The Proper Sense of the ‘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

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.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.