“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes tasteless, what can make it salty again?” (Mt 5:13)
We are nourished when we come to church, listen to God’s Word, and receive the sacraments. But after being nourished, we leave the temple to sanctify the temporal order. This is the mission the laity are specifically charged with by the Church. In Lumen Gentium, we read that given their secular character, and that the Church has an authentic secular dimension, the laity must be “present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth” (LG 4).
What does it mean to become the salt of the earth? There are the familiar uses of salt: preservation and seasoning. Being salt in the world means we preserve what is good in it, and by seasoning it we make it better. There are other uses of salt. It’s used as a sacramental to protect from sickness and evil, so by being salt we guard what we have preserved and seasoned. Salt can also be a means of destroying. Cities and fields used to be salted as a sign of their defeat and so that nothing would grow there. This means not only guarding what we preserve and season, but also fighting against that which threatens it.
This mission to become salt of the earth has implications for civil society, which is comprised of church, family, charitable institutions, and community organizations. Edmund Burke referred to these institutions as “little platoons” within which the individual flourishes and learns virtue. The laity’s mission of salting will take place here. Of course it will also take place in the economic and political sectors of society, but these sectors flourish when civil society does. A healthy society grows from the bottom up. For it is in church, in the family, in working with charitable societies that carry out the corporal works of mercy, and in community organizations that individuals become virtuous, learn civic virtue and spirit, and become responsible members of society, ordering it to God, its source and end.
So how should the laity sanctify the temporal order? How exactly do we salt civil society? We must preserve those institutions that have been handed down to us so that we can hand them on to those who will come after us. There are many voluntary charitable institutions that need to be preserved: the Knights of Columbus and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, for example. These help perform the corporal works of mercy. The family is also obviously in need of preserving. It is within the family, the domestic church, that individuals first encounter the faith and virtue lived out on a daily basis. Civil society must also be seasoned, that is, it must be improved where possible. We are not called merely to preserve, to watch, as these institutions grow old. We attend to them and make them better ordered to God and the truths he has established. We also guard such institutions against forces that would attack them. We especially see how there are certain forces, cultural and political, working against the family and religious institutions. And lastly, we don’t only play defense by guarding. We salt the fields of the enemy by fighting where and when necessary. An obvious Christian way to fight against forces that work against civil society is through prayer. But we can also do this through protesting unjust laws and organizations and through establishing new institutions that promote charity, justice, and peace in society.
Christ charges us to be salt of the earth, but He also intimates the possibility of our losing this salty character. We must remain salty if we are to sanctify the world. But if the faithful, especially the laity, are to order society to its Creator we must learn from Him how to do so. We must always return to prayer, the sacraments, and Scripture. But we can also look back at the Scripture quoted above when Jesus urges us to become salt of the earth and remain that way. Christ says this in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. And immediately prior to the verse above he gives us the Beatitudes. This too, given the context, is a way to remain salty. Be meek. Hunger for righteousness. Be pure. Be merciful. Work for peace. Turn the other cheek when insulted for the sake of the Gospel. The Beatitudes give us a program for staying salty. We have the charge (be salt), the place where it takes place (civil society), and the way to stay salty (prayer, sacraments, the Beatitudes).
Image: Pahudson, St. Patrick’s Cathedral Complex