One of the professional hazards of being a nun is to be thought a party-pooper, a bubble-buster or an old vinegar-face. By definition, we disapprove of everything human or joyous (apparently). Then again, we ought to be living on bread and water and looking pale and anaemic as we waft delicately down gothic cloisters. The fact that we don’t and won’t is a mark against us. Being holier than thou, you see, takes many forms, with the inverse just as dangerous as the other.
As it happens, I think many of those frequently accused of being holier than thou — not so much nuns but decent, generous-hearted Christians of every denomination, people who quietly do their duty in the face of tacit and sometimes not so tacit opposition — are actually the least likely to be so. They are too aware of their own failings to waste time comparing themselves with others, or condemining them for faults not their own. They do not take refuge in the blithe assurance of the pharisees in today’s gospel (Matt: 23.27–32), ‘We would never have joined in shedding the blood of the prophets, had we lived in our fathers’ day.’ They know that they might not have seen clearly enough to avoid the mistakes of their forebears. They are humble in their self-knowledge.
So, who does point the finger and why? First, there are those who do not believe but still think they know what Christianity is and how Christians should behave. They tend to be very keen on our turning the other cheek when insulted or misjudged and affect to be terribly shocked at any display of material comfort. They also have long but often selective memories. They are the people who haunt Twitter with their oh-so-funny allusions to ‘Sky Pixies’ and make wild accusations about the iniquitous doings of Christians generally, but especially clergy and religious.
Second, there are those who are themselves believers but who are incautious in their judgement of others. They don’t mean to be holier than thou, but they often end up sounding sanctimonious. Their very idealsim leads them astray. ‘What would Jesus do? is, in this context, a condemnation rather than a prayer. If someone sincerely disagrees with them on some point, they are dismissed as being somehow wanting. They don’t believe as they should. Those finding others wanting need to be exceptionally well-informed themselves but aren’t always, which only compounds the difficulty.
Can we eliminate this tendency to be holier than thou? I suspect not. Those who don’t believe will continue to act on their half-knowledge of what the Church is and what she teaches. They will continue to look for a Church of saints and be disappointed when they encounter only a Church of sinners. Those who do believe will continue to want a Church that measures up to their ideals and be disappointed that she never does. The rest of us must just get on with things, trying to become holy in the only way that matters: in God’s eyes, not those of anyone else. That is the real challenge, and the only one that counts.