Salt of the Church?
A few days ago, I was among a small group of Catholic LGBTIQ faithful that gathered outside the Premonstratensian Church close to the Prague Castle for the opening mass of the Continental phase of the Synod of the Catholic Church in Europe. We welcomed the official delegates to the Church service with leaflets, messages, and sweets, with the banner of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics serving as the backdrop. I remember seeing the curiosity of some of the delegates piqued; others greeted us warmly, while others barely acknowledged us, hurrying into the Church to avoid even the slightest eye contact. Some, though, came to us, and pointedly asked us, why are you here? Are you not already part of the Church? Are you not baptised? What do you need more from the Church? The same point seems to have been raised later during the Church service, with the Archbishop of Prague Mgr. Graubner warning the delegates to be wary of those who come asking for ‘rights’ and put in jeopardy the fundamentals of truth. To them he appealed to remember what it means to be ‘salt of the earth’!
Salt of the Earth! What a wonderful metaphor of what each Christian is called to be: To make a difference; to be a beacon; to be a sign of God’s hope; to be a sign to power. Yet, in the current context, how are Christians supposed to be the salt of the earth? It depends a lot on one’s perception of God and His relationship with humanity…
For a very long time, and I would say even up to recently, the emphasis in the Church was mainly on a God who was the sum of doctrines and dogmas, moral codes and precepts, and compliance with Church rules. You were a good Catholic if you knew your catechism, if you obeyed the Church rules, if you attended mass on Sundays and obeyed the moral ethics on sexuality. In that sense, not following or believing in an iota of this corpus of knowledge was tantamount to being a ‘bad’ Catholic. No wonder the alarm of many at the perceived increasing relativism caused by the personalisation of faith, whereby the emphasis apparently shifts from collective objective truths to subjective and apparently self-centred moral ‘choices’. In this context, one can appreciate Mgr. Graubner’s concern that the Church needs to be careful to ‘listen to voice of God’, for ‘many of those who are active in the Church do not know the Bible or the teachings of the Church!’. In my mind’s eye I can see the church as some heroic regiment putting up a brave last stand against the devilish tsunami of the dictatorship of relativism that threatens to sweep humanity off its feet!
This is however a skewed perspective, and one that is unfortunately convenient for those who like to feel as the victims of the present times, portraying a ‘Church under siege’. There is, in fact, a very different perspective, that offers the Church an opportunity rather than a threat, and a golden prospect for renewal that allows it to remain grounded and relevant for a changing world. This perspective is rooted in a different approach to God. God is not a set of dogmas or truths. God is the living experience of relational love. Rather than a rigidly unchanging divinity, God is love who is grounded in our evolving understanding of the world, ourselves, and our relationships. The supreme embodiment of God is of course Jesus Christ, who challenged the moral and doctrinal rigidity of the Pharisees and went beyond their codes to show us a merciful, loving and understanding God who looks at human dignity and seeks ways to unleash the potential to love, which is intrinsic in every human person. For, that is what makes us God’s own image – our capacity to love, our capacity to be God-like, our ‘capax Dei’. The story of salvation narrated in the Bible provides us with a backdrop and a context in which this story of love unfolds and evolves. In it, sexuality is presented as a gift, as an embodiment of this capacity to love, although there are also instances where humans abuse of God’s love and abuse of each other, twisting love into a weapon to harm others. In that respect it ceases being love. On the other hand, the Bible also shows how love rooted in genuine respect for the other person sanctifies both persons and renders them ‘whole’ and ‘holy’. Love cannot be summed in a formula based on rigid moral codes. Nor is it expressed through the abject and senseless negation of one’s sexuality based on some presumed intrinsic disorder. Love is relational, rooted in mutual respect, free will and intentional consent and looks towards faithfulness, steadfastness, and fruitfulness, in the family, community and church.
While it is true that humans can be self-centred and selfish, our own sexuality holds the potential for us to be loving and build loving relationships that can and are sacramental. One of our friends who gathered with us in Prague has been with his husband for over 50 years, and both have persevered in their relationship, loving, forgiving, and building each other. Another two friends, who were also with us in Prague, have been a couple for more than twenty years. Through their relationships, these persons have discovered God and their faith has been enriched. Their awareness of God has grown, and God has been with them, accompanying them in their mutual journey of love. Their journey has been a gift to their local community, to their church and to their mutual families. It is a story of love and sacramentality that enriches the Church rather than threatening or undermining the community of faithful. How can this be sinful? How can the Church refuse to bless it?
The challenge facing the Church is quite a tremendous one. It may follow the first perspective and consider all novelty as a threat and shun all of it, close ranks, and refuse any change that undermines doctrinal continuity. After all, this is a Church that has survived for two millennia, right? To me, such a church would however be following the example of the dwarfs in C. S. Lewis’ Last Battle. While standing in a glamorous well-lit hall in the afterlife, the dwarfs refused to recognise the light and remained blind to it completely. The other alternative is for the Church to look at the new realities and realise that its science is dated, that its approach is ideological, and that its pastoral style is out of touch with the lived reality of people. In a world where religion is more personal than collective, people will not wait patiently forever for a Church that continues to deny their reality and impose unrealistic and unreasonable demands. They will move on. They will search for God wherever they feel His presence, and this may not necessarily be in the church. If that happens, it might be easy to blame the ‘egoistic compulsions’ of people, but in truth, the Church will have itself to blame.
And what about the people who are in the periphery – the outsiders? We do not want to leave the Church, because we love the Church, and it is our family. It might be strange that we want to remain here, while the Church tries its utmost to keep us at arm’s length. Yet, we wish to follow the example of the Syro-Phoenician woman who persisted and persevered in her demand – for her child – despite the apparent indifference and harsh response of Jesus. We saw that bearing in several of the delegates who we welcomed a few days ago. The resilience, faith and determination of that woman was like ‘salt’ that touched Jesus’ heart and compelled him to grant her what she asked for. As I looked at my friends who were with me on that cold night in Prague, I saw many modern Syro-Phoenician women, and admired their resilience, their determination, and their hope.
May our presence act like salt for the Church. Let this Church listen to God’s voice – as Peter did just before meeting Cornelius – and believe that ‘what God has made clean, you are not to call profane (Acts 10, 15). I’ll say Amen to that!