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Reviewed by:
  • People of God
  • Anna L. Peterson
People of God. By José Comblin. Edited and translated by Phillip Berryman. Mary-knoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004. Pp. x, 230. Notes. Index. $25.00 paper.

The phrase "people of God" has been at the center of the transformations of the Roman Catholic Church, and especially the Latin American Church, since the mid 1960s. First popularized during Vatican II, the phrase has become a shorthand way to describe the progressive aims of increasing participation and power for laypeople, reducing demands for conformity by the hierarchy, and, as Comblin puts it, highlighting "the human reality of the church" (p. 6), in contrast to the spiritualizing and hierarchical emphases of more conservative ecclesiologies.

Comblin, who was born in Belgium but has lived in Latin America (mainly Brazil) for most of his adult life, has been one of the sharpest and most influential theologians of liberation. With this new book (published in Portuguese in 2002), Comblin takes on the status of liberation theology and progressive Catholicism more generally in light of current trends in the Catholic Church. In underscoring the continuing relevance of the concept of the people of God, he also calls for a renewal and revitalization of progressive and liberationist streams within Latin American and global Catholicism. Comblin sees the notion of the people of God as a key both to the transformation of the global and especially Latin American Catholic Church that began with Vatican II and to the necessary, in his view, recovery of the spirit of the Council today. As he summarizes: "We believe a return to Vatican II starts by rehabilitating the concept of 'people of God' and returning it to its proper place in ecclesiology " (p. ix).

The book begins with the understanding of the Church as people of God which emerged during the Vatican II and then traces the history of the concept and its development in Latin America following the council. Comblin then moves to the 1985 special synod, called by Pope John Paul II in order to "deepen" the Church's understanding of Vatican II while commemorating its twentieth anniversary. Instead of deepening or interpreting the council, Comblin argues, the synod "changed its content on essential points" (p. 58). Specifically, the synod replaced the idea of the Church as people of God with a pre-conciliar identification of the Church as the hierarchy, and set forth a theology of "communion" which, according to Comblin, essentially "means being in submission to the Pope" (p. 60). [End Page 275]

As part of his effort to redefine the Church as people of God, Comblin explores various meanings of the concept, including the role of people as a collective actor, the importance of poverty, and relations to other peoples. Addressing the institutional Church, he challenges the distinction between clergy (magisterium) and laity, which, he writes, "suppresses the people of God" (p. 164). Instead, he argues, "The doctrine of the people of God must be taken all the way" (Ibid.), encompassing clergy and hierarchy as well as laity. This, in essence, is his conclusion: while the Church and the times have changed, the need to democratize and radicalize the Church in its self-understanding and its practice remains the same.

In evaluating People of God, the important questions concern how the book advances or updates liberation theology, as well as its relevance to current events and trends within the Church. Within the larger body of works in liberation theology, and especially liberation ecclesiology, Comblin's newest book updates the democratizing and lay-oriented aims of influential earlier works such as Leonardo Boff's Church: Charism and Power and Ecclesiogenesis (1981) and Jon Sobrino's The True Church and the Poor (1984). Comblin does not simply call for a return to the past, but rather acknowledges the important and irreversible changes in the Church and Latin American society since the 1980s, and aims for a liberationist ecclesiology relevant to the times.

Anna L. Peterson
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida


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