The sensus fidei: a vital resource for the Church
by Paul McPartlan
Pope St John XXIII prayed that, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Second Vatican Council would be a ‘new Pentecost’ for the Church, inspiring and equipping her to proclaim the Gospel with renewed vigour in the modern world. The council duly taught that the people of God as a whole shares in Christ’s prophetic office (Lumen Gentium, 12). All of the faithful, united in communion by the same Holy Spirit, actively bear witness to Christ in their respective ways; no one is passive. The Spirit gives to all a ‘supernatural appreciation of the faith’, an instinct for what truly belongs to the Gospel, that is, the sensus fidei, by which the faithful as a whole not only adhere to the faith, but also penetrate it by reflection and prayer and apply it in their daily lives (LG 12). The sensus fidei is therefore to be understood not just reactively, as a means by which the faithful recognise God’s truth when it is preached to them, but also proactively: it enables the faithful to probe and understand the Gospel which lives in their hearts, and prompts their witness to it by word and action. As the International Theological Commission (ITC) states in its new document, ‘Sensus fidei in the Life of the Church’, the sensus fidei ‘animates the life of faith and guides authentic Christian action’ (n.70). Rightly understood, it is a vital resource for the life and mission of the Church.
Chapter three of the document considers various aspects of the sensus fidei fidelium in the life of the Church, recalling also the teaching of Vatican II in Dei Verbum (DV) that Scripture and Tradition form ‘a single sacred deposit of the word of God’ which is ‘entrusted to the Church’, namely to ‘the entire holy people, united to its pastors’ (n.67; cf. DV 10). It is of particular importance to understand the nature of the relationship between pastors and faithful with regard to the belief and the teaching of the Church (never forgetting that the pastors themselves are members of the faithful). The document notes that ‘the faithful at large, pastors and theologians all have their respective roles to play’ as the Church makes her pilgrim way on earth, striving to proclaim the saving word of God to each new age with the necessary discernment, and that ‘patience and respect are needed in their mutual interactions if the sensus fidei is to be clarified and a true … conspiratio pastorum et fidelium … is to be achieved’ (n.71).
Regarding the relationship between the sensus fidei and the magisterium, the document highlights its two aspects. First of all, because all of the faithful are endowed by the Spirit with gifts for building up the Church, and because all together are bearers of the apostolic faith, the magisterium ‘has to be attentive to the sensus fidelium, the living voice of the people of God’ (n.74). But also, by virtue of their particular gift and calling in the midst of the Church, the pope and the bishops rightly nurture, educate, discern and judge with authority the authenticity of the sensus fidelium - that is, whether opinions present among the faithful authentically reflect the sensus fidelium and accord with the apostolic Tradition (nn.76-77).
In the Eucharist, especially, the sensus fidelium is shaped and formed. The bishops preside as high priests and teachers, and the mystery of faith is celebrated by all. There, too, from ancient Christian times, the teaching of bishops and councils in creeds and formulas was ultimately ‘received’ by the faithful (n.75). The document gives specific attention to the crucial issue of ‘reception’, by which the faithful recognise and accept magisterial teaching, and considers the efforts necessary on both sides when there are difficulties in reception (nn.78-80).
The relationship between the sensus fidei and theology is again twofold. The sensus fidei is truly a locus for theology; theologians depend on the sensus fidelium because the faith that theology studies lives in the people of God. Also, however, theologians serve the sensus fidelium by proposing criteria (as in this document) for its discernment, and by assisting the faithful in manifold ways to know, understand and apply their faith (nn.81-84). The third chapter ends by noting some significant references to the sensus fidei in ecumenical agreed statements of recent decades (nn.85-86).
Acknowledging how ‘essential’ the sensus fidei is to the life of the Church, the fourth and final chapter of the document considers how authentic manifestations of the sensus fidei may be discerned, especially when there are tensions of various kinds and ‘the authentic sensus fidei needs to be distinguished from expressions simply of popular opinion, particular interests or the spirit of the age’ (n.87). The document adopts a very particular methodology. Since the sensus fidei is primarily an ecclesial reality, namely the instinct by which the Church herself recognises her Lord and lives in accord with the Gospel in word and action, it identifies six dispositions needed by individual members of the faithful in order to participate in the communion of the Church and thereby in the sensus fidei. The ‘first and most fundamental’ such disposition is active participation in the life of the Church, namely, in her liturgy, mission and service. Members of the Church must walk together, with an attitude classically expressed in the phrase, ‘sentire cum ecclesia’ (nn.89-91). Further criteria are: attentive listening to the word of God, in a spirit of thankfulness and praise (nn.92-94); openness to reason as a vital partner to faith (nn.95-96); and a willing attentiveness to the teaching of the magisterium of the Church (nn.97-98). As a fifth criterion, the document highlights holiness, and its hallmarks of humility, freedom, joy and peace, and it identifies the saints, and Mary outstandingly, as ‘light-bearers of the sensus fidei’ (nn.99-103). The sixth criterion is the edification of the Church, building others up and avoiding what divides (nn.104-105).
Various practical and pastoral issues arise with regard to the sensus fidei, and the document therefore supplements its listing of criteria with a substantial consideration of three specific matters: the relationship between the sensus fidei and popular religiosity; the relationship between the sensus fidei and public opinion; and ways of consulting the faithful. Recalling Pope Francis’ description of popular piety as ‘the manifestation of a theological life nourished by the working of the Holy Spirit who has been poured into our hearts’, the document states that ‘popular religiosity springs from and makes manifest the sensus fidei, and is to be respected and fostered’ (nn.109-110; cf., Evangelii Gaudium, n.125), and it interprets Pope Francis’ teaching that ‘underlying popular piety’ there is ‘an active evangelising power which we must not underestimate’ because it is ‘the work of the Holy Spirit’ precisely as a reference to the sensus fidei (n.112; cf. Evangelii Gaudium, n.126). The importance of the sensus fidei for the new evangelisation is indeed one of the recurrent themes of the ITC document.
The primary difference between the sensus fidei and public or majority opinion is that, whereas the latter is a sociological reality of intrinsic importance to democratic political activity, the former is a theological reality intimately related to the gift of faith and to the life of the Church as a mystery of communion which receives its constitution from Christ (nn.113-114). A careful distinction between the two is therefore needed. Lay voices are most definitely to be respected - the history of the Church shows times when the laity rather than the majority of bishops or theologians maintained the true faith (n.119). However, in the history of the people of God, it was often a minority rather than the majority that kept the faith (n.118).
Because, as John Henry Newman said, ‘the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine’, it is right and proper for the Church’s pastors to ‘consult’ the faithful, in the sense of inquiring as to their actual belief. The document ends by encouraging such consultation, and indeed by endorsing ‘public opinion’, in the sense of the free, loving and mutually respectful public exchange of thought between members of the Church. Such an exchange is a prime means by which to gauge the sensus fidelium, and appropriate structures of consultation are needed for the Church to be ‘living and lively’ (nn.125-126).