Justice in the Church
Sensus Fidei: What to make of it

Sensus Fidei:  What to make of it

Sr. Chris Schenk, Robert McClory, Eugene Kennedy and others are examining the signficance of the ITC's Sensus Fidei released in June.  Read on!

By Sr. Chris Schenk in the National Catholic Reporter (July 31, 2014)

In June, the International Theological Commission released a groundbreaking document, " 'Sensus Fidei' in the Life of the Church." The statement surprised many because it acknowledges the role played by ordinary Catholics in the growth and development (aka change) in church teaching throughout history and still today.

Amazingly, the document also validates the not-infrequent experience of Catholics who find themselves unable to accept certain teachings "if they do not recognize in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd." And it suggests actions to be taken on the part of both laity and clergy to resolve this potential impasse.

While necessarily naming the magisterium as having the final say, the document also publicly acknowledges the reality of dissent (through denial of assent -- see No. 6 below) in the church. Even more surprising, it says the magisterium itself may have had a part to play: "In some cases [dissent] may indicate that certain decisions have been taken by those in authority without due consideration of the experience and the sensus fidei of the faithful, or without sufficient consultation of the faithful by the magisterium."

Current church teachings on women's roles; human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; and birth control are, to my mind, obvious examples of decisions made without sufficient consultation with the faithful. While carefully distinguishing between public opinion and the "sense of the faithful," the statement nevertheless values the role of public opinion and lists helpful criteria for Catholics to evaluate the important dispositions needed to participate in the sensus fidei.

Putting this statement into practice seems to me a huge challenge for laity and clergy alike. But we must try. We must try because doing so can help us discover new structures that integrate the sensus fidei into church decision-making, hitherto the exclusive domain of male clergy. Newly inclusive structures have potential to birth a new ecclesial community, one that respects the human dignity of all of God's people, from the greatest to the least.

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And speaking of more inclusive structures, Catholics supporting U.S. sisters have created special prayer resources for St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for use during LCWR's Aug. 12-15 assembly. Despite criticism from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the organization will present Johnson, who is an internationally renowned theologian, with its Outstanding Leadership Award. You can download the prayers here.

I will have more to say about the new sensus fidei document in my next column, but for now, it's enough to digest the "Top 10" quotations listed below. (The numbers in parentheses correspond to the original citation in the Vatican statement. And do read the entire document. You'll be glad you did.)

1. "It must be recalled that ... sometimes the truth of the faith has been conserved not by the efforts of theologians or the teaching of the majority of bishops but in the hearts of believers" (119).

2. "The sensus fidei fidelis is a sort of spiritual instinct that enables the believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith" (49). 

3. "There is a vital interaction in each believer between the sensus fidei and the living of faith in the various contexts of his or her personal life. ...

"Putting faith into practice in the concrete reality of the existential situations in which he or she is placed by family, professional and cultural relations ... enables him or her to see more precisely the value and the limits of a given doctrine, and to propose ways of refining its formulation [italics mine].

"That is why those who teach in the name of the Church should give full attention to the experience of believers, especially lay people, who strive to put the Church's teaching into practice" (59).

4. "The sensus fidei fidelis enables individual believers: 1) to discern whether or not a particular teaching or practice that they actually encounter in the Church is coherent with the true faith by which they live in the communion of the Church; 2) to distinguish in what is preached between the essential and the secondary; and 3) to determine and put into practice the witness to Jesus Christ that they should give in the particular historical and cultural context in which they live" (60).

5. "The sensus fidei fidelis also enables individual believers to perceive any disharmony, incoherence, or contradiction between a teaching or practice and the authentic Christian faith by which they live. ... In such cases, believers interiorly resist the teachings or practices concerned and do not accept them or participate in them" (62).

6."Alerted by their sensus fidei, individual believers may deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognize in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd. ... Appropriate action on both sides is required in such situations.

"The faithful must reflect on the teaching that has been given, making every effort to understand and accept it. Resistance, as a matter of principle, to the teaching of the magisterium is incompatible with the authentic sensus fidei.

"The magisterium must likewise reflect on the teaching ... and consider whether it needs clarification or reformulation in order to communicate more effectively the essential message" (63 and 80).

 7. "The sensus fidei gives an intuition as to the right way forward amid the uncertainties and ambiguities of history, and a capacity to listen discerningly to what human culture and the progress of the sciences are saying" (70).

8. "Problems arise when the majority of the faithful remain indifferent to doctrinal or moral decisions taken by the magisterium or when they positively reject them. This lack of reception may indicate a weakness or a lack of faith on the part of the people of God ... But in some cases it may indicate that certain decisions have been taken by those in authority without due consideration of the experience and the sensus fidei of the faithful, or without sufficient consultation of the faithful by the magisterium" (137).

9. "From the beginning of Christianity, all the faithful played an active role in the development of Christian belief. ... What is less well known, and generally receives less attention, is the role played by the laity with regard to the development of the moral teaching of the Church."

The development of belief that charging a fair rate of interest on financial loans is not a sin. (I paraphrased this, but see 73i.)

The development of Catholic social teaching "especially manifest in Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical Letter,Rerum Novarum (1896), was the fruit of a slow preparation in which lay 'social pioneers', activists as well as thinkers, played a major role."

The movement away from "the condemnation of 'liberal' theses in part 10 of the Syllabus of Errors (1864) of Pope Pius IX to the declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae (1965), of Vatican II would not have been possible without the commitment of many Christians in the struggle for human rights" (72 and 73).

10. "Catholics should be fully aware of the real freedom to speak their minds which stems from a 'feeling for the faith' [i.e., the sensus fidei] ...

"Those who exercise authority in the Church will take care to ensure that there is responsible exchange of freely held and expressed opinion among the People of God. More than this, they will set up norms and conditions for this to take place" (124).

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years.]

Document on 'sensus fidei' deserves serious attention

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In a previous blog, I noted a clear contradiction in the document " 'Sensus Fidei' in the Life of the Church" from the International Theological Commission. On the one hand, it was a marvelous endorsement of the sense of the faith, especially among the laity in history and theology. On the other hand, the position of the magisterium crept into the document in several places, as if to reassert its supreme authority. Some who read my blog dismissed " 'Sensus Fidei' in the Life of the Church" as just another reminder of who's really in charge. But that misses the real substance of the document. I do not believe anything like it could have been published during the papacies of John Paul II or Benedict XVI. The case for the laity's role in decision-making is set out as never before -- and this with the blessing of Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Here are some excerpts from the document.  

"The faithful have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them to recognise and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false. That supernatural instinct, intrinsically linked to the gift of faith received in the communion of the Church, is called the sensus fidei."

The writers of this document are very conscious of the development of doctrine and the influence of the laity in this process. For example: "Between canon 20 of the Council of Elvira (c. 306 AD), which forbade clerics and lay people to receive interest, and the response ... of Pope Pius VIII to the bishop of Rennes [a period of some 1,500 years] there is a clear development of teaching, due to both the emergence of a new awareness among lay people involved in business as well as new reflection on the part of theologians with regard to the nature of money."

The writers propose with apparent approval the position of John Henry Newman concerning the Arian dispute. From the Council of Nicaea in 325 to the Council of Constantinople in 381, they note, "there continued to be uncertainty among the bishops. During that period, 'the divine tradition committed to the infallible Church was proclaimed and maintained far more by the faithful than by the Episcopate'. '[T]here was a temporary suspense of the functions of the 'Ecclesia docens' [the teaching Church]. The body of Bishops failed in their confession of the faith."


They cite Thomas Aquinas' position that the faithful, "even without theological competence, can and even must resist, by virtue of the sensus fidei, his or her bishop if the latter preaches heterodoxy. In such a case, the believer does not treat himself or herself as the ultimate criterion of the truth of faith, but rather, faced with materially 'authorised' preaching which he or she finds troubling, without being able to explain exactly why, defers assent and appeals interiorly to the superior authority of the universal Church."

They approve Pope Pius IX's decision to proceed with the definition of the Immaculate Conception only after he required "the bishops of the world to report to him in writing regarding the devotion of their clergy and faithful people to the conception of the Immaculate Virgin."

They recall how strongly theologians emphasized the sensus fidei in the life of the church leading up to the Second Vatican Council. "Banishing the caricature of an active hierarchy and a passive laity, and in particular the notion of a strict separation between the teaching Church ... and the learning Church ... the council taught that all the baptised participate in their own proper way in the three offices of Christ as prophet, priest and king."

They stress Lumen Gentium's description of "how Christ exercises his prophetic office not only through the Church's pastors, but also through the lay faithful. It teaches that, 'until the full manifestation of his glory', the Lord fulfills this office 'not only by the hierarchy who teach in his name and by his power, but also by the laity'. With regard to the latter, it continues: 'He accordingly both establishes them as witnesses and provides them with the appreciation of the faith and the grace of the word'."

The sensus fidei is also evoked in the council's teaching on the development of doctrine, they note, in the context of the transmission of the apostolic faith. "Dei Verbum says that the apostolic Tradition 'makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit'. 'There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on', and the council identifies three ways in which this happens: 'through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts'; 'from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience'; and 'from the preaching of [the bishops]'."

"It is therefore important to reflect also on the function played by the laity in discerning the Christian understanding of appropriate human behaviour in accordance with the Gospel," they state. "In certain areas, the teaching of the Church has developed as a result of lay people discovering the imperatives arising from new situations. The reflection of theologians, and then the judgment of the episcopal magisterium, was based on the Christian experience already clarified by the faithful intuition of lay people."

They are aware of difficulties that may arise but see the solution as coming from mutual cooperation. "There are occasions, however, when the reception of magisterial teaching by the faithful meets with difficulty and resistance, and appropriate action on both sides is required in such situations," they explain. "The faithful must reflect on the teaching that has been given, making every effort to understand and accept it. Resistance, as a matter of principle, to the teaching of the magisterium is incompatible with the authentic sensus fidei. The magisterium must likewise reflect on the teaching that has been given and consider whether it needs clarification or reformulation in order to communicate more effectively the essential message."

We have in this document is a full-blown appreciation of the sense of the faith and the sense of the faithful coming from the International Theological Commission. I hope it will be required reading for the bishops, especially Pope Francis. Despite the embarrassing contradictions in a few places, it could mark a major change in the way the institutional church wields its authority throughout the world.

Can Catholics disagree only when they agree with the church?By  |