When the Salt Loses Its Taste

When the Salt Loses Its Taste April 12, 2018

Pope Francis has offered us a profound reflection on holiness, and its connection to living out the Beatitudes in his latest Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate. [1] Unfortunately, the grandeur of the whole is likely to be swallowed up in the controversy over one section, and its pertinence to an ongoing dispute in American politics. Not that this is a pope who shuns controversy in the interests of proclaiming the Gospel. But there are indications that there are political partisans prepared to weaponize this one paragraph of the entire exhortation, leaving future generations to reap the full benefit of this religious masterpiece.

It will behoove us, then, to study the paragraph for ourselves in order to be inoculated against any misleading rhetoric that is certain to follow. The pope says,

“The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.”

In saner times this would be uncontroversial. But we do not live in a sane time. Rather, we live in a time where the unborn and the poor are tools of politicians. The polemics to follow can be anticipated.

One side will object that Pope Francis has downgraded the importance of unborn human lives. This, it will be said, marks such a departure from traditional Catholic doctrine that the Holy Father has now manifested his heretical tendencies for all to see; and that he, therefore, need not be listened to when he speaks on behalf of the world’s afflicted. The other side will say that the pope has let it be known that abortion is only one issue among many such that it can be discarded in favor of other priorities. Neither of these readings can be justified.

The pope has not downgraded the seriousness of abortion. On the contrary, he insists that we be firm and passionate in our defense of the unborn. But he is also pointing out that other human lives are just as sacred, also requiring our serious concern. Moreover, he is by no means identifying any human issue as discardable. He is not saying that one human life issue is more important than the other, that is, he is not saying that one human life is more important than another. Quite the contrary, he is saying that all human life is sacred.

This message should be troubling to the inhabitants of the entire political spectrum in American politics. Many Catholics in the United States have steeled their consciences against the Faustian bargain they are called upon make with the two-party system. But Pope Francis is calling upon us to tear that contract in half.

It is too easy for us to acquiesce to the evils that our party promotes in order to obtain an advantage regarding the issue that is at the forefront of our concerns. Instead, we are called upon to be the “salt of the earth,” and the “light of the world.” Being Catholics, we must move the political parties we belong to in the direction of Catholic social teaching, rather than letting the political parties transform us.

In short, the answer is not either/or, but both.

That is, in part, what the Holy Father is saying.


The icon of St. Joseph the Worker is by Daniel Nichols.

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  • Excellent commentary. It’s both/and, not either/or.

  • Carol Goodson

    Joyful music to the ears of me and my fellow members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul: ALL life is sacred… ALL lives must be protected.

  • I love what the Pope wrote in Paragraphs 100-101.

    It is exactly what I’ve been saying for many years.

    Now, can you explain to me paragraphs 25-62, where three types of specific Catholic lives are considered to be worthless?

    (I hold that these paragraphs are then completely contradicted by paragraphs 100-162, but there is a significant disconnect in tone, almost as if a Democrat ghostwrote these paragraphs)

  • ThePenitent

    “In saner times this would be uncontroversial.” Are you insane? This paragraph would ALWAYS have been a controversial statement. Pope Francis equated murder of the unborn with materialism and selfishness. Other than that these two sins have to do with the “dignity of the human person”, they are not anywhere in the same ballpark.

    He wrote: “We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.” The Spiritual Works of Mercy are ALWAYS more important than the Corporal Works of Mercy. One has to do with the salvation of a person’s immortal soul, the other has to do with seeing to a person’s temporal needs (and by extension, to his dignity, self-respect, and all those other very nice Social Justice Warrior catch-phrases). Here, Pope Francis does not seem at all concerned about saving the souls of these materialist people who only live for the latest consumer goods and who do not love their neighbor. He completely ignores the Spiritually impoverished to aid the physically impoverished.

    As you yourself said “the answer is not either/or, but both.” Why, for the love of God, don’t these bleeding-heart, politicized SJW’s in the Church see that? Save souls AND care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Saving souls should always be the TOP priority. But again, “not either/or, but both” — caring for the poor is also very important, but it should NOT be the top priority.

    Furthermore, your premise that this is the ONLY paragraph in the document that is controversial is grossly incorrect.

  • Gregory Smith

    This may be the most intelligent response I’ve seen on Patheos. Kudos. I would like to add that there is not an equivalence between the helpless unborn and the fully rational poor. The unborn have no way to protect themselves OR change their circumstances. It is a false equivalency. Ever think of the priesthood?

  • Eris, elder daughter of Nyx

    This is part of what makes Christianity so sad to me

    It’s more important to people like you that I convert than that I live. My conversion? TOP priority! My life? Less important, takes a back seat to my conversion.

    It’s that kind of attitude that leads to Christians saying, “Oh, well, you can have your life . . . IF you convert.” After all, whatever it takes to get a conversion, right?

    Thank you, no.

  • ThePenitent

    The salvation of your IMMORTAL soul, so that you can spend ETERNITY in heaven, is more important than anything in your TEMPORARY life on earth.
    Similarly, God’s INFINITE love is greater than your human finite love.
    God’s INFINITE worth and dignity is greater than yours.
    This is why God the Son, Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity, had to come down from heaven and become incarnate of the Virgin Mary so that he could die for our sins. Only the INFINITE worth and dignity of the sacrifice of Jesus could atone for our sins of offending the INFINITE dignity of God the Father. NOTHING that us finite humans could do would ever atone for our sins. Our sins are not measured by our small, finite actions or intentions — they are measured by the insult to God who is INFINITE.
    This is also why St Thomas Aquinas could say “It would be better if all the world and all the universe were to be wiped out of existence, than for a person to commit even the smallest sin.” How can this be? Again, because the world and the universe, including you and me, are temporary and finite. But sin, an offense against the INFINITE God, is infinite.
    And this is why the Spiritual Works of Mercy (which deal with the IMMORTAL soul) are always more important than the Corporal Works of Mercy (which deal with your TEMPORARY life).

    There is more I would like to say about your other comment, but what’s the point? In any case, as I said before, the Corporal Works of Mercy are very important — but not the most important.

  • Eris, elder daughter of Nyx

    Well, I have to admit that I don’t at all feel happy that you’ve decided that my life is merely less important than your other, greater goals. I mean, seriously, what do you expect people to say when they cry out, “Help! I’m dying!” and you reply, “Actually, I have more important priorities here!”? Do you think they’re going to be saying, “Oh, sorry, please do carry on.”? Or do you think they’re going to be upset because they’re trying to get help not dying?

    If nothing else, I’m going to tell you that I think what you’re doing is an incredibly bad evangelizing move, although it is an incredibly honest one. Non-Christians are forever feeling like Christians are dishonestly coming at them just to convert them instead of being really interested in their well-being, and you’re just putting it out there that yes, even a person’s life isn’t important compared to you meeting your conversion goal.

    And to be honest, I don’t know what the point of your post is. It certainly isn’t to spread the love of God.

  • ThePenitent

    How dishonest can you be?
    How many times do I have to say it? The Corporal Works of Mercy are very important . . . just not the most important.
    You repeatedly paint it as though I am saying “I don’t care if you are starving or dying of disease, I only care about your soul.”
    I am saying, there are too many people in the Church (and outside of it, clearly) who care MORE about the FINITE things of this life, than about the INFINITE things of the next life. The Church exists primarily to save souls, and to love our neighbor (as in caring for their physical needs) as a secondary mission. My original post was a complaint that too many people in the Church have these two things swapped around in their priority.
    For those who care more about the immortal soul, join a church and do some good — for your soul, and for the souls (and bodies) of your neighbor.
    For those who care more about the mortal body, become a social worker or volunteer at a soup kitchen.
    My original post was saying, in effect, that Pope Francis often times sounds like a person who should have been a social worker, rather than a priest, because he has his priorities confused.

  • Eris, elder daughter of Nyx

    I’m not being dishonest, I’m speaking frankly about how you (and those like you) are coming across. We who you are proselytizing at don’t feel cared for when you do this, we feel like notches you’re trying to carve in your spiritual belt. And we’re not interested in being stars in your crown in heaven. If this offends you, well, then I guess we have offended each other, because your views that a person’s life is a secondary mission offends me.

  • ThePenitent

    How I am “coming across”? How does “very important” become “not at all important”????
    You have a twisted mind.
    As for proselytizing and evangelizing — that’s not what I am doing here. I am Catholic. I expressed a valid concern about my Church and the leadership in it.
    And as for notches in my spiritual belt or stars in my crown in heaven — those are largely Protestant concepts.
    To convert to Catholicism, as a person over the age of 16 (I think), you would have to go through the RCIA program — this is about 7 months of weekly classes, 1-1/2 to 2 hours each, before you could become a member of the Catholic Church. This is something that YOU do, not something that is done to you. The Protestants are big on overwhelming you with love and encouragement to get you baptized, but then are somewhat weak on following up . . . there is a bit of a tendency to abandon you once you are converted. But in the Catholic Church, the classes continue for another 1 or 2 months even AFTER you have been baptized and/or confirmed — this is to help you integrate into the activities of the Church and to make sure that your spiritual life is on solid footing. This 1 or 2 month period is called Mystagogia.
    I cannot accomplish ANY of this with you during our little chat. I have no agenda to convert you. Sadly, we Catholics are INCREDIBLY weak on evangelizing! Your complaints about proselytizing and evangelizing are COMPLETELY out of place in a discussion about Catholicism or the Catholic Church — you should take that complaint over to one of the Baptist or Lutheran or Methodist or Assembly of God or one of the other DOZENS of large Protestant websites or THOUSANDS of small Protestant websites.
    As for your comment that “a person’s life is a secondary mission offends me” . . . I am offended that after spending many years in our education system you do not understand that IMMORTAL is bigger and more important than TEMPORARY. That despite my little lecture, above, you still do not understand that INFINITE is bigger and more than FINITE. Do you understand that $1,000,000,000,000 is bigger and more than $10. I am sure you do. So how is it possible that you do not understand that Spiritual is bigger and more than Physical? You haven’t said that you don’t believe in God. You haven’t said that you don’t believe in the immortality of the human soul. So what is your deal?

  • Eris, elder daughter of Nyx

    I’m sorry, but you think it is a respectful thing to say things like

    “You have a twisted mind.”

    to people? That this is the way to go about interacting with other human beings?

    And if you aren’t interested in people converting, I’m going to have to admit to a certain level of amusement, considering you’ve been sitting here insisting that it is the absolute most important thing ever, more important even than people’s lives, the TOP priority of all.

    Lastly, if you are offended that the secular education system doesn’t run around teaching people the importance of immortality, I’m not sure you really understand the secular education system.

    And no, I haven’t said much (anything?) about my beliefs. You haven’t asked. You’ve been more than happy to sit here and expound all manner of things at me without asking me anything about myself, which is fine; if you are not interested in me or my “twisted mind,” that is of course your right. But if you do want to know something about me, “What is your deal” is a little broad. What are your questions?

  • Tacitus

    Actually, given you’re harping on about the “INFINITE” vs the “FINITE”, I would point out that logically, if anything, given the scale of the difference (anything finite is utterly insignificant compared to the infinite), you should be putting everything into the infinite part of the equation, and nothing into the finite. If an infinite afterlife really exists, then *anything* we do in our finite lives is trivial to the point of worthlessness other than securing the place we desire in the infinite.

    But the danger of focusing on this disparity between the finite and the infinite is that it reveals just how nonsensical it all is. The very concept of an immortal all-knowing deity creating a universe where one binary decision determines your fate for eternity — and that’s assuming you even know the decision exists, which billions do not — is pretty ridiculous once you take a step back from the religious traditions you’ve be brought up it.

    It’s kind of like teaching a small child how to add two numbers and then requiring them to ace the math SAT if they want to live.

  • fractal

    Does that include the pig you ate for breakfast—the pig whose IQ rivals a four year old human?
    Why do you think that human life is more important than sentient animal life?