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The Proper Sense of the ‘Sensus Fidelium’ Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 01 May 2014
 
 

Soon bishops from around the world will be traveling to Rome for the “Synod on the Family.”  Some of them will be carrying results from surveys of the faithful about their attitudes towards the Church’s teaching, and a few, like Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, may have decided, based on those survey results (in the case of Bishop Lynch, of 6800 respondents), that: “On the matter of artificial contraception, the responses might be characterized by saying, ‘That train left the station long ago,’” “Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium suggests the rejection of Church teaching on this subject.”

Ah, if only the sensus fidelium were that easy: a little survey, some quick results, a quick conclusion. But it’s not. Bishop Lynch isn’t talking about the sensus fidelium. He’s using the phrase, but he’s talking about something else.

The sensus fidelium as Pope St. John Paul II made clear, “does not consist solely or necessarily in the consensus of the faithful. Following Christ, the Church seeks the truth, which is not always the same as the majority opinion.”  “The Church values sociological and statistical research,” continues the pope, “when it proves helpful in understanding the historical context in which pastoral action has to be developed and when it leads to a better understanding of the truth.” 

“Such research alone, however,” he insists, “is not to be considered in itself an expression of the sense of faith.”  Indeed, he warns: “Living in such a world, under the pressures coming above all from the mass media, the faithful do not always remain immune from the obscuring of certain fundamental values, nor set themselves up as the critical conscience of family culture and as active agents in the building of an authentic family humanism.” Note the particular warning here about the dangers to notions of the family in particular.

Pope Benedict, too, warned about potential misunderstandings of this sort. “It is particularly important today to clarify the criteria used to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeits. In fact, it is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, this is because the sensus fidei cannot grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her Magisterium.”

On that occasion, Pope Benedict was addressing the International Theological Commission, praising them for clarifying certain misconceptions about the sensus fidelium. Here is what the Commission had said:

The nature and location of the sensus fidei or sensus fidelium must be properly understood. The sensus fidelium does not simply mean the majority opinion in a given time or culture....The sensus fidelium is the sensus fidei of the people of God as a whole who are obedient to the Word of God and are led in the ways of faith by their pastors. So the sensus fidelium is the sense of the faith that is deeply rooted in the people of God who receive, understand and live the Word of God in the Church.
“Catholic theology,” insists the Commission, must “speak the truth in love, so that the faithful may mature in faith, and not be ‘tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine.’”

So please, the sensus fidelium can’t be equated with poll results of 6800 Catholics in Florida now. A better way to think of the sensus fidelium is in terms of what Catholics have always and everywhere believed, even when this belief had yet to be defined by a council or a pope.

There are many doctrines of the Church that fit into this category: teachings never defined formally, but which have always simply been part of the patrimony of the Church. John Paul II asserted, for example, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that the reservation of the priesthood to men was one such teaching. It was affirmed by what is sometimes called the “universal magisterium of the Church.” It had never before been formally defined, but it was always and everywhere taught and accepted as de fide (a matter of faith).

Consider this claim in light of what would have happened if a bishop had taken a “poll” of American attitudes on this question in, say, St. Petersburg, Florida, or Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

The sensus fidelium cannot merely be a slice of Church opinion right here and right now, because the Church is not merely the Church of right here and right now. The Church extends throughout the world, across cultures, and throughout history. She looks always to the future coming of Christ, grounding her present choices in the wisdom passed on to us in Scripture and Tradition in fidelity to the Spirit who continually guides her.

What if we had taken a poll of Catholics in Germany on the status of Jews in 1938?  Or a poll in Florida on the morality of segregation in 1954? Should that little slice of the pie been allowed to determine Catholic teaching about the Jewish people or segregation? We may not be Nazis, but are we so sure that we don’t suffer from our own sorts of prejudice and short-sightedness? 

Hindsight is always 20/20 because it’s so easy to see the narrowness and odd preconceptions of people in the past. What’s not so easy is to see our own narrowness and preconceptions, since we live with them every day.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to recognize in the sensus fidelium our debt to the past, as well as our obligations to the future, and proceed with humility, guided by the Lord of History rather than merely the currently in vogue “spirit of the age”? 

Now might be a good time to heed the timeless wisdom of our new Saint John Paul the Great and avoid a senseless sensus fidelium.


Editor’s Note: Friends, as many of you know, after covering the canonizations last weekend in Rome, I’ve been making a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago with several intentions in mind, not least for everyone – writers, staff, benefactors, tech personnel, and you readers – who make possible The Catholic Thing. As the great Charles Péguy – a great walker himself – once said, the whole problem of the soul opens up on a pilgrimage on foot. We’re only doing the last 100 kms. of the Camino this week, but that is almost 25 kms. a day, and no matter how much training you’ve done, the last hour or so is penitential every day. The rest, when the rain holds off (which so far it mostly has), transpires in that strange zone of time and space when you have no real goal except to be open to the movements of the Spirit and to go further along the Way than you think you can. I’ve been editing columns along the way and keeping track of your comments – and donations. Next week, when it becomes possible to do so, I’ll thank each of you personally. But in the meantime, I have to ask the rest of you who have not yet contributed to go farther, to do more than you think you can. We depend on reader contributions to meet our expenses every year. We’re doing okay so far, but we really need a push this week to meet our need and to get back to our main business. So please, if you can contribute $50, $100, $500, $1000 – or more, or even less – do what you can for our common work. Contribute to TCT today. – Robert Royal

 
Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
 
 
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Comments (31)Add Comment
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written by ken tremendous, May 01, 2014
Your main point is absolutely correct that the sensus fidelium does imply a diachronic look at the faithful as well as a synchronic. This is somewhat along the lines of Chesterton's famous crack about the "democracy of the dead" in which ---though he noted that his opinions were utterly out of step with men of his own day---he claimed support by a majority reckoned of all men who had ever existed before.

Still, the persistent non-reception of Church teaching even across 1-2 generations does present a theological problem--specifically in the area of ecclesiology. Despite the views of many conservatives, while the Church surely is not a democracy, neither is the Church a command and control structure where the leaders teach and everyone else follows. It is a pneumatological reality where the Holy Spirit is the one who creates unity between the laity and hierarchy. There is a problem then if this unity is absent over a long period of time.
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written by Myshkin, May 01, 2014
Following Cardinal Dulles, and based on the behavior of Bishops, especially in the West, I propose a new "model" of the Church: the playground Church.

Priests manage the individual playgrounds (parishes), while Bishops manage the playground system. Laity come and use the playgrounds for their own personal recreation. The Mass is the big central monkey bars where all the laity can come an climb on.

Playground rules (doctrines, canon law) are meant purely to make sure everyone has a good time at the playground. If enough of the playground patrons don't like a rule, well then, hey presto!, it can be changed!

No need to take into account the One Deposit of Faith, except as that old set of equipment that no one uses anymore. Takes too much effort, and it's not as much fun as just doing whatever we please. Fun for the whole lay family!

And what do the Bishops and clergy get out of this model of Church? It's easy. Far easier to run a playground system, than a Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. Makes you popular among the playground clients, too. Betcha Bishop Lynch knows that very well.
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written by WSquared, May 01, 2014
"What if we had taken a poll of Catholics in Germany on the status of Jews in 1938? Or a poll in Florida on the morality of segregation in 1954? Should that little slice of the pie been allowed to determine Catholic teaching about the Jewish people or segregation? We may not be Nazis, but are we so sure that we don’t suffer from our own sorts of prejudice and short-sightedness?"

Thank you. So very nicely put.

We also have very pronounced prejudices and short-sightedness when it comes to history in general-- certainly here in the United States, we love "change," but have little to no appreciation of continuity (really: "change," sure, but unto what ends?). We love "progress," where we claim to be "always moving forward," but we almost never ask any pertinent questions about the direction in which we claim to be moving forward.

Moreover, the inability to understand that the Church consists not only of the Church Militant (those of us right here, right now), but the Church Suffering (those in Purgatory), and the Church Triumphant (all the saints in Heaven), and that the Church exists across time and space, illustrates acute myopia and prejudice enabled by bad catechesis: in other words, I'm not sure it's "just" bad catechesis in the sense of somebody not taking all their "'religion' classes" (yeah, good one...) as it is how bad catechesis cedes way too much ground philosophically, theologically, and historically.
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written by Ted Seeber, May 01, 2014
The immediate, current sensus fidelium is useful, but not in the way that the eternal "democracy of the dead" sensus fidelium is useful.

The first is useful as a gauge of how well the teacher is imparting truth to the students right now. On the subject of contraception in the United States and Europe, that answer is "very badly".

The second is useful as a double check on the magisterium to make sure the clergy haven't become heretical. For that, you need to take into the account that both the sensus fidelium AND the magisterium include all the generations that have gone before.

In neither case does it replace the authority of the magisterium.
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written by Athanasius, May 01, 2014
In my younger days, I pledged to follow Church teaching on contraception out of faith, but I couldn't explain why the Church taught as it did. My solution to this was to learn why. I have since obtained a degree in moral theology, and now that I understand the reasons for the teaching it makes perfect sense to me. In fact, I embrace the teaching now out of love for the truth.

My guess is that many adult Catholics today have no real idea of why the Church teaches as it does. As such, there is no way anyone can attribute the Sense of the Faithful to these people with unformed faith. I am further amazed that a bishop can seem to have so wrong of an attitude. How do these people get chosen?
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written by Sue, May 01, 2014
Apart from the probable defects in poll sampling for these "surveys", these "results" are mainly an indictment of the bishop's own performance in educating his flock. Perhaps it is Francis' intention for his shepherds to see up close their failures to "teach all nations" and what ensues...
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written by Josh, May 01, 2014
Hi Dr Smith: you offer very clear expression of the true meaning of "sensus fidelium", thank you for that! However, I think you are unfair to Bishop Lynch. To be sure, his blog post is a bit unclear about the meaning of sensus fidelium. But the quote you use comes from his summary of what survey respondents said- they are the ones appealing to sensus fidelium, rather than the bishop. He does not clarify why their use of sensus fidelium is insufficient, but his purpose is to summarize what respondents said, not to offer comments correcting it. Your article at least implies that he misunderstands sensus fidelium, but that is too strong a conclusion based on the text of his blog. In any case, thank you for writing on TCT, your articles are always thought provoking.
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written by Rosemary, May 01, 2014
An excellent clarification, Dr. Smith. Now, what do we do when 93% of the faithful, who attend weekly Mass and try to live moral lives, also practice contraception and (to a lesser extent) believe that elective abortion should be legal? Is not the sensus fidelium affected by that?

There should be some tension between the sensus fidelium and the sensus fidei but there should also be complementarity. One reflects the other, and that is what, I believe, Bishop Lynch is referring to. For instance, what is the "sensus" of the bishops? THAT I would love to know. Why are THEY discussing a married priesthood? Communication through the Holy Eucharist to remarried Catholics? Or looking the other way for 50+ years as the practice of contraception decimates the Catholic population?

This survey is a way to batter away at the faithful and the not so faithful. What we really need are great shepherds to haul us up out of this mess. Yes, it is a mess, but the spotlight should not be on the pews but, rather, on the mitre.
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written by WSquared, May 01, 2014
Well said, Athanasius, and way to go: talk about "faith seeking understanding!" What's immediately striking about what you've written is that your approach illustrates "I believe so that I may understand"-- something both St. Augustine and St. Anselm knew, and which "Lumen Fidei" recently reiterated.

Most people think that they have to understand everything before they can believe, while not even being aware of how they do and can hold certain presumptions and assumptions that preclude their understanding.
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written by Patrick, May 01, 2014
It seems like the word "fidelium" could be clarified or unpacked. In this ecumenical age, does it include non-Catholic Christians? Does it include baptized Catholics who don't go to Mass regularly? Does it include Catholics who do go to weekly Mass but don't accept the infallibility of the Magisterium? One would probably get different results on this question based on who counts as "fidelis."
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written by Stanley Anderson, May 01, 2014
I think there should be a new popularity-contest version of the term "sensus fidelium". I'm afraid it's been way too long, and too little used, since my high school Latin classes for me to work it out properly, so can you tell me what the Latin translation for "my two cents' worth of the faith," or something close to that might be? I think it describes what you are talking about.
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written by Randall B. Smith, May 01, 2014
The Author Replies:

"Josh" has made a decidedly charitable interpretation of the bishop's comments. I very much appreciate people who interpret people's comments charitably. I've read the bishop's blog in full, and while in the final analysis I have to say I don't agree with Josh's interpretation of the bishop's comment, let me add that I hope he's right. Readers will have to judge for themselves by going to the bishop's blog. (The editor does not allow us to include web addresses, but a quick Google search will do the trick.)

Josh and I both agree, however, that, sadly, the bishop "does not clarify" why this use of the term "sensus fidelium" is insufficient, leaving the reader with the sense that this is indeed the proper sense of the "sensus fidelium." And that doesn't make a lot of sense.

Isn't it a bishop's job to do more than merely report what people have said? Isn't it his job to make sure that the Church's teaching is clear?

Well, actually, yes. Reporting survey results is easy. Teaching authentic Catholic doctrine when it's not in vogue, not so easy.

"Ken Tremendous" suggests that "the persistent non-reception of Church teaching even across 1-2 generations does present a theological problem." Well, it certainly presents a pastoral problem. But the persistent non-reception across several generations of the Church's teaching against, say, Arianism in the Fourth Century did not mean that Arianism wasn't wrong. The persistent rejection among many within the Church of the Nicean term "homo-ousios" (one in Being) does not mean it was theologically unsound.

So, while I think it accurate to say that "while the Church surely is not a democracy, neither is the Church a command and control structure where the leaders teach and everyone else follows," I'm not sure I know what the writer means when he says that "It is a pneumatological reality where the Holy Spirit is the one who creates unity between the laity and hierarchy."

But perhaps I might say this: the Holy Spirit IS creating unity between the laity and the hierarchy. More and more faithful Catholics are coming to see the wisdom of the teachings of Popes St. John XXIII and John Paul II and of the Second Vatican Council. The fruits of their labors are becoming clearer each year (to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear).

On the other hand, the period during which "gay marriage" or "what to do with divorced and remarried Catholics" has been debated and discussed is far too short to indicate what "the faithful" think.

That "abortion is a grave evil" is an irreformable teaching of the Church, one that was laid down as irreformable definitively in "Evangelium Vitae." But this was a teaching that John Paul II said was in continuity with the "ordinary, universal magisterium of the Church." What results do you suppose we would get on this issue even today if we "polled" American Catholics in the same way that they were polled in Florida? As for the attitude of the faithful toward Jews, heaven help us! You could have surveyed the faithful in Europe for centuries, and the results wouldn't have been altogether edifying.

The work of the Holy Spirit is not to be confused with the vagaries of "the spirit of the age."
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written by Dan Deeny, May 01, 2014
We must pray for Bishop Lynch. He also had some troubling reactions to the Catholic Relief Services controversy.
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written by Stanley Anderson, May 01, 2014
(by the way, in my previous comment above, I hope it was clear -- but I fear it may not have been -- that when I wrote "...what you are talking about," I was referring to your description of the misuse of the term, not your description of its proper meaning.)
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written by Jack,CT, May 01, 2014
Dr Smith,
Crisp and Clear,Thanks-
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written by Chris in Maryland, May 01, 2014
Myshkin:

Are you misrepresenting Cardinal Dulles?


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written by Alicia, May 01, 2014
In my catechesis classes I share with the children the Parable of the True Vine. This Vine that is Jesus and the branches which are all the faithful who remain in Him extends beyond every boundary of state, country and even beyond the boundary of the grave. So the sense of the faithful would include ALL who remain in the Vine. Love the clarification in this piece.
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written by Ashleen, May 01, 2014
This article makes a lot of sense.
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written by DGT, May 01, 2014
As an educator, part of my yearly evaluation is determined by how my students perform on standardized tests. Perhaps we should be looking at this "survey" in the same way.
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written by schm0e, May 01, 2014
Notice how the decline in manners and good sense in step with the onset of the "information age" has "externalized" the processes of social institutions until their government is reduced to mob rule? Is it possible that some sloppy regime rises in Rome, elevating this dark interpretation of sensus fidelium might to a "universal magisterium?" Oy.

But thank you for mentioning Bishop Lynch. It reminded me of Terri Schiavo, and how chillingly powerless we seemed to be to stop the starvation of that disabled young woman; how the whole world watched as a Leviathan decreed her murder; a Leviathan that seemed almost omnipotent...whose will was diligently carried out by legal, law enforcement, media and "healthcare" "professionals."

I swear the earth was spinning backward in those days.
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written by kent, May 01, 2014
It seems to me that even if Catholics far and wide persist for thousands of years (!) in thinking birth control permissible, it still wouldn't count as sensus fidelium. In other words, magisterial teaching will always trump the views of Catholic lay people, no matter the numbers involved. Or as the Commission you referred to said, the sensus fidelium can only be ascertained by looking at the views of those who are in step with the Magisterium, such that the two literally can never be in contradiction. In any case, as far as being able to know what the faithful have always and everywhere believed, I'm skeptical of crediting the theological opinions of any non-clergy prior to the Reformation, given that such a class went essentially uneducated. (I take it that only informed beliefs are valuable beliefs.) As for the future, I don't foresee a Church whose members march on perpetually at odds with its teachings; rather I think masses of believers will simply peel off generation by generation as the dissonance of remaining in a religion contrary to one's views becomes too annoying (homosexuality will be a bigger deal than contraception, here). This till a remnant of orthodox faithful remain. But I'd be interested to hear what you/others think.
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written by Howard Kainz, May 01, 2014
Well, here is the "sensus fidelium" in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, as reported today by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, summarizing the results of respondents to the survey requested by Archbishop Listecki: "The majority of Catholics responding to a survey by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee do not accept church teachings that ban artificial contraception or prohibit divorced and remarried members from receiving the sacraments. They believe the church should permit same-sex unions. And they do not consider the church as the moral authority on issues related to the family.... The Rev. David Cooper of St. Matthias Parish in Milwaukee, who heads the Association of United States Catholic Priests, said...'Once (Pope) Paul VI declined to follow the advice of his own commission on family and sexuality,... ever increasingly larger numbers of Catholics lost faith in the moral credibility of the teaching authority.'"
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written by Paul, May 01, 2014
"you can't please all of the people all of the time"

"A house divided will not stand

For some things every one has to be in agreement or you can't move forward. Once the line is drawn you have to get on side or get gone.
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, May 02, 2014
"I'm skeptical of crediting the theological opinions of any non-clergy prior to the Reformation, given that such a class went essentially uneducated..."
Yet, during the Arian controversy, as Bl John Henry Newman pointed out, "It is not a little remarkable, that, though, historically speaking, the fourth century is the age of doctors, illustrated, as it was, by the saints Athanasius, Hilary, the two Gregories, Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine, and all of these saints bishops also, except one, nevertheless in that very day the divine tradition committed to the infallible Church was proclaimed and maintained far more by the faithful than by the Episcopate... that the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism; that at one time the Pope, at other times the patriarchal, metropolitan, and other great sees, at other times general councils, said what they should not have said, or did what obscured and compromised revealed truth; while, on the other hand, it was the Christian people who, under Providence, were the ecclesiastical strength of Athanasius, Hilary, Eusebius of Vercellæ, and other great solitary confessors, who would have failed without them."
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written by schm0e, May 02, 2014
@ Howard Kainz:

...and *that* reminds me of Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
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written by LAM, May 02, 2014
May St. John Paul II intercede for the Bishops and clergy so that they can proclaim without fear the grave dangers of the contraceptive mentality that has seriously harmed Catholic marriages, families, the priesthood, religious life and the culture over the last 45 years and teach confidently the fullness of the Church's truth about sexual morality.
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written by Myshkin, May 02, 2014
@chris in Maryland

No. It is irony. I suggest you read some of the classical satirists or St Thomas More's Utopia
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written by bill b, May 03, 2014
If the sensus fidelium is always following the magisterium, then why have it? Just have the magisterium. Pope Leo X in 1520 in Exsurge Domine said you were excommunicated latae sententiae if you agreed with Luther that burning heretics was against the Holy Spirit (art.33).
Now St. Pope John Paul II says in section 80 of "Splendor of the Truth" that " coercion of spirit" is an intrinsic evil and he apologized for the violence of the Inquisition. So which magisterium should the sensus fidelium follow on coercion of spirit?
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written by Chris in Maryland, May 03, 2014
Dear Myshkin:

I have read More's Utopia, and I share your love of Thomas More. I do enjoy good satire.

What I mean is: are you quoting something Dulles believed when he was younger, and later rejected? My understanding is that he moved from one position to the other. Is that not so? If so, then you may be misrepresenting Dulles, but perhaps you may not know that (?).

In Christus Veritas
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written by LAM, May 04, 2014
St. Pope John Paul II at his meeting with the American Cardinals and Bishops on the crisis on April 23, 2002 stated: “People must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.” The failure to preach the truth on sexual morality contributed to the failure of priests and religious to live it. Let us hope and pray that the renewal of the priesthood, episcopate and marriage with occur, in part, through the fearless proclamation of the Church's liberating truth on sexual morality.
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written by Myshkin, May 04, 2014
@Chris in Maryland
Concluding Scientific Exposition on How I Am Using Cardinal Dulles' in a Small Satirical Post
=============================================================
I refer to Cardinal Dulles' well known work of theology "Models of the Church"§ to provide what the Alexander Pope termed "bathos" in his 1728 treatise on mediocre poetry, "Peri Bathous." In that august work, Pope, writing as Scriblerus, guides his readers to appreciate the profundity of mediocre and bad poetry. In most cases, satire requires some bathos to provide its "momentum absurdum."

§ Note on Cardinal Dulles' "Models of the Church": In later years the Cardinal disassociated himself with certain ways that his work, "Models of the Church", had been used. Some theologians used his work as work to construct ecclesiologies at odds with the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church. These he repudiated and he disassociated himself and his work from them. But although he did express sadness that some had misused it in pursuit of dissent from orthodoxy, as far as I know, he did not repudiate his own book (which btw is completely orthodox when read as a quasi-typological non-prescriptive work).

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