Don't let the 'sensus fidei' die

by Robert McClory

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This will be my fourth and last (at least for the time being) blog post on the document " 'Sensus Fidei' in the Life of the Church." (Read parts one, two and three.) I wish to thank all who commented on the document. The remarks reflect the ambiguous, conflicted position of authority and illustrate the perplexity of those who have taken sensus fidei seriously in the church today among sincere, serious believers.

On the one hand, the theologian writers of the document state that "the [habit of faith] possesses a capacity whereby, thanks to it, the believer is prevented from giving assent to what is contrary to the faith ... Alerted by their sensus fidei, individual believers may deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognise in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd." That's a powerful, liberating message, coming as it does with the approval of the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

On the other hand, the writers state toward the end of the document, "The magisterium ... judges with authority whether opinions which are present among the people of God, and which may seem to be the sensus fidelium, actually correspond to the truth of the Tradition received from the Apostles. ... Thus, judgement regarding the authenticity of the sensus fidelium belongs ultimately not to the faithful themselves nor to theology but to the magisterium." No effort is made by the writers to explain how this blunt turnoff relates to the previous statement or to the many examples of the rights of the faithful emerging victorious in past conflicts with church authority.

The contradiction puzzles me, but I can't dismiss the amazing, overall thrust of the document. I don't think anything like it has come from the Vatican since the time of Pope John XXIII. Below are a few excerpts from the comments we received. 

Shar M expresses well the disappointment and anger that many Catholics share:

So when the laity disagree with the hierarchy, it's our responsibility to try to understand and "accept" what they say -- to assume they must somehow be right even if everything we see, know, have learned, and understand says otherwise. ... Whereas [when] the hierarchy takes a position we disagree with, rather than trying to understand us or consider that we might have a legitimate understanding, they should try to teach it better, or louder because they're just not conveying it correctly. ... While acknowledging the laity have occasionally been right on issues in the past, this still seems to boil down to if we disagree with hierarchy today, we should just accept that we can't possibly be right, and they just need to say it again, say it again, say it again.

James T sees a glint of hope in the document:

It is refreshing for some of the Church leadership to publicly recognize that the Church has been wrong on many issues over the years. Who knows, maybe with time that message will get out to every chancery and rectory in the Church? If only there were some way to transmit this information from the Offices of the CDF to the wider Church.

Kenneth Feldt sees only "a bit of a slant toward the bishops" in the document and emphasizes instead the qualities required of the laity for their contribution to the discussion:

I guess everyone will read from SF (Sensus Fidei) what they want to. I personally like to think of this document as a step forward. I detected a bit of a slant towards the bishops, but I also read a more pronounced message that in order for the laity to be part of the discussion, they must be active participants in her mission, prayerful, and humble ... certainly not a bad suggestion. And I'm particularly fond of the simile that likened poor church teaching to music with bad notes.

Mokantz is dubious about a document that contradicts itself. She then takes a long leap of faith into the future:

I agree about where this all needs to end-up -- the point where bishops and their flocks can learn to trust and respect each other. But I think this document is a first step in a journey in which that mutual respect and trust is explored. I do not think this document is some final say-so in what those roles can become. It is not the final word, written in stone, on the subject.

I recognize the contradictions in " 'Sensus Fifdei' in the Life of the Church," but I agree with Mokrantz that we have here a first step. It would be wonderful indeed if the Synod of Bishops would consider some examples of church doctrines to which believers, "alerted by their sensus fidei ... may deny assent" even though it comes from their "legitimate pastors." Might it not be worthwhile for the assembled bishops to discuss contraception, which is No. 1 on the list of doctrines the laity refuse to accept from their "legitimate pastors" and have refused to accept for more than 60 years?

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