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“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. They react as a music lover does to false notes in the performance of a piece of music. In such cases, believers interiorly resist the teachings or practices concerned and do not accept them or participate in them.” – Sensus Fidei In the Life of the Church.

In October this year, the bishops of the world will be traveling to Rome for the “Synod on Family”. The synod will be the first of two meetings called by Pope Francis to confront the pastoral challenges of today’s world.

Packed away in their luggage will be the results of a recent survey sent to Catholics to gage their sentiment regarding Church teaching on issues of family life.

The fact that some bishops even bothered to ask Catholics (about a third of the dioceses made the survey easily accessible on their websites) is laudable, but initial feedback from some bishops hint that the problem with adherence to church teaching lies primarily with effectiveness of teaching, rather than the content of the lesson.

Which brings up the question, does the laity have any options (besides silent disregard) to  respond to the magisterium (the teaching authority of the church) when teachings run counter to some inner sense of right and wrong?

The blueprint of guidance for the relationship between the church’s teaching authority and the laity can be found in the Vatican publication –  ‘Sensus Fidei – In the Life of the Church’.

This publication, issued by the International Theological Commission, describes the basic instinct of faith shared by all in the church (sensus fidelium), and further explores that sense as experienced by individuals and shared throughout the community. It would be fair to say that if any publicly accessible document describes the roles of the church hierarchy and laity in sensing the truth of our faith, and implementing that sense in doctrine and action, Sensus Fidei is it.

Sensus Fidei (or SF as I will call it) is one of those writings that can be cherry-picked by anyone wishing to justify or criticize any of the church’s cast of characters (including the laity). Persons looking for references to criticize church leaders can find just as much fodder as those who argue that her people have all the common sense of a flock of lost sheep.

But taken in-toto, the writing strikes me as an encouraging and cogent (if not a bit tedious) explanation of how the sense of faith from the laity of the church is to be integrated into her teachings.

The writing includes topics covering the scriptural basis for the sense of truth in all followers of the gospel, the nature of the sense of faith as it evolved in church teaching and structure, how the sense of faith is discerned by individuals, and how this interaction is to be played out in what the church teaches to be true.

While certainly not a ‘Reader’s Digest’ version of Sensus Fidei, I humbly attempt to highlight some of its points that are a relevant tonic for today’s culture war mentality.

In the beginning there was the beginning.

Even at the very start of the church, the process of deciding how the truth was to be taught in words and practice involved a balancing of the knowledge that all persons of faith have an instinct for what is right, with the pragmatic view that not all people are invested enough in the church to earn a role as decision maker.

Early church leaders well understood Jeremiah’s words which described the place that truth held in all the hearts of the faithful – as, the essay cites:

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me.”

SF further points out that Augustine asserted that Christ is ‘the interior Teacher’ who enables the laity as well as their pastors not only to receive the truth of revelation but also to approve and transmit it.

Nevertheless,  St. Paul warned that sometimes communities are ‘still of the flesh’, and need to mature a bit in order to perceive the real truth behind Christ’s example.

But although some Christian communities were ahead (or behind) the learning curve in understanding the nature of faith, there evolved a general understanding that all true followers of the gospel have an intimate understanding of the truth, and that “the general consent of Christians functions as a sure norm for determining the apostolic faith”.


That Darned Reformation

The 16th Century Reformation built much of its foundation on the nature of scripture as interpreted by the priesthood of the faithful. The importance of tradition and the role of the ecclesiastical hierarchy (primarily bishops) as primary teachers of the faith were – somewhat successfully –  challenged.

In response, Catholic theologians of the day argued that anything taught by the bishops was really the truth as experienced and accepted by all the faithful of the church.

But other church leaders began the process to justify the importance of the hierarchy’s teaching role by contending that the bishops were ‘actively infallible’, while the laity (students) were only ‘passively’ infallible. Other Catholic theologians started to more forcefully emphasize that pastors were incapable of erring in matters of doctrinal judgement, since their decisions were guided by the Holy Spirit.

Regardless of the rationale used by church leaders in response to the Reformation movement, its counter-arguments didn’t always win the day during the foment of 16th-17th centuries, and her policies and practices to hold things together (e.g. the Roman Inquisition of Galileo) didn’t work out all that well (my commentary).


Vatican II and the ‘Organic’ View

The role of the laity in active participation in the sense of the faith earned greater emphasis during the 20th century, particularly with the writings of the Second Vatican Council. The emphasis on the distinction of roles of teacher (hierarchy) and student (laity) gave way to a more organic view. As SF cites theologian  Yves Congar, “The Church loving and believing, that is, the body of the faithful, is infallible in the living possession of the faith, not in a particular act or judgment. The teaching of the hierarchy is at the service of communion.”

SF also points out that the Council’s writings described how the Apostolic Tradition makes progress in the church:

  • 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 who have received … the sure charism of truth


So what does this all mean?

Once the reader gets past the lessons in history and theology, the real crux of the matter is approached. There is little doubt that we are all in this together.  Based on scripture and tradition, the truth is sensed by all members of the church (episcopate, clergy, and laity).

Today’s church leaders who will attend the Synod on the Family, and those of us who anticipate their work,   find ourselves somewhat mired in contentious topics that are more intimately experienced by the laity than the clergy, topics involving family life, marriage and divorce, gay rights, etc…

Before all of us stands the question –  how do we know that any perceived need for change is based on  true spiritual growth, and not the often fickle nature of public opinion?

This is a matter of the individual heart. Are we looking for God’s annotation that Jeremiah spoke of, or are we reacting as consumers in a secular marketplace, making a demand that provides something more akin to gratification than meaning?

Here SF does add some guidance – a list of criteria if you will, that gives an individual the light necessary to identify calls for change – or orthodoxy – based on a real sensus fidei.

All those  previous SF references to the church’s laity pre-suppose a community of active believers. You have to be a believer and a doer, someone engaged in her gospel mission, in order to be considered part of the team that helps set her direction.

If there is any part of SF that I recommend, it is Chapter 4, Section 1 – the ‘Dispositions needed for authentic participation’. It is pretty clear what the Vatican is asking for as the price to pay in order to be part of the discussion:

  • Be part of your church, attend liturgy and receive the sacraments.
  • Listen for God’s word
  • Be open to reason, be respectful
  • Understand that this magisterium thing is a joint responsibility to stay true to Jesus’ teaching
  • Stay humble and joyful
  • Stay focused on making our church better

Doesn’t sound like an unreasonable request to me.


Let’s Summarize

I started this writing with my favorite paragraph from Sensus Fidei. It is as accurate a simile as any that seems to capture what some, feel about what they see in our church. Sometimes I am not certain that all such discord is a matter of the truth that we all seek, but maybe more a matter of differing perspectives and experiences that result in unfortunate language and unneeded virtrol.

I think I am being true to the message of Sensus Fidei in the following points that provide all followers of all perspectives with a good set of ground rules for meaningful engagement:

  • Our church wants us to be involved in the discussion. “Everyone is free either to criticise or to support her[the church]. Indeed, she recognises that fair and constructive critique can help her to see problems more clearly and to find better solutions.”
  • We all have a sense of the truth of the gospel. Inside all of us, laity, clergy, ecclesiastical leadership, have been baptized in the faith and as such, have been visited by the Holy Spirit with a gift of an instinct for the teachings and beliefs that take us closer to the Truth.
  • There are real expectations of the laity — you have to be sitting inside before you get to throw stones at any glass houses. People who fully engage in ministries to serve the poor, the disadvantaged, those who know who Mark, John, Luke and Matthew are, persons who see and deal with the broken among us and who witnessed and sought to comfort the hearts of those who experience true suffering, those folks have as much a place in the magisterium as any bishop or cardinal. On the other hand, persons who want to contest a teaching simply because it is a church teaching need to go to some personal ‘time-out’ space to think about what they are doing. There may be validity to one’s question or challenge, but the fact of the matter is that unless you have really committed to Christian service, you don’t have enough skin in the game to take over and drive.
  • Public opinion is not always truth. Sensus Fidei rightly points out that the majority public opinion may have little in common with the truth of Christian faith. It correctly reminds us that there have been many instances in history where majority opinion supported views that were clearly contrary to the message of the gospel, and that in the beginning, it was the Christian message that was clearly a minority opinion on the world stage.
  • Teachings and policies that run counter to genuine personal spiritual experiences of the faithful are likely to be discarded. When the faithful who live with a sense of humility sense some off-notes in the lyrics from the pulpit, they are justified in some selective listening (and in asking to speak with the conductor).

Sensus Fidei isn’t a perfect document. But that is OK because I am not a perfect reader. But its wisdom is sound, and it makes the point that if we all want to be teachers, we also need to be students – open to the lessons as delivered in the witness of all the perspectives of those truly seeking the truth of the gospel.