Giving Up Virtue Signals for Lent

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Catholic Church’s liturgy for Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22, 2023), other than ashes we will wear on our foreheads, is Christ’s warning against virtue signaling.

People of today’s secular culture, seeking to fill their inner God-shaped hole by looking in the mirror, are prone to present themselves as infallible sources of truth, judges of others, and, to borrow a term from the Wizard of Oz, “good deed-doers.”

This has come to be called “virtue signaling,” defined by Oxford Languages as “the public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or social conscience or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.”

The term is a rhetorical weapon often aimed by conservatives toward so-called “woke” liberals whom they deem to be making statements and taking stands hypocritically—talking the talk without walking the walk.

Meanwhile, liberals have argued that their critics, who question their pursuit of the moral high ground, are themselves virtue signalers because they claim to “know better” about the dubious value and authenticity of progressive stances.

The Mass readings for Ash Wednesday offer definitive rejections of the emptiness and danger on both sides of this debate. We’re told humility and a profound knowledge of our sinfulness are the better alternatives for the sake of this worldly life—and eternity.

“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise , you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.’”

That’s from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6.

When you give alms, Jesus continues, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

Even in prayer, go quietly to your “inner room,” unlike the show-offs who sadly have already “received their reward,” Jesus instructs.

The Old Testament reading for the day, chapter 2 of the Book of Joel, offers this guidance:

“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.”

Ad hominem punishments we try to impose on others, claiming to know and evaluate their hearts while we ignore the hardness of our own hearts, only lead to a downward spiral of quashed conversation, unsustainable and lacking the happiness of virtue and valor.

Mass-goers will recite part of Psalm 51, which prescribes the upward spiral our secular culture desperately needs. As we debate-lovers look into our respective mirrors, we are wise to rehearse the peaceable message that establishes a more level playing field:

“Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned. Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me.”

Although it’s not in the liturgical readings, we might think of Falstaff’s remark in Henry IV, Part 1: “The better part of valor is discretion.” In the case of this Shakespeare character, he is not a particularly honorable person, but at least sometimes he knows when to hold his peace.

At the same time, Ash Wednesday can help us think of the word “Asé,” pronounced Ah-shay, a Nigerian version of “Amen” sometimes used by Black Christians in their worship. It combines an affirmation of someone else’s message and a commitment to “make it so” in our own lives.

This is certainly the dual hope inside everyone’s Amen when they are receiving the Blessed Sacrament, which is the greatest takeaway from every Mass.

The complex dynamics of wearing ashes are about to return for another year, leading into a Lenten season where the politically charged term “Great Reset” finds its most important meaning—on the individual and spiritual, not global or political, level.

We will experience some mockery and some admiration. We will be signaling our virtue and our desperate need for virtue. We will line up to get something that affirms our personal identity and redefines our identity in terms of humble dust and creaturehood.

These combinations constitute a mystery of trust and hope that should make us fall silent rather than gird for confrontation. The mystery can be our guide as we hear the day’s Mass readings, savoring their power to signal where true virtue resides.

Image from, a collection of Creative Commons designs.


About Bill Schmitt is the home for Bill Schmitt's blog and biographical information. This blog, initiated during Bill's nearly 14 years as a communications professional at Notre Dame, expresses Bill's opinions alone. Go to "About Bill Schmitt" and "I Link, Therefore I Am" to see samples of multimedia content I'm producing now and have produced during my journalism career and my marketing communications career. Like me at, follow me on Twitter @wschmitt, and meet "bill schmitt" on LinkedIn.
This entry was posted in Prayer, Spirit of communication, Words. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s