This Sunday, Stop ‘Virtue Signaling’

This Sunday, the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time Year B, Jesus gives a clear formula for holiness — and it means putting God at the center of our hearts, rather than cultivating our own self-image there.

In other words, Jesus wants us to do the opposite of what we typically do.

It all starts in the Gospel, where the Pharisees accuse the Apostles of failing to “virtue signal.”

In the passage from Mark, Chapter 7, the Pharisees notice Jesus and his followers eat without first washing their hands. They confront Jesus, asking, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”

Mark gives the backstory. “Keeping the tradition of the elders,” he says, the Pharisees “on coming from the marketplace … do not eat without purifying themselves.”

It’s important to note that they are not showing fidelity to the Law, but to the “tradition of the elders,” additions to the Law — and the detail about the marketplace is telling also. Mark is brilliantly describing what virtue signaling is at its heart. It is a desire we show that we repudiate the unenlightened rabble and a put ourselves above them, aligning with an elite group of the “woke.”

Jesus goes on to criticize the Pharisees not because they care about religious details, but because they have made up their own religious details to care about. “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition,” he complains.

There are, in fact, many legitimate religious traditions that we ought to follow to the letter.

It is too easy to look at this passage and denounce all religious people as “hung up” on externals and declare that Jesus doesn’t care about such things. To stop those thoughts in their tracks, the Church gives us Sunday’s First Reading, in which Moses tells his people:

“In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations.”

We are to carefully follow the commandments of the Lord, leaving none out. But we are told not to add to them either.

Some very important “externals” of religion will come up later in Sunday’s Mass, when the liturgy echoes what St. Paul told the Corinthians:

“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”

These are external actions which we are to perform precisely, according to what God has handed down through the Church — not the Church that various human traditions might imagine, but the real Church whose head was Pope Benedict XVI and is now Pope Francis.

In his first message as pope, Benedict XVI spoke about the absolute necessity of following the Church’s traditions carefully. He said:

“I ask everyone in the coming months to … express courageously and clearly faith in the Real Presence of the Lord, especially by the solemnity and the correctness of the celebrations” (emphasis added).

We should do exactly what the Church says to do in such matters. The problem is that we tend to follow our own aesthetic tastes rather than the legitimate traditions handed down by the Church.

Today, secular virtue signaling takes one form; religious virtue signaling takes another.

In the secular world, people virtue signal by putting a “pride month” filter on a social media profile picture; or wearing a face mask in meetings to show up those who aren’t masked, but not wearing them with like-minded friends; or wearing a “Mother Earth” shirt while still generating piles of waste in a virtually unaltered consumerist lifestyle.

In religious circles,  we have forms of virtue signaling that can be just as empty: Displaying the rosary on our rearview mirror when we are not actually praying the rosary daily; sitting in the chapel to pray until we hear someone coming, then moving quickly to our knees; bowing our heads and kneeling reverently at Mass — while we silently judge those who are not doing so.

What do they all have in common? They put our own image at the center of our hearts rather than God’s.

“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites,” said Jesus:“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

The cure for virtue signaling is to make our hearts match our lips. Says Jesus:

“From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”

Jesus’s list of “evil thoughts” is tailor-made for the 21st century.

First on his list is “unchastity.” In the first part of the 20th century, popes were already warning about immodest fashions — and so was Our Lady of Fatima. The problem is worse now, when the “male gaze” popular media teaches men consists in sizing up women according to their bodies.

Jesus also warns against “adultery” using a telling Greek word: porneiai. That sounds like ponography for good reason. Pornography in the 21st century is the most pervasive form of adultery in history.

His list of vices includes the common vices of “theft,” “greed” and “envy.” For the Christian theft means having more than you use, greed means wanting more than you need, and envy means devaluing those who have less.

Jesus denounces “deceit” which means living a double life —such as hiding your faith at work out of fear of human respect or airbrushing your image, literally or figuratively, online. Jesus denounces “licentiousness,” which is the loss of self-discipline and self-control. He denounces “blasphemy,” which is speaking as if you have no God and “folly,” which is living as if you have no soul.

The way to true holiness, in short, is centering everything on God: Making our external behavior match his rules and our internal thoughts match his will.

But holiness can’t end in our hearts.

To “live in the presence of the Lord,” says the Psalm, you must first “think the truth in your heart.” But then you have to “walk blamelessly,” and “do justice,” it adds.

The Second Reading echoes this with the wonderful passage from St. James that says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”

St. Bede nicely combines both Jesus’s warnings and James’s exhortation, saying: “It is therefore a superstitious human tradition, that men who are clean already, should wash,” he says. “But it is necessary for those who desire to partake of the bread which comes down from heaven, often to cleanse their evil deeds by alms, by tears, and the other fruits of righteousness.”

If you must virtue signal, virtue signal to God. James describes how: ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.