01. The Lawless People of God?

"The People of God": this description of the Church has become so familiar to us that we easily forget how new it sounded to most Catholics twenty five years ago when it began to come into common use. The term, of course, has deep biblical roots and its usage has long been canonized in theological writing. But it only became popular when the Second Vatican Council chose it - in preference to other biblical and traditional terms - as the one most fitted to evoke the conciliar vision of the Church and to encapsulate in some way a whole program of renewal into a single suggestive phrase.

            The Council has come down to us as the work of the Holy Spirit. The task of renewal, however, remains in the hands of men. Evidently if it is to be successfully, it must faithfully follow the spirit of the Council and needs, in the first place, to be based on a thorough understanding of conciliar ecclesiology. In this context it is important to remember that "People of God" is not the ultimate root or heart of the ecclesiology of Vatican II. The key concept in conciliar thinking about the Church is rather that of "communio": communion.

            The opening paragraph of Lumen gentium says that "the Church, in Christ, is in the nature of sacrament - a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men" (LG I). "Communio", therefore, means being one with God in Christ, and being one with other men in Christ; the Church is the sign of this communion and at the same time its instrument.

            "Communio" could be described as the most condensed theological expression of the mystery of the Church. It could also of course be regarded as the most abstract. It is not surprising, therefore, if the Council goes on to opt for a descriptive term which, with "communio" as its background, expresses the nature and mission of the Church in a more concrete way. So we see that as the Council develops its ecclesiological reflection, it resolves the Mystery of the Church (Ch. One of Lumen gentium) into the People of God (Ch. Two).

            "People of God", therefore, is to be understood as a more graphic way of expressing the deeper reality of "communio"; as is true, of course, of any of the other traditional terms for describing the Church, especially that of "Body of Christ", to which Lumen gentium devotes the whole of its seventh section[1].

            This is not meant to imply that the choice of the term "People of God" is not significant, or that it does not convey any more concrete message to us than does the broader term "communio". On the contrary, if the Council deliberately chose this term it is because it is laden with particular significance, and opens up broad and definite horizons for ecclesial renewal.

            "The People of God" emphasizes the pilgrim vocation of this new chosen people, their eschatological destiny as they make their way through human history travelling towards the Promised Land. It suggests the particular joy that should be theirs at being summoned and gathered together by God, and belonging to God, with special claims on his love and guidance and mercy. It stresses the calling addressed to each Christian to share in a common endeavor, the radical equality of Christian dignity, and the rights as well as the distinctive graces of each one. These post-conciliar years have been years of exploration and discovery of the rich content of this particular description of Christ's Church. We are still engaged in this process.

            This book will endeavor to show that there are particular aspects to ecclesial and Christian life which, since they necessarily emerge from a consideration of the term "People of God", cannot be ignored by any serious work of renewal. Yet they have been largely overlooked in these last decades.

            * * *

            "The Lawless People of God": where is this expression to be found? Nowhere in the conciliar documents, that is sure. Nevertheless, as a concept and even as an ideal, it is to all intents and purposes being advocated by many post-conciliar theorists.

            Much of the post-conciliar theorizing has been based on the thesis that law and authority are oppressive forces, restricting human freedom, violating human dignity and blocking human progress. This view ultimately means that freedom is lawless, and that, in order to be free, man needs to be liberated from law.

            It is claimed that this thesis finds support in the teachings of Vatican II. The Council, so it is suggested, by canonizing an ecclesiology of the People of God, sanctioned and in fact called for a model of a freer Church - one less ruled by law and authority. The thesis can be seen operating on two levels:

            1) On the level of the individual it is suggested that the conciliar emphasis on personal freedom and rights somehow exempts people from subjection to law. Further, it is claimed that man's rights and freedom are not dependent on any objective order but rather derive from the order that he chooses or creates. Objective morality subjugates; subjective morality liberates. Each one must free himself from the yoke of an imposed objective moral law which he himself has not created or chosen. Similarly, in matters of faith and doctrine, of scriptural interpretation, etc., each one should be free to construct his own system of belief, taking what he wishes, omitting what he wishes, and still calling his beliefs Catholic.

            According to this view, each man is to be a law to himself. But, as we will see in the next chapter, a people made up of individuals each of whom is a law to himself, is a lawless people.

            2) On the more institutional or structural level, it is claimed that where authority (or power) exists, it is in the wrong hands. It is in the hands of the exploitative few - the hierarchy - and must be restored to the hands of the many: the people. The people must be freed from the yoke of a hierarchy that they have not chosen.

            The second claim, exemplified in certain liberation theologies, is a more recent development. But it has a logical connection with the moral and dogmatic subjectivism which preceded and accompanies it.

            The simple reflection that to be a Christian has always meant to be someone who is subject to the law of Christ - who freely subjects himself to the law of Christ - already suggests that an anti-law mentality fits poorly in Christian life and Christian society. One becomes, or lives as, a Christian not to be freed from law but to be freed by law: Christ's Law.

            Anti-nomianism - the anti-law attitude - is in fact something totally unnatural to a Christian. Insofar as it is present in the Church today, it is a foreign importation brought into it from the surrounding secular culture[2] where its corrosive effects on individuals and society are evident. Further - and this is our main contention - it is an absolute block to any true renewal of the Church.

            In our efforts to rebuild ecclesial society we count on God's grace but also on human intelligence which should include the ability to learn from mistakes: our own and those of others. The anti- law, anti-authority spirit is one of the great mistakes of contemporary secular man which is evidently wasting his personal life and undermining civil society. Must it waste Christian lives and undermine church society too? Or are we Christians capable of renewing our understanding of law and authority, thence renewing the Church, and thence renewing the world?

            * * *

            The reflections of the next chapter will be concerned with the rule of law and authority in human society in general. We will particularly try to show how they guarantee and defend human rights. Chapter Three will work towards a conclusion that the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council calls emphatically for a renewal in our understanding of law and in our love for law within the Church, as an essential condition for any real and lasting work of renewal.


[1] It has sometimes been suggested that the ecclesiology of Vatican II no longer countenances the term "Body of Christ" as applied to the Church. This is quite untrue. Such a rich term, so deeply rooted in Pauline thinking and in tradition, does not pass out of fashion. The whole of Lumen gentium 7 is devoted to an exposition of its richness. The term "Body of Christ" or "Mystical Body of Christ" appears in numerous other passages in documents of the Council: e.g. SC 7; LG 23, 50; CD 12, 16, 33; PO 1, 2, 5, 8; AA 2, 3; AG 7, 9, 16, 19, 38, 39, etc.

[2] The Vatican II Declaration on Religious Liberty says that the modern world, "there are many who, under the pretext of freedom, seem inclined to reject all submission to authority" (DH 8).