he falls into it himself by acting inconsistently with his beliefs. By continuing to misinterpret a certain bible passage, he has done his own part in adding fuel to the fire of anti-Semitism. Thereby Dante too failed to “conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ”.

But the Friars, and Dante and Virgil and you and I are human. We stumble. We sin. We are “hypocrites”. The lesson to be learned here by reading this canto in the Year of Mercy is that all of us are in a relationship with a God who loves us so much that we know mercy will be extended to us if we only ask for it with repentance. It is because of that mercy that we won’t find ourselves in a fictitious world of lead-laden capes. We have the healing of the sacrament of reconciliation. We have the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We have the continual love of Jesus in the Eucharist. We have a God who loves us so much that He became one of us to live and die for us. In that revelation is the sheer joy that mercy saves us from eternal despair.

Mr. Jonathan Schott is the Director of Recruitment, Admissions, Financial Aid and Alumni for St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, New York. Jonathan has served in lay ecclesial ministry for nearly 12 years and is often found giving catechetical and ministerial presentations in parishes, dioceses and at regional and national conferences. He resides in Rochester with his growing family, and in his spare time, he enjoys baseball and the yearly seasonal bounty of New York’s apple harvest.

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