INTERNATIONAL THEOLOGICAL COMMISSION
Sensus Fidei: Chapters One and Two
The phrase sensus fidei appears neither in Sacred Scripture nor in the Church’s formal teaching prior to the Second Vatican Council. The earliest Christian sources, however, testify that believers receive an anointing that equips them to know and confess the truth of the Gospel (1Jn 2:20,27), and that the Church as a whole, taught by the Holy Spirit, cannot err in matters of belief (cf. Jn 16:13: 1Tim 3:15). The sensus fidei was a familiar idea to theologians long before it became the object of systematic reflection. Many Catholics associate the sensus fidelium with Blessed John Henry Newman’s famous essay “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” (1859) and perhaps also with Yves M.-J. Congar’s ground-breaking Lay People in the Church (Jalons pour une Théologie du Laicat, 1953). Others may recall its 16th century exponent, Melchior Cano, or remember the “canon” of the fifth century apologist, St. Vincent of Lérins, concerning the faith that is held everywhere, always, and by everyone (“quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est”). The sensus fidei is, in fact, a topic that continues to interest contemporary theologians, but they take a variety of approaches and have not adopted a single definition of terms.
In the conviction that it is important to work towards a shared understanding of this doctrine, especially in view of the consultation for the upcoming Synod on the Family, the International Theological Commission has prepared Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church. It offers a theological explanation and clarification of certain aspects of the sensus fidei and proposes criteria for discerning its authentic manifestations. Chapter one traces the sensus fidei fidelium to its biblical sources, provides an overview of how it functioned in the history and tradition of the Church, and sets out the teaching concerning it of the Second Vatican Council and the postconciliar magisterium. Chapter two deals with the nature and manifestations of the sensus fidei fidelis in the personal life of the believer. It reviews this in light of the classical understanding that the sensus fidei is a property of the theological virtue of faith.
The sensus fidei, of course, has to do with faith. Chapter one opens with an exposition of the rich biblical teaching on faith as a free and decisive response of the whole person (Mk 12:30) to the Word of God, and to Christ Jesus himself, made possible by a gift of the Holy Spirit (1Cor 12:3). It involves adherence to the Gospel message of the crucified and risen Lord (1Cor 15:1-2) and firm trust in God’s promises (Gen 15:6; cf. Rom 4:11,17). Faith is both personal and ecclesial, for every believer receives and confesses the Church’s faith and lives out that “one faith” in the community of believers (Eph 4:4-6). The biblical notion of faith involves more than an intellectual assent to the truths of divine revelation. It entails repentance and rebirth to new life in Christ, prayer and worship, knowledge of the truth of Gospel of God, confession of that truth before others, a confidence in God that directs one’s whole life, service of neighbor, and charity. By the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:1-17), believers are able to know and bear witness to the truth (Acts 2:17; cf. Joel 3:1). They are able, under the leadership of the apostles and elders, to settle questions of importance to the apostolic community (Acts 6:1-6; Acts 15:7-22).
The second part of chapter one recounts how the conviction regarding the sensus fidei fidelium, i.e., the capacity of the whole Church to maintain and transmit the apostolic Tradition without error, functioned in patristic and medieval controversies. Faced with innovations in doctrine and practice, the Fathers and theologians appealed to the universal consent of the whole Church (consensus fidelium) as a sure point of reference. This was decisive, for example, in determining the canon of Scripture, and in defending the divinity of Christ, the perpetual virginity and divine motherhood of Mary, and the veneration and invocation of the saints. Newman credited the testimony of the lay faithful with playing a crucial role in the post-Nicene Arian controversies and in medieval disputes over the Real Presence and the Beatific Vision.
The 16th century saw the first systematic elaboration of the sensus fidei fidelium. In response to questions raised by the Reformers, theologians like Melchior Cano and Robert Bellarmine identified sources in Scripture and Tradition that affirmed the infallibility of the whole Church in believing and the authority of the pope and the councils in teaching. The Council of Trent had appealed to the “universum Ecclesiae sensum,” but post-Tridentine theologians began to distinguish the roles of the teaching and the learning Church quite sharply, and some viewed the former as active and the latter as passive.
The doctrine of the sensus fidelium received new attention as a locus theologicus, however, in the work of 19th century theologians like Johann Adam Möhler, John Henry Newman, and Giovanni Perrone who were concerned with Tradition and the development of doctrine. Perrone highlighted the active contribution of the lay faithful in keeping and transmitting the apostolic faith, for example, to the definition of the Immaculate Conception. He maintained that the unanimous consent, or conspiratio, of the faithful and their pastors to this doctrine was sufficient to establish its apostolic origin. Newman, too, underlined the active role of the faithful, as distinct from their pastors, and illustrated his thesis On Consulting the Faithful with striking testimonies from the Tradition. Pope Pius IX and the theologians nevertheless emphasized the importance of the unanimous testimony of the faithful and their pastors. When the First Vatican Council taught that the ex cathedra doctrinal definitions of the pope concerning faith and morals are irreformable “of themselves and not from the consent of the Church” (Pastor aeternus, DH 3074), it intended to exclude not consultation, but the Gallican claim that such consent, antecedent or consequent, is required as a condition for the authoritative status of papal teaching.
In the 20th century, the sensus fidei emerged as a theme in the theology of Tradition, a renewed ecclesiology, and the theology of the laity. It figured in Pope Pius XII’s definition of Mary’s Assumption and in the work of theologians like Yves Congar, and was explicitly affirmed by the Second Vatican Council. The Council teaches that the Holy Spirit arouses and sustains in believers a “supernatural appreciation of the faith [supernaturali sensu fidei]” that is seen when the whole people “manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.” (Lumen gentium 12) The sensus fidei is an active capacity to grasp and adhere to the faith. It is the means by which the whole Church, including the lay faithful, participates in Christ’s prophetic office. (Lumen gentium 35) Without using the expression, Dei Verbum 8 also affirms the sensus fidei in relation to the development of doctrine. The post-conciliar magisterium has regularly reaffirmed this doctrine, but cautions against identifying the sensus fidelium with public opinion.
Chapter two deals with the sensus fidei in the life of the believer, the sensus fidei fidelis. This dimension of the sensus fidei was acknowledged by patristic and medieval theologians, but the classical treatment of its nature and manifestations was articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas explores the sensus fidei in relation to the theological virtue of faith. As property of faith and a kind of spiritual instinct, it arises from the affective connaturality or affinity between the Christian who knows and loves his faith and the truths of faith themselves. This affinity can be compared to the capacity of friends who, through intimate knowledge and love, are each able to anticipate what delights or disappoints the other. In somewhat the same way, the one who possesses the infused virtue of faith has an affinity for its object, the truth of the faith. As a virtue, faith is a supernatural habit, and like a “second nature,” it inclines the believer to recognize what is true and reject what is false, not by a process of reasoning, but spontaneously. The sensus fidei, so understood, requires “living faith,” faith animated by charity. Its operation is proportionate to the believer’s holiness of life, that is, to his experiential knowledge of spiritual realities and receptivity to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially wisdom and understanding. This will have implications, then, for the identification of criteria.
Sister Sara Butler, M.S.B.T.