Monday, September 10, 2007

Dissecting "We Are Church"

I was again recently at another Church event where I heard a speaker use the phrase "We Are Church." I have stated in other posts how much I dissapprove of this language and this phrase, but I thought I'd go into a little more here.

It is already a well documented fact that this phrase "We Are Church" is associated with heretical and dissenting groups, most notably the International Movement We Are Church, who notoriously proposes a "Consitution" for the Catholic Church. But that being said, I realized that, apart from any questionable group who might us the phrase "We Are Church," it was the phrase itself that bothered me. The three words "We Are Church" themselves seemed to be what was irritating me, even if such horrid groups like International Movement We Are Church did not exist. Why was this bothering me so? After all, isn't it a fact that the Church is made up or people, peple like you and I? Of course this is so. Then why the anger at the phrase? I pondered this as I drove home from the event, and I wantd to share my musings.

First, the statement, "We Are Church," like everything else associated with the modern Catholic Church, is ambiguous. It can be taken in one of two senses. Sense (a): The Church is composed of individuals, or sense (b): The very substance of the Church is to be a community of individuals.

Sense (a) is easily admissible: as an entity both spiritual and physical, the composite parts of the Church are the individuals who are united in baptism and are each individually temples of the Holy Spirit, whether they are of the Church Militant, Suffering, or Triumphant. Of course the Church is made up of people. But this does not exhaust the definition of the word "Church." Besides the community aspect of the Church ("we are the Church"), there is the aspect in which the Church is a creation of God ("the Church is Christ's Church") and that the Church exists not to bolster the good feelings of each of the members or celebrate our own community (whoever heard of a community that comes together for no other reason than to celebrate that it is a community and can come together?), but to offer an acceptable worship to God, to whom all the sanctifying actions of the Church have their end. Now, these "vertical" aspects of the Church are not at all opposed to its "horizontal" aspects, provided we are using "We Are Church" in the first sense: that the consituent parts of the Church are the individuals redeemed by Christ. The Church has always understood that it has a mission to men as well as a mission to glorify and praise God; but the service of men was always subordinated to the service to God and ordered towards it. Like the old definition of charity: love of God and love of neighbor for God's sake.

Now, we get into trouble when we attempt to adopt sense (b), that "We Are Church" means that the very essence of the Church is to be a community, a "We." First, this proposes that there is some absolute good about being a community, which is not even remotely true. Most evils pepetrated by mankind are done by (or in the name of) some community that has a faulty understanding of God and man. There is nothing inherently good about community. If there was, then the Freemasons, Wiccan covens, homosexual unions and every other abominable association would be good by the very fact of being a community. Therefore, there is nothing to "celebrate" about just because the Church has a communal aspect.

Second, this view attempts to make the communal aspect the exhaustive definition of the Church, so that the Church essentially is nothing other than a community that exists to serve man and, through serving man, glorify God (but only secondarily; in this view, we love man and then love God for man's sake). In this case, man is the measure. This view of the Church totally neglects the vertical relation of the sacrificing Church to God, as well as the sacramental presence of God to His Church immediately (unless, of course, they mention it only as a means to "strengthen us for service"). This is a Church of service, but not sacrifice. With this view of the Church, the Church's mission of service and its mission to worship God actually become antithetical because the true worship of God presupposes a view of the Church which this definition's ecclesiology has rejected a priori.

Now let's look at the phrase itself. There are two points to consider. First, in the phrase "We Are Church," "we" is the subject" and "Church" is the predicate. This is not automatically a problem; subject and predicate are often equal, especially when linked with the existential verb "is." But it is important to note that the phrase "Church" is being predicated of the word "We." The speaker is essentially trying to define what "We" are, and predicates the word "Church" of "We." "We" is the measure; we are talking not about what the Church is but about ourselves. This is especially the case because, secondly, the subject and predicate are linkd by the existential verb "are", which implies an equality. Whatever we are, so is the Church, is what the statement means. Algebraically, you could write it like this:

We = Church

Again, it is true that the Church is made up of individuals, but notice that in this phrase, "The Church is composed of individuals", two things are different, though at first it may seem to be the same statement: first, we are predicating individuals of the Church, not vice versa. This statement is saying something about the Church, not about us. The Church is the subject and the measure here. Secondly, we do not use the unqualified existential verb "is" or "are"; rather, we say, "is composed of." This demonstrates that the Church is materially built of the community (living stones, as St. Paul says), but does not convey the idea that the living stones themselves are the exhaustive definition of the word Church.

It all depends on how one wants to take the statement. "We Are Church" certainly can be taken in an orthodox light, and I think none of the speakers I have ever heard use it meant it any other way. But it is ambiguous and dangerous; after somebody says it, you almost have to go up to them and say, "Excuse, but what type of ecclesiology underlies your use of the phrase "We Are Church?"" Now why would we want to use any type of phrase that needed such extensive qualification in order to guarntee its orthodoxy?

In closing, think of this, in case you think I am hairsplitting (which I am, but hairsplitting is an important function of the Church that is seldom exercised nowadays), the difference between these two phrases: (1) We are Americans (2) We are America. Though they both are similar on the surface, isn't it the case that phrase (2) is making much more sweeping assertions about "We" than phrase (1) is? I would not deny that we are all Americans; but if you say "We are America", then at best you are making a banal metaphor, and at worst you are completely misunderstanding what America is by reducing it to just the community of people who happen to be Americans. In same way, when one says "We Are Church", they are (if they are orthodox), using a stupid and banal metaphorical device; if they are unorthodox, then they probably mean it as an ecclesiological heresy. Either way, why would we want it around?

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