9. We are the Church. I admit I have called on this slogan a few times myself. When people talk about how the church let them down or failed to respond to someone in time of need, I want to say, "But all of us, we are the church. Not just the priest."

Franciscan Father Richard Rohr notes the tendency to identify the Body of Christ with those who have Holy Orders or have taken religious vows. Today that is being broadened to include all paid members of the parish staff. This can easily become a new kind of clericalism. Archbishop Murphy has argued persuasively against it. He talks about those who ministered spiritually to him during his 39 days in the hospital. In the long, lonely nights sometimes a cleaning lady would hear him awake, come to his bedside and offer a quiet prayer. When it comes to ministry or quality pastoral care, it is often the humblest person who most effectively delivers it. Indeed, we are all the Church.

But those who use this phrase as a slogan mean something very different. Let's be frank. They are not talking about service, but power. They view the Church as one more hierarchical structure and envy the supposed power of the ordained. I have tried to respond to such folks in a couple of ways.

First that power looks a lot different to the ordained person himself. Over and over again I am reminded that I have no power--only that which people freely choose to give. And they can just as easily withhold it and sometimes do. I cannot collect a penny in tax. I cannot send out a subpoena or a policeman. The only power I have is people's trust. The same can be said of any priest or bishop or even the pope himself. Such power is considerable, ultimately the greatest power on this earth--but still it is based 100% upon relationships of trust.

But second--and this is the most crucial--we are extremely limited in how we can utilize that trust relationship. We have an obligation not just to those people we serve--but to an entire tradition, a world church and ultimately to Jesus himself. In the final analysis the Church does not belong to us as if it were a Rotary Club. It belongs to Jesus. That is why the pope did not say he was personally against the ordination of women. He explained that the Church simply does not have the authority to do it.

We are (the) Church is not only a slogan; it is the title of a protest movement against the teachings of the church. They plan on taking a pile of petitions to Rome which they will dump in St. Peter's Square. The petitions call for a change in the teachings on the permanence of marriage, the sinfulness of homosexual acts, the ordination of males alone and so on. All this would be great if we were a self-constituting group, like the U.S. government or the Fraternal Order of Eagles. But our constitution comes from Jesus himself.

Altho I am loathe to detract from any brother priest, I will mention one prominent dissenter to clarify my point. His writings which have appeared in our diocesan paper over the years illustrate some of the inconsistency, even self-indulgence of dissent. His name is Fr. Richard McBrien, a diocesan priest who teaches at Notre Dame. Fr. McBrien has written lengthy books about Catholicism and even edited an encyclopedia which gives the PC* version of the Catholic faith. He has produced a veritable flood of writings. But all this learning has not prevented him from falling into a common trap. He has watered down the faith in order to gain respectability in our modern culture. In fact the media seek him out when they need a quote to reassure people that the Church is nothing for them to worry about.

The English historian Paul Johnson has illustrated the sad paradox that intellectuals have the least resistance to the lure of irrational approaches. For example, Adolph Hitler drew his broadest and most enthusiastic support from university professors and their students. It seems intellectuals are the ones most readily seduced by relativism and once that happens they quickly become the victims of the latest fad.

Let me give a couple of examples of how that kind of relativism leads Fr McBrien into some glaring inconsistencies--and then to a lack of integrity which harms others and his own self. He wrote an article comparing dissenters in the Church to "dissidents" in oppressive societies. Such a comparison ignores the distinction between persuasive power (based on freely given trust) and coercive power (based on the ability to put people in jail--or worse). I lived in a country where people risked terrible retribution by speaking their opinions. I knew some who were jailed, humiliated, even tortured for standing up for what they believe. I could never demean their courage by comparing it to the whining we hear from dissenters. The church authorities whom they resent are doing nothing more than challenging them to be authentic. I sometime feel like saying to the dissenter, "Be a man. Follow through on the logical consequences of your dissent." For most dissenters the logical thing to do would be to join the Anglican Church. They would lose their romantic self-image of being persecuted dissidents, but they would gain something much more valuable: integrity, authenticity.

A second example of setting up a straw man then knocking it down was his article calling for the Church to change her teaching on the permanence of marriage. He talks as if the main obstacle to that change was narrow-minded people he calls "canonical purists." Now I can believe he may not have considered the above distinction regarding power, but I cannot imagine he has not read Jesus clear words, "So therefore, what God has joined together..." (Mk 10:9) Nor do I believe he has not read Fr. John Meier's exposition of the texts on permanence of marriage and the supposed New Testament exceptions. I won't go into all the details, but it turns out what appear to be exceptions actually strengthen Jesus teaching on the indisolubility of marriage.

It would be bracing, even refreshingly honest, if McBrien would have the frankness to say, "I disagree with Jesus' teaching." The "canonical purists" are at least grappling with the hard teachings of Jesus. They respect Him enough to take seriously what He said about the two becoming one flesh and no man being able to separate what God has truly joined.

As Henry VIII discovered along with thousands before and after him, this teaching is far from easy. Any parish priest knows the pain in trying to apply it compassionately. But to attribute the teaching to "canonical purists" is at best silly. The alternate explanation is that his desire to make things easier (and more palatable to our culture) has led him to outright deception.

But I will give Fr. McBrien this: his inconsistency is mild compared to that surrounding the the tenth misleading slogan: Against Abortion--Don't Have One."


April 1999 update: Most recently Fr. McBrien has been using an old tactic to justify dissent. According to him the crowds who received the pope in St. Louis cheered when he condemned abortion and euthanasia, but grew silent when he challenged the moral applicability of capital punishment in modern society. His implication is that "conservatives" are dissenters, only about different matters than himself and others. But that conclusion would only be valid if they rejected the teaching authority of the church embodied in the pope. Finding a specific teaching to be puzzling or challenging does not imply a rejection of the teacher's authority. Jesus himself had many teachings which were hard. Even Peter was not always sure what he meant, but responded, "Where shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." That should be our response when find teachings in the Catechsim or the pope's words which are hard to understand or live. We have become so used to "government by polls" that we sometimes imagine the church should be the same. Or that the pope's authority comes from how strongly people cheer him.


*politically correct

To Dissenting Priests by C.S. Lewis

Why is the Church called Catholic?

How the views represented by Fr. McBrien are affecting our Catholic Universities.

Does Dogma Divide?

For more on the difference between watered-down Christianity and its full-bodied form, please see the review of Flawed Expectations.

A Catholic Defense of the Authority of the Church by John D'Arcy.

Clear Explanations of Catholic Teachings

A book dealing with the problem of envy: Violence Unveiled.

A Homily on Envy

Next (Misleading Slogan)


Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History