In exploring the Church — this sacrament of salvation, this communion in Christ enlivened by the Holy Spirit — many symbols and images are used as descriptors. And as a sacramental mystery, that only makes sense.
As Lumen Gentium put it, “the inner nature of the Church is now made known to us in different images taken either from tending sheep or cultivating the land, from building or even from family life and betrothals” (LG 6). The catechism even offers a small catalog of names and symbols traditionally applied to the Church — sheepfold, flock, cultivated field, building of God, temple, Jerusalem, mother, body of Christ — but there are, of course, even more than that (see CCC, Nos. 751-757). Describing a mystery not fully describable — like any real, organic thing — it makes sense sometimes to use poetry or metaphor to get at it. Try describing your child or your spouse or even yourself accurately and completely; you can’t do it. That’s because organic, mysterious things are like that; they demand a different mode of description. And the Church is no different.
Of course, the most famous image applied to the Church, an image strongly emphasized in the documents of Vatican II, is “people of God.” However, it’s an image of the Church as debated as it is famous. As the historian John O’Malley wrote, there is indeed a “strong horizontal line” implicit in the image; it’s an image reminding us of the fundamental equality of all baptized believers. Lay people are not subjects of the clergy; both clergy and lay people are one and equal in Christ (“What Happened at Vatican II,” 174). Yet, that doesn’t mean the Church is anything like a modern democracy with, as Karl Rahner warned, a ballot in everybody’s hand (“The Spirit in the Church,” 62). Such is where there has been much confusion about calling the Church the “people of God” — by politicizing the image. Which is not at all what the Second Vatican Council intended. Rather, in calling the Church the “people of God,” the Second Vatican Council was simply speaking biblically and theologically.
Drawing on the Church fathers, Lumen Gentium, early on, describes the Church as “a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (LG 4). Immediately, we learn that we’re talking about something theological — in the deepest meaning of the term, of God — rather than a social or political construct. In the Church we are indeed made holy, but not “merely as individuals” but instead “together as one people” (LG 9). The point, counter to our many modern individualisms, is that by saying the Church is a people, we’re saying first that we’re drawn together into salvation as one — in communion. As always, remember John 17, that the disciples of Jesus are to be one; calling the Church the people of God is but another aspect of that reality. The people of God is, fundamentally, simply the ecclesia, the called body, called into being by God. It is simply the people described in the Scripture. It is the people called first in Abraham and then in the patriarchs and prophets; it is the people called by Christ, called to be holy, free in truth — the disciples, their disciples, and us.
Such is the explicitly biblical character of the people of God often lost to those who mistake the image for something political, ethnic or demographic. Cardinal Ratzinger, in his writings, repeatedly made this point: that when “understood in terms of ordinary political usage” the image “becomes a slogan, its meaning is inevitably diminished; indeed, it is trivialized” (“The Ecclesiology of the Constitution on the Church, Vatican II, ‘Lumen Gentium,’” 88; “Eucharist, Communion, Solidarity,” 74). Inevitably, such misunderstanding makes the Church vulnerable to various political whims and machinations.
Remembering the Church is the people of God does not do away with or in any way denigrate its hierarchy. It puts neither the faith nor the morals of the Church to a vote. Rather, it reminds the Church to which story it belongs—not to the story of nations or political movements or trends, but to the story of God. It reminds the Church that all believers are fully part of this story, not just clergy and the consecrated. From beginning to end, the image is biblical. It is thus identical to that other image of the Church—the Body of Christ. The people of God is that particular people whose story is told in the Bible, the people gathered by the word of God in Christ, born into Christ in baptism and nourished with his Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
Such is what we mean by calling the Church Populo Dei. It is not to be confused with politics or ideologies, not without ruining one’s understanding of the Church entirely. Rather, it’s to remind the Church of its biblical origin and its nature as sacrament, that it is Christ’s body, the gathering into one people of faith in the Spirit disparate peoples into one royal priesthood (LG 9). Not a cultural or political construct, but something more akin to a miracle, the people of God belong in essence to that mission for glory Jesus prayed for the night he was betrayed. It is, therefore, more primeval, more sacred than any politics — this Catholic Church of Jesus Christ.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.