For those of us of a conservative disposition, the practice of ‘virtue signalling’ is a habit of the Left, who, in condemning the racism of others both signal their own virtue and impugn that of their opponents; from a debating point of view it is a form of adversarial confrontation which afford much satisfaction; from the point of view of trying to resolve issues, it is usually a failure. The difficulty is that no one ever says they are virtue signalling, and I doubt anyone does it consciously; it is something more obvious in the eye of the beholder. One might reason thus: “I am stating obvious truths clear by the right of reason in order to combat what I perceive as racism/homophobia/misogyny or some other evil; You, on the other hand, are signalling your imagined superior virtue by applying your own false standards to me and claiming that because I fall short of them, I am in the wrong.” And so it goes, with both sides talking, or more often, shouting past each other.
For those of a conservative disposition, this is most obviously seen in the cries of anguish from the Left over President Trump. Where conservatives see a figure of some vulgarity but one who is delivering what he was elected to deliver, others see a putative fascist dictator to whom the only possible response is a form of hysteria which incorporates demands he is removed from office – by a coup if necessary; he is, as the hashtag warriors have it #notmypresident. This reminds me of another set of over-reactions to an elected leader, who was opposed from the moment his election was announced, about whose election rumours were in circulation to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his position, and about whom a section of the press cannot get enough lurid headlines, and over whose actions many might use the hashtag #notmypope. But, it might be objected, has he not used harsh language about the Curia? Has he not outraged those used to a traditional way of doing things? Is he not a disruptive force? The parallels with Trump grow. Those who never liked him from the start like him even less the more he does. Everything is read through a hermeneutic of hatred and suspicion. So, does a Bishop suggest that pastoral provision might be made in certain circumstances for the divorced to take communion? Who knows, as the headline will be that that Bishop is an apostate teaching that the divorced can take communion? Any nuance gets lost in a media scrutiny whose purpose is to arouse feelings rather than convey information. And so, as with Trump, one ends up doubting most things reported in some parts of the media because it is clear that the purpose is to reinforce the initial picture formed by hostile opinion.
It would be splendid if everything in Christian life could be settled by resort of a Biblical text, but as early as the time of the Apostles, as St John and St Paul found, there were those who interpreted what they were being told in a different manner. Nor was this all just being awkward for its own sake. As the early Christological arguments showed, there were real questions to be asked about how Jesus could be God, and what it meant to talk and think in this way. Throughout Christian history there have been occasions when Christians have fiercely disagreed about how to interpret parts of their common faith – to the extent of burning each other (and then later claiming it was all the fault of the State, as though the State were some neutral by-stander uninfluenced by the Church). A living faith will always have disputes. As we reach out to embrace the infinite, we shall always be finding that there is more there than our human minds have compassed; and changed circumstances demand responses from the Church.
When I was a child, not a single one of the pupils at my school had a divorced parent; indeed it was not until I was a university lecturer that I met anyone who had been divorced. Now I would say that the balance has shifted entirely. To say that the Church should respond to this huge change and its causes by acting as though we still lived in the world of the 1950s might seem to some a simple statement of standing by the faith once given, whilst to others it might seem like adding a yoke to the already heavily burdened. There is truth in both positions, and to guy the other side as either unfeeling rigorists or unthinking apostates does no justice to a difficult situation. Those who suppose there are simple answers to complex questions will always be with us; but it is the job of the Church to discern how to help us best live a Christian life. If that were easy, we should all have been doing it a long time ago.