Last week, I ran a post on the weirdness of appealing to super-duper superior Eucharistic piety while advocating pure selfishness and calling those who are not as selfish as the pious “cowards”. It is the weirdness that elevates such ritualism as communion on the tongue above the medical necessity of temporary communion in the hand and which even sees such temporary measures as the sinister beginning of a war on such pious observances. It is all about the supreme selfishness and self-pity of the pious over the actual health needs of their neighbor. In short, mere ritual is turned into prophylactic against the love of neighbor and the first greatest commandment falsely weaponized against the second greatest commandment.
A non-believing reader remarked:
You know Mark, this reminds me of that conversation we had a while back about Lent and the Catholic notions about fasting, which makes all this seem even more bizarre.
Its like, sure, I’ll make a sacrifice, but only when its mostly ceremonial, at a time that is convenient for me and is of little consequence. But asking me to make a small sacrifice to save thousands of lives? Nope, that’s a bridge too far.
Its quite ironic, because in a way, Catholics have been training for this their entire lives. All of that fasting during Lent should’ve served as preparation for a situation like the one we’re going through right now.
But I guess that at some point, people just started going through the motions without reflecting on the significance of that aspect of their own tradition.
My reader gets the point better than the Trads at war with masking. For Catholics, piety is supposed to lead to spiritual growth and moral reform. The love of God is supposed to lead to the love of neighbor. But for Qatholics, piety is performative and often a prophylactic against spiritual growth and moral reform. The greatest commandment gets weaponized against the second greatest commandment.
The problem of performative vs. living piety is an ancient one. Isaiah, for instance, rails against ceremonial observances that do not lead to spiritual reform and which pit the love of God against the love of neighbor:
Hear the word of the LORD,
you rulers of Sodom!
Give ear to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of he-goats.
“When you come to appear before me,
who requires of you
this trampling of my courts?
Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread forth your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,learn to do good;
defend the fatherless,
plead for the widow. (Is 1:10–17)
And Jesus has the same complaints and warnings for his disciples:
“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
“Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Mt 6:1–6).
The point is that any form of piety done to prevent rather than lead to obedience of the first and second commandments is an evil. This is why “thoughts and prayers” filth from public servants who are supposed to act to keep children from having their heads blown off is a stench in the nostrils of God.
Likewise, the “prolife” movement is chockablock with performative piety. Indeed, it matters more to many allegedly “prolife” members of the MAGA cult to say you are against abortion than to actually save human life. That’s why they don’t care that Trump has raised Planned Parenthood funding to record heights and raised abortion rates in sub-Saharan Africa by 40%. What matters is that he says he opposes Planned Parenthood and that taketh away the sin of actually doing so.
Performative piety is not something only religious people do. You can do acts of piety for human applause anywhere. Feminists who, twenty years ago, were looking the other way while Bill Clinton preyed on women were doing performative piety for their peers. Atheist gamers who ignore their creepy incel bully peers while complaining about fundamentalist hypocrisy are doing the same. Anybody can use the pieties of their peers as a way of hiding their sins.
One of the paradoxes of performative piety is that genuine virtue is often confused with it. That is why decent people are often accused of “virtue signaling” by nasty people. The accusation is precisely that they are doing good things simply to be seen, when in fact they are doing good because you should do what is good. Often the accuser is the one doing the performative piety for his peer group of selfish jerks–as, for instance, was Rush Limbaugh’s mockery of Joe Biden for his suffering and sacrifice in raising his sons after he was widowed, and then losing his son. Biden’s sacrificial suffering is what Normals call “being a good parent”. But in the Limbaugh cult of selfishness, spitting on liberals is an act of ritual piety. So Limbaugh chose to do that in order to win the approval of his Non-Normal peers. He, not Biden, was doing performative piety.
This sort of piety is a sort of diabolical inversion of virtue signaling called “vice signaling”. It tells the peer group that the Pious One is willing to flout human decency to please his peers. It is this kind of mentality, taken to its limits that leads to insane acts of mob cruelty and orgiastic scapegoating violence.
What matters with piety is not the act but the motivation. And that is typically something only a knowledge of the person can reveal. Two people may do the same thing, while one does so because it is the right thing and the other does it in order to be praised. This is why Jesus can tell us to do our pious works in secret, but also tell us to let our light so shine that people see our good works and praise our Father in heaven. Sometime we are, in fact, required to make a public show of our good deeds, as when clergy and religious marched in Selma, in order to bear witness to the demands of God’s kingdom to a world at war with Him. Other times, it is necessary to act in secret in order to not draw attention to ourselves.
The point of ceremonial acts of piety is not to act as a prophylactic against obedience, but to lead to deeper obedience. Isaiah 58 contrasts performative vs. obedient piety well:
“Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD? ¶“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. “If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in. “If you turn back your foot from the sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Is 58:1–14)