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Posted June 22, 2004

Book: People of God
Author: Jose Comblin
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, pp. 230

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

The church as “People of God” was one of the most striking images to emerge from Vatican II. It set in motion a dynamic revolution in Catholic self-understanding, opening the church to the role of the laity, the dignity of the poor, and the unfolding of history. Yet many sectors of the church preferred fairly quickly to shelve this term, favoring instead the image of the church as “communion.”

Jose Comblin, one of the great Latin American theologians, believes that the agenda implied in “People of God” remains vital and necessary for the church today — especially at the dawn of a new pontificate. Progress in the church, according to Comblin, must begin with a recovery and return to the principles of Vatican II.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Priests will also continue to enjoy charismatic prestige as sacred persons. Such leadership can be good and useful, if it is really at the service of the poor. Sometimes it is indispensable because people are sometimes so crushed that only a strong appeal from strong leaders can awaken them from their lethargy. However, the danger is always that the masses will be kept as perpetual minors and not learn to judge and act on their own.

Yet such paternalism may be the only course to take in particular situations. Sometimes people are so poor that their problem is not one of participation in society or church, but eating, shelter, work, security, being able to study getting some peace where conditions are almost impossible. In such situations, society is no help; neither politicians nor experts can step in effectively. They can solve problems theoretically in their offices, but not in the midst of the people. The priest may be the only person who is in a position to be accepted and recognized as a person to be trusted. If the priest does not act, a Protestant pastor may do so. As a transitory situation, this may be a necessary way for the priesthood to be exercised, because in some cases no other form of participation may be possible.

Others use their sacred power to increase the church’s prestige or power, and thus the people are treated as children. If the clergy consciously or unconsciously has tended to treat the people as children for fifteen centuries, no one should be surprised if the same pastoral situation continues. Moral exhortations to priests to overcome this situation are useless, because the problem is structural rather than moral. The moral dispositions of priests are probably better than in the past, but the problem is not one of virtue. Moral exhortations are no more effective than priests’ retreats.

The primary requirement for structural reform is to define the relationship between clergy and people in terms of rights. Goodwill is not enough; the rights of lay people must be defined at all levels. There is no communion unless rights are defined. A number of church documents give one the impression that the concept of “communion” serves precisely to make the of rights expendable. Communion means a spontaneous harmony of good feelings, thereby maintaining the fiction that no ne is on top and that everyone is brother and sister. But only if everyone has rights can they be brother and sister.

Such rights must be guaranteed by legal procedures. Currently there are no such procedures to guarantee even the few rights conceded in canon law. Without independent church courts, communion is mystification, as is a theology of communion with no definition of rights and courts to support such rights. That is quite evident to lay people.

In any case, priests need not be afraid of losing their position; their people want them out in front. But taking their place in the midst of the people is not a matter of whim. They must be clear about the route they take, in order to make their presence most fruitful.

Table of Contents:

1. The People of God at Vatican II

2. History of the idea of People of God

3. People of God in Latin America

4. Reversal at the 1985 Synod

5. The church as people

6. The people as actor

7. People of the poor

8. The people within other peoples

9. Action of the People of God in the world

10. People of God and the church institution