Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Salt, as we all know, is one of the most common food seasonings and an essential ingredient for food preservation. When food tastes bland, we add salt to it so as to give it more “taste.” In a sense, you could say that salt helps bring out the flavor of something; makes it fully itself and in keeping with its proper nature. Salt enhances the quality of other things and keeps them from becoming “insipid,” or “tasteless.” In Biblical Greek, the word for this is, moraino, which means “foolish.” Salt, in this usage, draws a thing out of foolishness and into beauty, truth and wisdom.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples that they must be “the salt of the earth.” This is a rich and beautiful image for us to ponder. We could say that Jesus is calling us to raise the level of flavor of every human activity and thus transform it into something “wiser” and of higher value. In the Catholic worldview, things are more than what they seem. The world is filled with signs of God’s goodness and love. A friend of mine has a plaque at her desk with the question, “What does this have to do with eternity?” She looks at it frequently throughout her day as a way of pondering the divine meaning of her daily activities, trying to see the hand of God in everything. This is a very Catholic way of approaching the world. Human activities, when understood and lived from within our discipleship with Jesus Christ, have eternal value because they bring us into a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ.
How does our Catholic faith act as salt in the world today? Let me give an example to help answer this question and illustrate this truth. In the secular world, the marital embrace is seen as a common and normal physical activity shared by two people who are experiencing romantic feelings for each other. For many, this physical act is seen as “no big deal” and is often divorced from its marital context. Yet, as Catholics, we believe that this activity is reserved strictly within the context of Holy Matrimony. For this reason, Catholics are often labeled as “old fashioned” and “puritanical.” It is not uncommon to hear people say that Catholics have a negative view of human sexuality; that they look “down on human sexuality.” Yet, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Catholic theology teaches that marriage, from a historical perspective, is the first Sacrament - the first visible sign of God’s invisible love given to humanity. God brought Adam and Eve together at the beginning of human history into the marital union so that humanity might understand the kind of intimate union that God desires to have with His people. One of the Prefaces for the wedding Mass beautifully proclaims: “In the union of husband and wife you give a sign of Christ’s loving gift of grace, so that the Sacrament we celebrate might draw us back more deeply into the wondrous design of your love.” In addition, God gave Adam and Eve the command “to be fruitful and multiply” to allow humanity to share in the joy of His creative love. In this way, the marital embrace is a gift from the Lord with a very beautiful and, dare I say, “divine purpose.” The Catholic worldview interprets the marital embrace as something much “higher” and more glorious than just a simple physical activity shared between two people experiencing romantic feelings for each other. It is the principle act and expression of the marital union and has a unique and particular purpose beyond fleeting carnal pleasure.
The Catholic teaching on the marital embrace acts as “salt,” enhancing the flavor of this physical activity. It enhances it with the light of divine wisdom and meaning so as to combat the foolishness of perceiving it as a mere carnal act. It is elevated to a whole new level when shared in the right context and in the right manner. A level that could never be achieved otherwise. It expresses the fullness of its flavor, because it expresses itself authentically, according to its divine mission, and in accordance with His divine design. In this way, the Church is not “down on human sexuality.” She does not see it in a negative light at all. Rather, she desires that the fullness of the Sacrament be joyfully experienced and shared between both spouses in a manner free of use, lust, coercion, fear, and selfishness.
When the marital embrace is removed from God’s divine plan and mission, it often is motivated by unhealthy fears and anxieties that rob people of authentic freedom and peace. Let me provide a few examples: When the marital embrace is used as a way of preventing a potential spouse from leaving them, it is motivated by fear and anxiety, not love; When the marital embrace is expected or demanded as a sign of gratitude for a favor performed, or offered as a reward for favors performed, the dignity of the marital embrace is reduced to a kind of inter-relational currency or bargaining chip, or even a potential instrument of coercion or manipulation; When the marital embrace is performed with the intentional physical removal of its procreative capacity, it is often done so out of a deep-seeded lack of faith and trust in God’s providence. Under each of these circumstances the marital embrace is reduced to the contractual level (an exchange of goods), instead of being elevated to the covenantal level (an exchange of persons). Only under God’s plan for the marital embrace are couples able to joyfully celebrate the marital embrace in total freedom, free of use, lust, coercion, fear, and selfishness.
The same is true with the Church’s teaching on celibacy. Celibacy is not a rejection of marriage or the marital embrace. Rather, celibacy affirms its dignity. Priests are not forced into celibacy, but choose it freely. As a couple entering into marriage states publicly that they are entering into the marital union without coercion, freely, and wholeheartedly, so too does the priest enter into celibacy without coercion, freely, and wholeheartedly. He says “no” to marriage and the marital embrace, not because he has a negative view of it, but because he recognizes the many important responsibilities that are contained within it, and he desires to be free of those responsibilities so that he can be more available to serve the Church with the entirety of his life. He says “no,” to marriage, so that he might be free to say “yes” to a different way of life.
Throughout my priesthood I have had the pleasure of getting to know many families and I have developed a great love and appreciation for the gift of family life. Yet, I rejoice in my celibate vocation because I know that if I had a family, it would be much harder and more difficult for me to serve the Church in the way that I do. I would have to sacrifice many of the freedoms that allow me to serve Jesus Christ and His Church with an undivided heart. It is out of respect for the dignity of marriage, and all that comes with this beautiful Sacrament, that I have freely chosen to live the celibate life.
The above example is merely one illustration of how our Catholic faith can be the salt of the earth. The witness of our lived faith acts as the salt condiment of society, helping the world rediscover its divine flavor. By virtue of our baptism, we have the grace necessary to be the light of divine wisdom, shining the truth and beauty of divine meaning and purpose into the darkness and foolishness of a daily life lived without the flavor of the Lord.
Peace in Christ,