Catholic theologians ponder 'sensus fidelium' at annual convention

This story appears in the CTSA 2015 feature series. View the full series.

by Heidi Schlumpf

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For four days, Catholic theologians pondered and probed, analyzed and agonized over the concept of the sensus fidelium. You could even say the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) was an example of “sense of the faithful” in action, as members attempted to come to some deeper understanding of this important church teaching.

But, as is wont to happen when 400-plus academics gather, they emerged not with complete agreement but rather with a recognition that the sensus fidelium is a complex gift they and others in the church must continue to grapple with.

First, there was the question of terminology: Most speakers at the convention, held June 11-14 in Milwaukee, were careful to distinguish between sensus fidei, or the “sense of the faith” of an individual, and sensus fidelium, or the collective “sense of the faithful” of the People of God or whole church. Some also used the phrase “sensus fidei fidelium,” when referring to the latter.

There was some agreement about what the sensus fidelium is not: It is not the result of polling data; it is not simply a feeling or intuition; nor does it require complete unanimity. It is mysterious, to be sure, which can make it elusive to understand and difficult put into practice.

Some speakers also noted that Pope Francis has tilted the balance in favor of trusting the sensus fidelium.

The convention opened Thursday evening with a sociological presentation that sought to describe the faithful but also raised the question of whom should be included in that group. All the baptized? Regular Mass-attenders? Those who self-identify as Catholic? Or could “the faithful” be defined more broadly?

“We do well to pay better attention to those who are now absent,” said Jerome P. Baggett, professor of religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, who has recently done research on atheists in America.

Baggett challenged theologians to be “absence-minded,” to take note of those who once counted themselves among the faithful and are now missing from parishes.

He also noted two other absences: an absence of understanding of the faith among those still in the pews and an absence of public-minded conversations, a kind of “civic silence” in which people in parishes avoid difficult conversations, not only out of a fear of conflict but to somehow preserve the sacredness of church communities.

The next morning, the plenary address traced the “checkered” history of the sensus fidelium and raised some challenges for today.

“Just as there are instances when the pope and bishops faltered, failed or overreached, so, too, instances can be adduced when the faithful at large got it wrong,” said Franciscan Fr. John Burkhard, who taught systematic and moral theology at the now-closed Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C.

Burkhard paid particular attention to the Second Vatican Council, especially its teaching on the People of God, a teaching whose reception, he said, “remains incomplete.” He also stressed the need for a reclaiming of the church as communio, through practices such as diocesan councils and synods, or participation in the selection of a local bishop.

He also distinguished between the older idea of infallibility as the consensus fidelium, in which “the church was infallible in what it believed and what the hierarchy taught in its name,” with the later, post-Enlightenment quest for complete certitude that has resulted in a church more interested in teaching than listening.

The need for reception of teachings by the People of God is a counterbalance to this modern need for certitude, Burkhard said. “In some situations the real question is not ‘Is it true?’ but ‘Is it life-giving?’ ” he said.

Theologians are part of the sensus fidelium and offer their insights and questions as service to the church, Burkhard said. “We do not have to give a final answer to questions that are often beyond our ability to master, but we must have the courage to pose questions and make observations about issues that continue to motivate or disturb us.”

That’s exactly what CTSA members did throughout the four-day conference, attending sessions on the sensus fidelium as it relates to everything from black Catholic theology, gender and sexual orientation, “crucified peoples” or the “sinned against.” Sessions also explored individual theologians such as Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan and Hans Urs von Balthasar, or topics such as moral theology, ecumenism, mission, globalization, marriage/family and the church’s relationship with science.

Saturday morning’s plenary, a panel of women from the developing South, whose presentations wove personal experience with theological reflection about the global church, created both positive and negative buzz.

Maria Clara Lucchetti Bingemer, associate professor of theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, emphasized contributions to the sensus fidelium from Latin and South America, including base communities, “women listening to women,” and of course of liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor.

Filipino theologian Gemma Tulud Cruz, who teaches at Australian Catholic University, called for theologians to see social media as “a new frontier for a theology challenged and informed by the sensus fidelium.”

“How might theologians, for example, make sense of sexting and twerking in a contemporary theology of sex or sexuality?” Cruz asked. “Imagine a book title with Toward a Theology of Bezzy instead of Toward a Theology of Friendship? Isn’t that ‘ridic?’ ” (Of course, younger CTSA members quickly tweeted her remarks.)

Cruz challenges her students to learn theology “from the heart of the people” — especially those on the margins — so as to expand St. Anselm’s definition of theology as “faith seeking empowering understanding,” she said.

Social Service Sr. Anne Arabome, who is working on her doctorate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, was the third in the “global group” plenary. She also described people on the margins, namely young women who live in a slum called Kibera, outside of Nairobi, Kenya. These women, she said, may not have theological queries about magisterial teachings, but what they do have are the experiences of their actual five senses.

Arabome argued that sensus fidelium must be filtered through the senses of the context or condition of the people of God. “Like most women of color, the experience to which their senses bear witness is one of pain and exclusion, manifested in multiple forms of injustice and abuse,” she said. 

Some CTSA members complained that the individual speakers of this powerful plenary could have each warranted their own, individual address. Others criticized that the scholars did not take questions after their talks, with the audience participating instead in small group discussions of their own experiences of the sensus fidelium in their own contexts.

Conference organizer Bradford Hinze, professor of theology at Fordham University in New York, said the CTSA strives to represent the whole church in North America and has been working to increase participation by under-represented groups. “We’re working mightily on that, and it is part of our ongoing work,” he said.

Attendee and doctoral student Annie Selak tweeted a joke from a session by Vietnamese theologian Fr. Peter C. Phan, who noted that at the end of the 20th century, less than two-fifths of Christians worldwide are white, “with the exception of people in this room.”

Selak also tweeted a tally of the gender of conference speakers, moderators and conveners, as well as those asking questions, which showed relatively equal participation by men and women. “Structurally, CTSA is doing well incorporating female speakers. Culturally, there needs to be improvement in gender equality,” she tweeted.

Still, new board member Natalia Imperatori-Lee, associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, noted that even some of the language associated with sensus fidelium — intuition, openness, reception — has been traditionally associated with women. “We feminized sense of the faithful,” she said, “and by doing that we undervalue and take away the power of it.”

Imperatori-Lee also noted that doctrine that included input from the sensus fidelium, such as the Immaculate Conception, resulted from consultation via letter-writing campaigns from “ordinary Catholics,” yet in her Latino family of origin “no one would ever write a letter to the pope,” since the church hierarchy was seen as associated with other oppressors.

At the convention, the CTSA also passed a resolution to support fellow academics in Wisconsin by opposing a plan by state lawmakers to weaken tenure and shared governance in the state’s higher education system. At the final banquet, Fr. Joseph Komonchak of The Catholic University of America was given the John Courtney Murray Award, the organization’s highest honor.

Update added June 18: The Vatican’s International Theological Commission issued a document in July 2014, “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church,” exploring aspects of the concept and how bishops might apply it in certain circumstances. While this document was widely quoted by speakers in Milwaukee, the topic of the annual conference was chosen a year before the Vatican document's release. Organizers didn’t even know the Vatican document was in the works, conference organizer Bradford Hinze of Fordham University told NCR.

[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communications at Aurora University outside Chicago.]

A version of this story appeared in the July 3-16, 2015 print issue under the headline: Catholic theologians ponder sensus fidelium at annual convention.

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