Opinion vs. inspiration: Synod must grapple with concept of ‘sensus fidei’

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Pope Francis holds his rosary as he prays for peace on Friday, Oct. 27, in St. Peter’s Basilica with members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican. CNS photo/Lola Gomez

VATICAN CITY.  A key concept in forming a more “synodal church” is listening to all the faithful and helping them take responsibility for the basic Christian mission of sharing the Gospel.

Pope Francis repeatedly has said that does not mean doing away with the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure or denying the specific gifts and responsibilities of the church’s ordained ministers.

But, making a rare and emphatic intervention at the synod assembly Oct. 25, the pope seemed to indicate that some synod participants – more than 75 percent of whom are bishops – had qualms about giving non-bishops a vote in the synod deliberations and, perhaps, about putting too much emphasis on the hopes and fears lay Catholics voiced during the synod’s preparatory phase.

“I like to think of the Church as God’s faithful people, holy and sinful, a people summoned and called with the power of the Beatitudes and Matthew 25,” the pope began. The reference to St. Matthew’s Gospel is to the passages that affirm that whatever a person does for the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, they do for him.

“One of the characteristics of this faithful people is its infallibility – yes, it is infallible in ‘credendo,’” in belief, as the Second Vatican Council taught, he said.

“I explain it this way: ‘When you want to know ‘what’ Holy Mother Church believes, go to the magisterium, because it is in charge of teaching it to you, but when you want to know ‘how’ the Church believes, go to the faithful people,” the pope said.

Chapter 12 of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church said the whole church, including laity, cannot be in error when in agreement on questions of faith, but also noted that church teaching must guide the process:

“The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful,’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life.”

In “Episcopalis Communio” (“Episcopal Communion”), Pope Francis’ 2018 apostolic constitution reforming the Synod of Bishops, he highlighted the role of laity in reaching a consensus with bishops on key issues under discussion.

“During every synodal assembly, consultation of the faithful must be followed by discernment on the part of the bishops chosen for the task, united in the search for a consensus that springs not from worldly logic but from common obedience to the Spirit of Christ. Attentive to the ‘sensus fidei’ of the people of God – ‘which they need to distinguish carefully from the changing currents of public opinion’ – the members of the assembly offer their opinion to the Roman pontiff so that it can help him in his ministry as universal pastor of the Church.”

Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 had asked members of the International Theological Commission, a group that advises the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, to conduct a study that would explain the meaning, purpose and limits of “sensus fidei” (sense of faith) and “sensus fidelium” (sense of the faithful) – the capacity of individual believers and of the church as a whole to discern the truth of faith.

Knowing when a significant portion of “the holy, faithful people of God” are correct in discerning a prompting from the Holy Spirit is a question the commission asked and, apparently, one that was brought up repeatedly during the synod on synodality.

The commission’s 2014 document, “‘Sensus Fidei’ in the Life of the Church,” described the “sensus fidei fidelis” as “a sort of spiritual instinct that enables the believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith. It is intrinsically linked to the virtue of faith itself; it flows from, and is a property of, faith.”

While the validity and importance of different church teachings cannot be the subject of a popular vote, the degree to which they are or are not accepted by most Catholics is important, the commission wrote.

“When the reception of magisterial teaching by the faithful meets with difficulty and resistance,” the document said, “appropriate action on both sides is required.”

Catholics “must reflect on the teaching that has been given, making every effort to understand and accept it,” the document said. “Resistance, as a matter of principle, to the teaching of the magisterium is incompatible with the authentic ‘sensus fidei.’”

At the same time, the theologians said, “the magisterium must likewise reflect on the teaching that has been given and consider whether it needs clarification or reformulation in order to communicate more effectively the essential message.”

Writing about Catholic laypeople, the commission said, “not only do they have the right to be heard, but their reaction to what is proposed as belonging to the faith of the apostles must be taken very seriously, because it is by the Church as a whole that the apostolic faith is borne in the power of the Spirit.”

Particularly drawing on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, members of the theological commission rejected the idea that Catholic laity are to blindly obey everything the pope and bishops tell them. However, the document emphasized the importance of assuming church leaders are correct, trying to understand the basis for their teaching and, especially, the importance of praying, regularly receiving the sacraments, studying and being an active member of the Catholic community before claiming to be able to discern that a church teaching needs adjustment.

The “sensus fidei” is essential in helping the Church respond to modern problems and challenges because it gives “an intuition as to the right way forward amid the uncertainties and ambiguities of history, and a capacity to listen discerningly to what human culture and the progress of the sciences are saying,” the document said.

The commission members said, “One of the reasons why bishops and priests need to be close to their people on the journey and to walk with them is precisely so as to recognize ‘new ways’ as they are sensed by the people. The discernment of such new ways, opened up and illumined by the Holy Spirit, will be vital for the new evangelization.”

The theological commission published those remarks seven years before Pope Francis launched the process for the synod on synodality – a word, which in Greek literally means “walking together.”

Clearly, Pope Francis sees the “sensus fidei” as an essential part of the synodal journey, which Benedict Mother Maria Ignazia Angelini, a spiritual adviser to the assembly, described as “a passage from an ‘I’ to a ‘we.’”

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