What Does Vatican II Mean by the ‘People of God’?

COMMENTARY: And how does it relate to the Synod on Synodality’s working document, which frequently uses the term?

Grand procession of the Second Vatican Council Fathers at St. Peter's Basilica.
Grand procession of the Second Vatican Council Fathers at St. Peter's Basilica. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain )

The Vatican has recently released what is called an instrumentum laboris for the upcoming Synod on Synodality, which is to be held in Rome this October. It is not a magisterial document but rather a working document meant to act merely as a guide for the upcoming deliberations.

I am not going to comment at length on the document. Instead, I want to focus on the fact that the document uses quite frequently the image of the Church as “the People of God,” which was, of course, a description of the Church favored by the Second Vatican Council in its dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. However, I find an ambiguity in the instrumentum laboris in its use of this term and so in what follows, I want to engage what it was the Council actually meant by it.

One of the problems that arose during the post-conciliar era was the misinterpretation of the People of God metaphor as applying only to the laity and not to the priests, bishops and religious, as well. Such a misunderstanding was perhaps almost unavoidable, given the connotations of the word “the people” in our modern era of democratic institutions.

In everyday parlance, when we speak of “the people” we mean the great masses of ordinary citizens who comprise a polity that is often set over and against the leaders, who can be thrown out of office in the next election based upon the will of the majority. This is an oversimplification in terms of a well- developed political philosophy, but it is an accurate depiction I think of the popular conception of things with ordinary folks.

Given this historical context, the term “the People of God” was often employed by more liberal theologians and prelates to designate the laity alone whose opinions, on all manner of hot-button topics, was considered as a kind of privileged location for the movement of the Holy Spirit even if those opinions were at odds with the teachings of the hierarchy in matters of faith and morals.

Consequent to this, one saw in the ’60s and ’70s the rise of a distinction between the “hierarchical Church” and the “Church of the people” with the latter viewed in many ways as the “real Church” as opposed to the “out of touch” hierarchy who were portrayed as besotted with the disease of clericalism. Movements such as “We Are Church” and “Call to Action” arose and, even though they were commendable as attempts at lay participation in the Church, quickly morphed into organs of dissenting theology on such issues as contraception and women’s ordination.

To be sure, there is a certain legitimacy to this distinction, since there is a difference between the priesthood of the ordained, and their particular charisms, and the priesthood of all the baptized. Nevertheless, the distinction was often quite exaggerated and led to the assertion that if a teaching of the Church is rejected by a majority of the laity then it can be said that the teaching has not been “received” and, therefore, has not been really “ratified” by the Holy Spirit. It is a short step from there to the conclusion that all manner of allegedly settled Church teachings are nothing of the sort and can be relitigated again and again.

This is a bit of a caricature since most Catholic theologians would agree that the magisterium has a duty to teach with binding authority irrespective of popular opinions. However, a problem arises when what constitutes “binding authority” is undermined by constant references to how historically conditioned all such doctrinal pronouncements are. This then leads to a further undermining of the magisterium when there is an exaggerated emphasis upon how open all doctrines are to endless tinkering under the broad and vague banner of “development of doctrine,” and how alienating and marginalizing some hotly contested doctrines supposedly are to the People of God who have, it is alleged, not been consulted sufficiently owing to the distorting effects of clericalism and patriarchy.

This phenomenon becomes even more troubling when one sees that the doctrines most often held up as in need of development are precisely the ones that go against the prevailing mood of the contemporary zeitgeist. It often seems that there is a “voice of the people” ideology being invoked here and falsely imposed on the conciliar concept of the People of God in order to claim that this is the Holy Spirit speaking through a democratic process of poll taking and opinion gathering. Completely absent in all of this is the Pauline warning to “test everything” lest the Gospel fall prey to contemporary fashion.

But is the account of the People of God metaphor accurate? As I have written elsewhere, if we look at theologian Henri de Lubac’s analysis of Lumen Gentium we see that he agrees that the People of God image for the Church was both something novel in terms of recent Church usage, but also something one does find in the patristic sources. Used by the Fathers primarily to designate the people of the Old Covenant, the image does find a resonance in the desire of many Fathers, especially in the West, to nuance the “Body of Christ” image for the Church by making sure that there is a proper distinction between the Head (Christ) and the members, since the latter remain sinners and remain within time and history as pilgrim sojourners awaiting the Lord’s return.

As de Lubac states, in The Church: Paradox and Mystery:

“There can be no doubt at all that viewing the Church as the People of God is implicit at the base of the dynamic, historical, ‘pilgrim’ perspective that was habitual to the Fathers.”

Furthermore, if we look at the preparatory schema for what later became Lumen Gentium we see that it wanted to emphasize the “Body of Christ” motif in a manner that emphasized the divine origin of the Church to the relative exclusion of the human, historical, and sinful elements. And their adoption, therefore, of the preferred People of God motif was deliberate and designed to emphasize, as with the Fathers, the “pilgrim” status of the Church in time and history. But the pilgrims are all of us, not just the laity, and the Council sought to place all Catholics, both lay and clerical, on the same path as sojourners in the Lord whose true home is elsewhere.

The divine origin of the Church was affirmed, of course, but there was a perception that there was a need to emphasize the human side of things as well. As de Lubac concludes, “The choice was to emphasize the human traits of the Church” (p. 67).

There was a danger in this decision, as many conciliar bishops noted, that this could lead to a diminished respect for the divine elements in the Church and an overemphasis, in a Protestant fashion, on the Church as a mere fellowship “assembly” of believers. Nevertheless, de Lubac is quick to point out that the chapter on the People of God comes before the chapter on the hierarchy but after Chapter 1, which deals with the Church as a mystery and a sacrament.

Thus, the theological primacy in the teaching of Vatican II is on the Church as a “mystery” grounded in the gift of God and not with any notion of the People of God now transformed into a folk ideology of proletarian mysticism.

And the “mystery” of which Vatican II speaks is nothing other than the mystery of the Triune life of God in which the Church participates and of which she is the sacramental presence in the world. Therefore, the Church as a communio, which is grounded in the divine, Trinitarian Communio, is the foundation for the Church as the pilgrim People of God.

The word communio is a fancy theological term that simply points to God who, though infinitely “one,” is also a living relationship of Divine persons within that unity. The life of God is therefore an infinite fellowship of love and it is this divine fellowship (communio) that grounds the Church and her own inner life. And it is into this life that all the People of God are called to.

In other words, the People of God metaphor developed by Vatican II was meant to include everyone in the Church — laity and clergy alike — in order to emphasize that we all stand as sinners in need of redemption and that we all stand together, despite our various charisms, facing the one Lord.

There is nothing in the Council therefore that would imply a kind of a “voice of the people” theological populism. In the approach of Vatican II, the Church is thus viewed as neither a democracy nor a hierarchy. It has democratic and hierarchical elements, but these are grounded in a deeper Christological fellowship.

Therefore, any use of the People of God metaphor to imply that the movement of the Spirit can be discerned sociologically via the collating of random opinions, rather than theologically via the pilgrim path of a fellowship of sinners in search of sanctification, is the exact opposite of what the Council actually taught.

I think that should matter.