Why Vatican II Called the Church the ‘People of God’

COMMENTARY: ‘People of God’ was an important way by which the Church could express herself as an institution rooted in the mystery of the Trinity, yet present and active in the world.

Pope Paul VI presiding over the introductory ingress of the council, flanked by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani (left), Cardinal Camerlengo Benedetto Aloisi Masella and Monsignor Enrico Dante (future Cardinal), Papal Master of Ceremonies (right), and two papal gentlemen.
Pope Paul VI presiding over the introductory ingress of the council, flanked by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani (left), Cardinal Camerlengo Benedetto Aloisi Masella and Monsignor Enrico Dante (future Cardinal), Papal Master of Ceremonies (right), and two papal gentlemen. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

How can we explain that the Church is an ineffable mystery, yet also a visible institution present in the world? The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council faced this challenge as they debated a text on the topic of the Church — a text that would eventually become the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium.

The Council had inherited, from the biblical studies and Church teaching of recent decades, the rich conception of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. This notion helped convey the mysterious yet real presence of Christ in the Church. However, seeing the faithful as simply “members” of a body also made it difficult to express the distinct individuality and personality of each of those persons who form part of the Church. After all, we tend not to think of parts of a body as being autonomous. Furthermore, since a body is something definite, and Pius XII had taught that the Catholic Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, the notion made it difficult to express the relationship of the Church with other Christians as well as with all persons.

In an effort to better articulate the Church’s identity, the Belgian Bishop Emile-Joseph De Smedt repeated a critique he had voiced during the previous debate regarding Revelation. Speaking on the opening day of the debate regarding the text on the Church, he noted the valuable elements present in the initial draft, but said the document was flawed “in many ways.”

In the first place, as he asserted, the text presented the life of the Church as a “chain of triumphs of the militant Church.” Such a style, he continued, was hardly consistent with the “real state of the People of God,” which Our Lord in his humility had called a “little flock” (Luke 12:32). Secondly, he noted, the text fell into the error of clericalism, giving priority to the powers of the pope, bishops and priests while the rest of the Christian people, at the bottom of the “traditional” pyramid structure, were mainly passive.

The solution to such a distorted vision of the Church, de Smedt argued, was the image of the Church as the People of God. In this identity, he asserted, all of the members of the Church share a fundamental equality. Authority in the Church, he further noted, is a humble service aimed at the growth and perfection of this People. He concluded his speech with a call for the document to be sent back to a commission for revision. Once again — as for his earlier speech regarding divine Revelation — his call for a change of perspective received applause, a rare occurrence during the Council assemblies.

Over the course of the Council, ‘People of God’ would become an ever more important way of more fully expressing the identity of the Church, intended to complement the presentation of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. In the summer of 1963, in a meeting to coordinate the work of the Council, the Belgian Cardinal Leo Josef Suenens proposed that, after the introductory chapter on the ‘Mystery of the Church,’ the Council might immediately dedicate an entire chapter to the ‘People of God’ as whole. This change would mean that before speaking about specific groups of members of the Church, such as the Church’s hierarchy and the laity, the Council would first speak in more depth about the identity common to all members of the Church.

Such a change did not reflect the influence of simply one or a few actors in the Council. As the Doctrinal Commission would point out the next summer, in explaining the reasons behind the new chapter, more than 300 Council Fathers asked that a chapter dedicated to the People of God be included in the document on the Church, and no Fathers were completely against it. As the German Bishop Joseph Schröffer had noted, speaking in the name of 69 mainly German-speaking bishops, it was appropriate that the constitution deal first with the People of God as a whole, and second with the hierarchy, lest the text give the impression that the bishops were primarily concerned about themselves. Furthermore, as Bishop Schröffer went on to comment, the notion of the ‘People of God’ was deeply rooted in Scripture and the Liturgy, and evoked the words of the First Letter of Peter, which addresses Christians as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own” and tells us, “Once you were ‘no people’ but now you are God’s people.”

In distinction from the notion of the “Mystical Body of Christ,” the image of “People of God” better expresses the Church’s historical dimension and her presence in the world. The image of “People of God” was also better for expressing the unity of pastors and faithful, in which the Church’s hierarchy exists for the service of the entire People. Moreover, the notion of “People” made it easier to show how non-Catholics, in different ways, might be related to the Church, even if not forming part of the Church in the strict sense.

With this biblical framework in mind, the text of Chapter 2 of Lumen Gentium conveys both the Church’s special identity as well as her openness to all persons. While the term “People of God” evokes God’s Old Testament plan, the People of God in Christ is a People “made up of Jew and gentile,” made one through Christ’s new covenant and in the Holy Spirit. Through this supernatural identity, the People of God, though at times it “may look like a small flock,” has a necessary orientation toward all humanity. This People, even when it has a numerically small presence in a given place, “is nonetheless a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race.”

The chapter goes on to describe how the entire People of God, through baptism and confirmation, shares in the priestly and prophetic mission of Christ. The royal mission common to all of the faithful would be dealt with more specifically in the later chapter on the laity, in paragraph 36. From the very beginning of the Council, drawing from the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope Pius XII, the Council had desired to emphasize how the whole People of God, through baptism, is granted a real sharing in Christ’s mission.

The work of the Council would give a more central place to this recognition of the baptismal holiness present among all the faithful. For example, the Chilean bishop Manuel Larraín Errazuriz, speaking in the name of more than 60 Latin American bishops, called on the Council to insert a description of the priestly, prophetic and royal mission of the People of God at the very core of the Council’s description of the Church. Otherwise, as he stated, the depiction of the Church would be too abstract and removed from history.

While recognizing this great dignity common to all of the baptized, Lumen Gentium is careful to acknowledge the variety present alongside unity. Reflecting a concern of the Council Fathers, the text is careful to distinguish the complementary paths of the hierarchical priesthood of ministers and the common priesthood possessed by each of the faithful. The chapter also recognizes the various other special graces or charisms by which the Holy Spirit builds up the Church.

The presence of such immense graces in the People of God does not separate this People from the rest of humanity, but rather leads her out in mission toward all mankind. The text goes on to affirm that this People, “while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and must exist in all ages,” so as to fulfill God’s will. Separate paragraphs go on to describe the various ways in which Catholics and non-Catholic Christians form part of the Church, as well as how non-Christians — Jews, Muslims, those who seek God, and all who “strive to live a good life” by the mysterious action of grace — are related to this People.

After describing these different ways in which the term “People of God” embraces all of humanity, Chapter 2 of Lumen Gentium closes with a paragraph dedicated to the topic of mission. Many Council Fathers had realized that missionary activity pertains to the core of the Church’s identity, and needed a central place in the constitution. As Archbishop Joseph Mark Gopu — the very first bishop of Hyderabad, India — had noted, the Council needed to show the Church, always and in a prominent way, to be clearly in a state of mission. The chapter closes with the desire that “the entire world may become the People of God, the Body of the Lord and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.” With this wish, the Council manifests the Church ever more profoundly as a special People anointed by the Holy Spirit and identified with Christ, which reaches out to all humanity.