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The “Sensus Fidelium” and Popular Piety Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 15 May 2014

I have suggested before that sensus fidelium should not be confused with surveys of popular opinion of those who check the box “Catholic.”  “The sensus fidelium does not simply mean the majority opinion in a given time or culture,” the International Theological Commission has stated. “The sensus fidelium [the sense of the faithful] is the sensus fidei [sense of the faith] of the people of God as a whole who are obedient to the Word of God. . . .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.” 

“It is particularly important today,” Pope Benedict added, to clarify “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.”

These are important warnings, but warnings are not enough. To clarify the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeits, it is also crucial to point out some of its authentic expressions. If the sensus fidelium isn’t the “public opinion” of the Church, then what is it?

Pope Francis has some interesting things to say on this score in his recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), in which he talks about the sensus fidei more in terms of our obligations to preach and live the Word of God in our particular concrete cultural circumstances, rather than (as we often do) in terms of our rights to do as we wish. “In virtue of their baptism,” says the Pope, “all the faithful, whatever their position or their level of instruction in the faith,” are called to be “agents of evangelization.”  “It would be insufficient,” insists the pope, “to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients.” Thus when we ask about the sensus fidelium, we should ask: Where and in what ways do we find people really living out the tough demands of the Gospel?

In a later paragraph, Pope Francis speaks of the importance of culture (a favorite theme of John Paul II’s) and of living out the Gospel within the context of culture by means of a constant “leavening” of society from below. And it is within this context that the pope discusses the importance of popular piety. “Popular piety,” says the Pope, “enables us to see how the faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on.” Popular piety, he adds, “manifests a thirst for God which only the poor and the simple can know.” It “makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism, when it is a question of bearing witness to belief.” This quiet heroism doesn’t exactly sound like something you can discover with a survey.

What are some of the expressions of this sensus fidei manifesting “a thirst for God which only the poor and simple can know”? Pope Francis mentions, first, “journeying together to shrines. . .also by taking one’s children or inviting others.” And then later: “the steadfast faith of those mothers tending their sick children who, though perhaps barely familiar with the articles of the creed, cling to a rosary; or of all the hope poured into a candle lighted in a humble home with a prayer for help from Mary, or in the gaze of tender love directed to Christ crucified.” These are manifestations, insists the pope, of an authentic “theological life nourished by the working of the Holy Spirit who has been poured into our hearts.”  With these examples, is the proper sense of the sensus fidei of the people of God finally coming into focus?

Might we add to this list the faithful efforts of thousands of volunteers in crisis pregnancy centers across the nation dealing with the challenges faced by women and their unborn children?  Along with the entire pro-life movement, there is the increasing popularity of Eucharistic adoration and devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

If we look to the recent past for examples, to the cultural traditions bequeathed to us by our predecessors, we might point to the remarkable nationwide complex of Catholic schools and hospitals, as well as the great twentieth-century intellectual revival founded on Thomistic thought catalyzed by Pope Leo XIII, as well as the entire tradition of Catholic social justice and the contemporary revival of natural law thought and virtue ethics. These and countless other efforts by Americans to bring life to the Gospel message in the circumstances of their own culture and society are, I would suggest, authentic expressions of the sensus fidelium.

Will each such “movement” have members who go too far in one direction and who thus need to be recovered to a proper “balance” by the wisdom of the Magisterium?  History teaches us, yes. But these movements seldom come from the ecclesiastical authorities; indeed they are not infrequently opposed by various ecclesiastical bureaucrats.

Written surveys tend to reach no further than someone’s immediate response. To get at the heart of the sensus fidelium, one must go deeper. You have to find out what things people bring to prayer, especially in their moments of deepest crisis and suffering. You have to find out who people want to be and what plans they make when they’ve decided, at long last, to pick up their cross and bear it.

What you get in surveys is opinion; what people bring to prayer is faith. There’s a difference, and only one of them can serve as the basis for judging the authentic sensus fidelium.

 
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 (13)Add Comment
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, May 15, 2014
As Mgr Ronald Knox pointed out, “the salient difficulty of any consensus fidelium theory is surely this, that, if the test is to be a real test, the term fideles must have a definite meaning in extension.” We need a definition that avoids the vicious circle of defining the fideles by their tenets. His solution is simple: “The fideles, be they many or few, be their doctrine apparently traditional or apparently innovatory, be their champions honest or unscrupulous, are simply those who are in visible communion with the see of Rome.”
He adds that “there can be little doubt that, in the West, our labelling of this party as orthodox and that as heterodox in early Church history comes down to us from authors who were applying this test of orthodoxy and no other.”
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written by bill b, May 15, 2014
I still don't get it. It seems to amount to this: if the laity happen to be following the Magisterium or simultaneously agreeing with it in a given century on a particular issue then that is the sensus fidelium. If they are not following the Magisterium, it's not the sensus fidelium. Why do we need a Latin phrase for something that seems to have no unique function apart from following the magisterium. And what becomes of Ratzinger's creative minority idea...but not the Church vis a vis Europe ( his use) but a minority within the Church whose writings gradually led to St.Pope John Paul II apologizing for the Inquisition violence, slavery by e.g. Catholic Portugal, and the imperialism of Catholic representative France in 19th century China....all approved or acquiesed in by the Magisterium and the sensus fidelium? Isn't the creative minority more...errr creative than the sensus fidelium when there is imperfection in the Church which Vatican II said will not be perfect until the end of time. If the sensus fidelium merely echoes the Magisterium then we need a creative minority that doesn't do that when for example a Pope Nicholas V told Portugal it could enslave new natives
who resist the gospel in Romanus Pontifex, mid 4th large par. online...or when Pope Leo X affirmed burning heretics in art.33 of Exsurge Domine which is now implicitly null per Vatican II and sect.80 of "Splendor of the Truth". Catholics must obey yes...but there have been exceptions that St. John Paul II apologized for and there will be others while the magisterium is not yet perfect.
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written by Manfred, May 15, 2014
The data on the questionnaires which were distributed recently and will be studied at the Synod in October will give us a good picture of the sensus fidelium today. When a pope is alleged to have phoned a woman in Argentina who was divorced and remarried without the benefit of annulment, and she claims he told her it would be permissible for her to receive Communion, this has to confuse the faithful. When my daughter, recently engaged, approaches her pastor in what was once a thriving middle class parish complete with a school (the school has closed) in order to arrange for a Nuptial Mass, and she is told: "There will be no problem as we only have ten weddings a year. You see, most Catholics no longer marry in the Church", you grasp that the sensus fidelium exists only in a very few places today. BTW, how could someone who has not been correctly catechized ever bring anyone into the True Faith? Many people in the pro-life movement are not Catholic. Look at the majority of Catholics who have believed that the "reforms" of Vatican II were true.
I would suggest we wait for Pius XIII who will annul the recent "canonizations" and the Beatification of Paul VI to occur this October, and wiil correct all the errors of the last sixty years.
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written by Peter Northcott, May 15, 2014
It seems to me that there is a growing amount of activity (here in England) which ignores Popular Piety. It doesn't include those who participate in 'that sort of stuff' as part of Sherry Weddell's "2% Club" of 'Intentional Disciples'.

You're only considered an 'Intentional Disciple' if your more towards the top end of the academic and cultural elite: liking classical music, learning doctrine, and apologetics, and attend, or have been, to university.

The rest are the 'little people' whom they patronise at events like 'Nightfever', unless they attend London University, of Course. It's cringe-making.
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written by Bill Hocter, May 15, 2014
As described above, Sensus Fidelium reminds me a bit of the description of the non ministerial priesthood we lay Catholics exercise given in a recent article in Communio. Both appear to be mystical things that we participate in as part of the Body of Christ rather than individual offices we hold or opinions we express.

Bill B’s response is understandable. Where is the value added in such a concept as Sensus Fidelium if it has no meaning independent from the Magisterium? Also, how does one evaluate a minority opinion that later develops into practice?

I think one can get at the value added by considering the Communion of Saints. Yes, as our Protestant friends remind us, we could just skip intercessory prayer and go directly to God. However, it is more pleasing to God when we pray as the Body of Christ, of which His Son is the Head. Likewise, the Pope can teach infallibly on his own, but also in union with his brother bishops. The existence of this second channel, at first glance superfluous, must be in some way more pleasing to God, perhaps because of the unity it expresses more vividly. Yet the second channel in no way diminishes the first.

One could consider all of these seeming superfluidities as belonging to the set of “Yes ands” that make up and build up Catholic life within the Body of Christ. They are not redundancies but abundances of Grace. Participation in the Sensus Fidelium unites us more closely to the Church.

As for minority opinion and dissent, and their role within the Sensus Fidelium, important watchwords should include informed conscience, loyalty, docility and patience. St. Joan of Arc doubtlessly had an enormous impact on the Church’s view of torture and capital punishment. Just not in her lifetime and not because of any opinion on the issue she expressed.
At any rate this is my take as a layman trying to educate himself.
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written by Paul, May 15, 2014
Let me save everybody a lot of time. The Magisterium is right, therefore the Sensus Fidelium has to agree with the Magisterium no matter what. It doesn't matter what the Bible says or you think it says because the Magisterium interprets the Bible. I wish I would've understood that years ago, I'd have saved myself much aggravation over arguing about the 2nd and 4th Commandments, what does brother and sister mean, Hell, Purgatory, should we celebrate Nisan 14, etc...
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written by Randall B. Smith, May 15, 2014
The Author Replies:

Clearly some confusion remains, which is not entirely unexpected given: (A) the notion of the "sensus fidelium" has not as yet been very clearly defined by the Church, (B) it's a complex idea, so that (C) even several of the Church's bishops have shown that they don't understand even the most basic rudiments (such as, for example, that it is not the same as "consensus," and it can't be discovered by rudimentary surveys of popular opinion).

I do not wish to be mistaken for having proposed a distinct definition in this article. My intention in this article and the previous one has been simply (A) to clarify what I take to be a clear error by which the "sensus fidelium" is equated with popular opinion and (B) to suggest some important and evocative alternative examples more closely associated with the true sense of the "sensus fidelium."

So to my interlocutors, I would ask them to give some thought to the following:

A) Do you agree that the "sensus fidelium" is NOT to be confused with "popular opinion" of the sort that one discovers (sometimes, but not usually) with written surveys? Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI made this point fairly clearly, I would have thought. But more than this, consider:

B) Can you see a difference between "popular opinion" on, say, contraception, and the "sense of the faith" we might uncover if we studied --- or better yet, entered more deeply ourselves into --- the increasing devotion in the Americas to Our Lady of Guadalupe? Now consider:

C) Is there an important difference between the increasing devotion in the Americas to Our Lady of Guadalupe and official pronouncements of the Magisterium on Mary? There has to be, because Our Lady of Guadalupe has never been the subject of an official magisterial doctrinal pronouncement.

I take it that it goes without saying that there is a big difference between the kind of "sense of the faith" that one would discover by becoming more engaged in the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe (and/or to the Eucharist, which, by the way, are not unrelated) and the sort of thing one might get in, say, a modern theology class in most Catholic universities in America.

Increased Eucharistic adoration, as well as other various traditions of prayer and devotion; movements such as the Serrans, the Knights of Columbus, the Legion of Mary, Communion and Liberation, Focolare, and so many others: all of these were initiatives begun and largely carried on outside the boundaries of the official Magisterium (that is, bishops did not start them), while always remaining faithful to the official Magisterium (even when, at times, they had to keep at bay certain local ecclesiastical bureaucrats of the sort who wish to control everything and allow nothing not under their direct management).

Pope Pius IX's perception of the "sensus fidelium" of popular devotion to Mary Immaculate was one of the things that caused him to make his infallible declaration "Ineffabilis Deus" in 1854 on the Immaculate Conception. Did every bishop in the world consent? No. Did every theologian in the world consent? No. Did every Catholic in the world "get it" and agree? No. Was Pius IX correctly reading the "sensus fidelium" that had existed (and developed) over centuries, long before his encyclical was written --- indeed, in many ways, a "sense" and a devotion that had existed from the beginning of the Church, but which had never before been defined explicitly by the Magisterium? Yes. Did that particular article of faith "come from" the Magisterium, or was it "discovered by" them, not through written surveys, but by a deep discernment of their hearts and life of prayer and devotion? Again, I would have to say (and Pius did say) yes.

Thus there are two contrasting errors to be resisted: The first is not to confuse the "sensus fidelium" with mere "popular opinion" (even if one could reliably discover that notoriously ephemeral animal). The second is not to narrow the "sensus fidelium" so as to include only "what the Magisterium has explicitly (up to this point in history) taught."

More needs to be said, obviously. I've written these two articles with the goal of clarifying these two issues, nothing more. More than these two points would require a theological treatise, and nobody wants that less than I.
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written by bill b, May 15, 2014
Randall,
It makes sense though Pope Pius IX had to ignore Aquinas and Augustine and their many followers and apparently had to read instead lesser theologians and accounts of how extensive lay support was for the Immaculate Conception...but that does go to sheer large numbers again. Both those saints saw Mary as contracting original sin and subsequently being cleansed of it prior to birth which was nullified by the encyclical. Your other examples were not of doctrine but of societies started by laity.
The laity stood no chance of reproving via the sense of the faithful ( had there been one) Leo X's support of burning heretics in Exsurge Domine because he prevented any opposition by attaching a latae sententiae excommunication to anyone agreeing with Luther that burning heretics was against the Holy Spirit.
So the sensus fidelium seems too weak in the area of morals to help the Church purge itself as it moves through history toward a distant perfection (Vat.II)...your examples were faith dogma and societies. Section 80 of "Splendor of the Truth" did that job of purging but too late for thousands who were burned to death and it essentially agreed with Luther condemning as intrinsically evil " whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit”. The burnings successfully coerced those who repented verbally and were spared.
So in the area of morals, the concept seems weak unless historians could show that the usury position of Aquinas and Pope Benedict XIV in Vix Pervenit (1745) were in fact overthrown by massive numbers ignoring them such that in 1830 in answer to dubia, the Vatican answered that those taking moderate interest were "not to be disturbed"... effectively taking on the nearly identical position that Calvinists held from 1545. Did the Vatican simply note large scale dissent plus the progress made by minor theologians as Noonan recounts. The non caveat condemnation of all slavery of Vatican II really began with the Quakers because Catholic authors in the Universities always had 4 exceptions to the papal bulls against slavery that the Vatican recognized in answers to dubia and still had exceptions up til 1960 ( Iorio's Theologia Moralis, 5th printing). On both usury and slavery, their change seems to have begun in Protestants and traveled from there to Catholic laity
( sensus fidelium ? maybe) and to theologians.
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written by Manfred, May 15, 2014
Some footnotes: When Bernadette Soubirous, following the instruction of the bishop's representative, asked the Lady at Lourdes in 1858 who she was, the Lady answered: "I am the Immaculate Conception." So Pope Pius IX, with or without the laity, got it right.
The Knights of Columbus does a lot of good work, but it was set up by a priest in the 19th century to have working men purchase life insurance. That is still its goal today.

If you are looking for a sensus fidelium you may want to check with the local Traditional parish. Weekly Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, frequent confession, daily prayer, frequent, if not daily, Rosary, Eucharistic and Marian processions, no contraception, Forty hours, grace before meals, obedience to their spiritual director or confessor.
In short, everything which existed in the Church until the "Trojan Horse' entered the "City of God" and turned the Church into "The Devastated Vineyard"(All quotes from titles by Dietrich von Hildebrand)at Vatican II.
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written by Howard Kainz, May 15, 2014
In John1 (2:20-21)(Ignatius RSV New Testament), John writes, "You have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and know that no lie is of the truth." The commentary on these verses brings up the sensus fidelium: "Vatican II teaches that all the faithful, clergy and laity alike, are anointed with a supernatural insight into the gospel (known in Latin as the sensus fidei)." This makes sense. John emphasizes the supernatural anointing without which there will be no sensus fidelium.
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written by Paul, May 15, 2014
So we know the Immaculate Conception is sound doctrine because The Lady at Lourdes says so. Pretty scary IMO.
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written by Bill Hocter, May 15, 2014
Thanks Professor Smith for two fine articles. It hadn't occurred to me to equate Sensus Fidelium with popular opinion or to imagine that it precluded popular initiatives that didn't stem directly from explicit Magisterial teachings. I understand though such misconceptions exist and that the use of polling prior to the upcoming Synod could cause confusion, as well as opportunity for mischief.

I greatly enjoy reading this site both for its excellent articles, as well as the erudite commentary following them. Trying to understand the terms of art that have accrued to our religion enriches my faith and provides much needed intellectual stimulation.




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written by schm0e, May 15, 2014
something tells me it's going to get down to the non-negotiables very quickly.

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