The “Sensus Fidelium” and Popular Piety

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 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.