One cannot walk across the foyer of Roman Catholic ecclesiology today without stumbling over the notion of communion. Vatican documents, bishops' letters, theological textbooks, ecumenical dialogue statements—wherever reflection on the church occurs, communion comes up. For many, communion offers a rich theological category, flexible enough to allow a creative integration of ecclesiology, trinitarian doctrine, eucharistic theology, and patristic thought. For others, the abstract character of the category leaves it open to ideological distortion. They argue that, for the past twenty years, a semi-official ecclesiology of communion has served to displace Vatican II's vision of the church as the people of God.
José Comblin shares this critique. In fact, Comblin sees an active suppression of the very idea of people of God in the ecclesial restoration led by Ratzinger and John Paul II. People of God at the council meant attention to the human and historical aspects of the church; it meant full equality in the church and dialogue with the world. For Comblin, these concerns have been silenced by a spiritualized ecclesiology of communion. Thus he sets out to rehabilitate the concept of people of God and return it to its proper place in ecclesiology.
The first four chapters serve as background. Respectively, they survey the theme of people of God at Vatican II, sketch a history of the idea of people of God, explore the reception of Vatican II in Latin America, and analyze the shift from people of God to communion at the 1985 extraordinary synod of bishops. The remaining six chapters offer Comblin's constructive proposal. He considers the people of God theme from the perspective of the meaning of peoplehood, agency in history, the poor, inculturation, praxis, and the church as institution. His wide-ranging treatment is unified by a consistent liberationist methodology. But the passion with which Comblin speaks contributes to too many sweeping assertions and a certain repetition of themes.
Despite these limitations, Comblin's development of the notion of people of God offers a welcome opening to deeper dialogue between ecclesiology and social ethics—a valuable corrective to an inward-looking communion ecclesiology. His challenge is clear: the people of God is found among the poor. He illustrates this claim by noting that Vatican II was received very differently in Latin America than in Europe. In Europe, the problem was the relationship between hierarchy and laity. Thus "people of God" came to refer to the fundamental equality of all the baptized. But it remained somewhat abstract. In Latin America, the problem was not the relationship of hierarchy and laity, the problem was the antagonism between the "people's church" and the elite church, the church of liberation and the church of domination. In Latin America, Vatican II's language of "people of God" immediately spoke to the aspirations of the poor, it offered the promise of a people with its rights and dignity restored. For Comblin, it is not the laity that need liberation, but the people of God, who are the poor. If his language too closely identifies the people of God with those suffering poverty and oppression, his eschatological orientation affirms that it is liberation that transforms the whole community into the true people of God. Thus he gives to the phrase "people of God" concrete, historical content and locates it in the context of the church's mission in the world.
His identification of the people of God with the poor allows Comblin to invite the issues of poverty and oppression into ecclesiology proper. Pious spiritual exhortations to help the needy will not do. The entire community and institution of the church must commit. Poverty and the option for the poor belong to the essence of the church because they are qualities of the people of God. To say otherwise is to live in a spiritualized communion of abstract ideals and to ignore the historical, human reality of the church. Comblin underlines the distinction between a church for the poor and a church of the poor, calling for an identification with the poor that shapes the life of every believer, especially those who lead the church. This vision of the church as the people of God represents the alternative, perhaps the only possible alternative, to a total market society that reduces persons to consumers. Comblin is sensitive to the pervasive and insidious power of a consumerism that influences every aspect of life—even the life of the church, which is always in danger of becoming simply a supplier meeting the spiritual demands of its members. In this context, Comblin's reflections on the need for heroes rather than champions and on the importance of the freedom found only in the prophet beautifully illustrate that fundamental option that transforms the people of God.