When we hear Jesus tell us in the Gospel that we are salt and light, he means that we bring something irreplaceable to society. Without salt, in a world before refrigeration, food would spoil. Without light, people would stumble around in the dark. People who lived by Jesus’ teaching brought something to society that society needed, even if society didn’t realize that.
We need this same lesson in the twenty-first century.
Despite the protestations of some public figures about living in a “Christian” society, a quick look at the reality “on the ground” would show otherwise. Affordable, universal access to quality health care? Nope. Employers required to pay a living wage so that families can do their primary job of raising and teaching their children without working multiple jobs? Nope. Relatively-equal access to a good education for both poor and rich? Nope. A universal horror at false statements made by a public official? Nope. A system of justice that protects the safety and rights of poor defendants as well as rich ones? Nope. A refusal to sell or give weapons of war to other countries except under the most limited circumstances? Nope. A guarantee of life for the unborn, and good prenatal and perinatal care for their mothers? Nope. Decent and dignified housing for the elderly poor? Nope. You get the picture: Whatever the public protestations, we live in a culture with values as pagan as ancient Rome.
Jesus warns that the salt can lose its power, and the light be hidden. That must have happened to us in the Church somewhere along the way for society to have wound up the way it has.
Recently I’ve been reading Dante’s Commedia; it’s clear that whatever’s gone wrong in the church has a long history. Dante (writing around 1320) has almost nothing good to say about the church leadership of his day. (He puts three of his near-contemporary popes in hell, for starters.) Fortunately, during our lifetimes we’ve had good, holy – even in some cases saintly – Popes, although they may have been ineffectual or wrongheaded in various ways. Most church leaders, in my limited experience, want to do the right thing, as do most of the people in the pews. Whatever has happened to make the church’s impact on society nearly invisible must be something other than simple selfishness, lust, greed, and vanity (the issues in Dante’s time). How have we in recent times lost the thread?
My answer is that, for multiple generations, we have been content to create baptized pagans rather than disciples. We have, as a church, failed to make clear the responsibilities of discipleship or to help people to learn the skills to live as an effective disciple. (The fact that Catholics have abortions at about the same rate as the rest of society, and that Catholics give only about 2% of our income to the poor, are only two examples of how Catholics hardly differ from nonbelievers on key issues of values.)
Changing this will probably take centuries, and will probably result in a smaller church. But we’re a long ways from being ready to implement any solutions at this point. First, we have to understand the problem. And even before that, we have to admit that there is one. Why is our light under a basket? Until next week, peace.