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I’d like to start off this essay with a short prayer:
Dear Lord, help me to love virtue and doing what is good and pleasing in your sight, as opposed to loving virtue signalling, where I let foolish pride dictate my thoughts, words and actions. Cure me, with your help and your grace, from the desire to tell the world how good I am rather than actually trying to be good, Amen.
At the start of a New Year, people often make resolutions to lose weight, exercise more, or to otherwise attack and defeat some recurring bad habits. The turn of the calendar beckons many of us to try to create some sort of clean slate for ourselves.
And yet, many of us soon wind up falling back on virtue signalling instead, in which we flaunt our supposed moral superiority about an issue or about someone else, rather than trying to actually become more virtuous. Virtue signalling is easy. Practicing virtue, however is harder!
This sinful tendency is by no means new. The great patron Saint of parish priests, Jean Marie Vianney in the 19th century once denounced those in his flock who would say “I am not like the others!” He went on to say “That, my dear brethren, is the usual tone of false virtue and the attitude of those proud people who, always quite satisfied with themselves, are at all times ready to censure and to criticize the conduct of others.”
Virtue is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.” (CCC1803)
We speak in Catholic teaching of three supernatural virtues which nourish and strengthen our belief in and relationship with God (Faith, Hope and Charity) and four Cardinal Virtues (known as Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance) that help us to fight our sinful proclivities and do what is good in God’s sight. This section from the Catechism provides a good summary on the subject.
Prudence helps us form right judgments about what we must or must not do. Justice points us towards giving others what is rightfully theirs. Fortitude gives us the strength to do what is good in spite of any difficulty. And, last but by no means least, temperance allows us to control our desires and enjoy those things that please us in moderation, that is to say rightly. If you’re interested we have links to additional summaries about virtue here, here, and here.
Given our fallen nature from original sin, acquiring and holding on to a disposition towards Divine goodness can be a tall order indeed! It is best done with the help of God’s grace. Humility is an essential component of real virtue, of knowing your limitations and asking God to help you deal with them.
Think of Jesus' own clearly stated preference for the repentant Publican over the proud Pharisee in Luke's Gospel, (18:9-14) shown in the image above. This is a good source for the Jesus prayer incidentally.
Each day brings a new blizzard of virtue signalling on social media. Projection, in which people attribute their own sins to others, is also quite popular nowadays.
When people engage in virtue signalling outside of our faith they’re often boasting about following the prevailing progressive wisdom on climate change, sexuality, gender identity, and other such matters.
In Catholicism itself things have gotten a little more complicated. Besides the usual hypocritical “holier than thou” types who have been the bane of religion for centuries, as they certainly were in Jesus’ time, there are now many others who freely boast of their sympathy for more liberal mores regarding sexual issues, for example, all in the name of the supposed need for change and compassion!
The important thing to remember in all this is that without Christ and the graces he wishes to give us in prayer and through His sacraments we can wind up substituting virtue signalling for virtuous behavior quite often. This is an all too easy and common trap to fall into. We’ve all been there at one time or another!
Our proclivity to sin and ambivalence about doing what is good in God’s eyes doesn’t help matters any! Instead of asking our Lord to help heal us from our sins in confession and to strengthen us to resist them in communion we focus our attention on others’ transgressions instead as a kind of escape from looking at our own faults too closely.
As Jean Marie Vianney also once said “A great many people slander others because of pride. They think that by depreciating others they will increase their own worth. They want to make the most of their own alleged good qualities. Everything they say and do will be good, and everything that others say and do will be wrong.”
Granted, it’s quite easy to judge other people without having any idea of who they really are, that is to say what made them who we think they are. We haven’t walked in their shoes.
However, I don’t mean to imply here that we shouldn’t have any sort of opinion about a particular person or situation. When we say “Who am I to judge?” following our Lord’s command in Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 7 verse 1 to “Judge not, that you may not be judged” that shouldn’t mean sinking into the quicksand of moral relativism where standards fluctuate with popular opinion.
You may recall from scripture that Pontius Pilate dismissively asked Christ “what is truth” when our Lord told him that He was the truth (John 18:37-38). With that haughty response Pilate displayed an all too common willingness to call truth something that is subjective, changing, and more ominously, “What I say it is!!”
Our Lord and His church are meant to be like a ship’s compass or an anchor in choppy uncertain waters. As such we may not be called to judge someone’s soul but we can nonetheless discern whether or not their behavior and character brings them and those around them closer or further away from Christ and His holiness and grace.
While it can be quite destructive when done frivolously, taking other people’s inventory is necessary at times. As an obvious example, you wouldn’t let your child set up a meth lab in the basement of your home. Or not sound the alarm if they started dating gang bangers!
Likewise, there is nothing wrong with calling out real injustice and corruption as one sees it. Tragically there’s plenty of it out there worldwide!
In this regard, calling the members of the clergy to task for their malfeasance can actually be an act of great charity! This is especially true now, when many Catholic parishioners are walking away from the faith in the midst of all of the clerical corruption and confusion being exposed, rather than staying in the church and trying to support its magisterium, that is to say, its traditional teaching authority.
One can only hope and pray that sunlight, shining on all the dark corners of hidden scandals, can indeed be the best disinfectant in spurring greater holiness and a reemergence of traditional Catholicism.
The most important thing to remember here is that we are called to be discerning, not smug, arrogant or, (and here’s the magic word) “judgmental” in how we view and treat others.
We are all sinners, fallen human beings after all, yet God has given us a roadmap in His Ten Commandments and the teaching authority of His church to keep us from wandering into dangerous stretches of town, or worse, falling off a cliff, while on life’s spiritual journey!!
So, to sum up, in humility let God help you with virtue and don’t let virtue signalling and distracting yourself taking other people’s inventory get in the way! In discerning others’ weaknesses, pray for them to overcome them, but don’t focus on them to avoid dealing with your own sins.
Keep in mind as well that we’re headed into a doozy of a decade for the church and society at large. It’s hard not to feel uneasy, if not alarmed, at all the corruption both inside and outside of the Church. One gets the feeling that there are momentous, possibly cataclysmic, events coming up, maybe sooner than we’d like!
Now more than ever, keep up a vigorous pursuit of virtue through such essential holy habits as prayer, partaking of the sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance on a regular basis, and frequently examining your conscience, perhaps at the end of a busy day. If you’re not sure what that entails, there are many good web pages you can check out on how best to engage in this spiritual checkup such as this one.
Keep the devilish distractions of virtue signalling to a minimum. But don’t stop praying for the repentance and/or conversion of those who have wronged you or whom you can see as otherwise engaging in spiritually toxic behavior, nonetheless.
Remember they are your fellow sinners. They will need the armor of God that St. Paul spoke of in Chapter 6 of his letter to the Ephesians just as much as you do as we head into what promises to be a quite tumultuous time both for Catholicism and, by no means coincidentally, for the world at large!!