As the world's Catholic bishops prepare for an October global meeting at the Vatican on family life issues, they face one central and disputed question: How much should the experiences and opinions of lay Catholics influence their discussions?
Listen too closely to laypeople, some say, and you run the risk of turning church teaching into a sort of popularity contest.
Ignore their experiences, others say, and you flirt with alienation from the faith as known by Catholics worldwide -- particularly for bishops who prefer not to talk about sometimes controversial subjects like divorce and remarriage or use of birth control.
The church tries to solve that dilemma with the sensus fidei, a notion expressed particularly during the Second Vatican Council that Catholic believers have an innate ability to identify what the faith is.
Or, as theologian Bradford Hinze puts it: That Catholics have "an instinct ... that through the gift of baptism, that through the gift of faith, we are able to recognize the truth when it's proclaimed."
In time for the October bishops' meeting, known formally as a synod and convened by Pope Francis last year, a Vatican commission of theologians released a new document last week exploring aspects of the sensus fidei and how bishops might apply it in certain circumstances.
The document, issued by the International Theological Commission and approved by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is drawing positive reviews from U.S. theologians. Speaking in NCR interviews, some said they were even somewhat surprised at how much the document leans toward instructing bishops to listen to the faithful.
"There are a lot of valuable things in there that are worth discussing," said Hinze, a professor of theology at Fordham University and the vice president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.
The document, he said, has a "posture of openness" that is "really quite refreshing."
Perhaps most interesting about the document, Hinze continued, is that it recognizes that some priests and bishops might not have figured out exactly what the church should be teaching on a particular subject.
"I thought it was pretty judicious that the hierarchy has to recognize that they may not have it right yet," said Hinze, referring to a passage in the document that states that Catholics may "deny assent" to church teaching "if they do not recognize in that teaching the voice of Christ."
"[Bishops] may not have it entirely right yet" regarding what the church should teach, Hinze said. "They might have part of it right, but they might not have the whole thing right."
The document's acknowledgment of that fact "shows a capaciousness in thinking that is really what we should be about in the Catholic church," he said.
Richard Gaillardetz, a professor of theology at Boston College, also mentioned that statement in the document, saying it "recognizes that the sensus fidei can lead believers to discern whether a particular teaching or practice is in accord with the authentic apostolic faith."
That, Gaillardetz continued, "is really rather remarkable."
Several other scholars noted that the new Vatican document seems to take a different tack on the issue than a similar 2012 Vatican statement on the relationship between bishops and theologians. That statement, released by the international commission in 2012, said theologians must defer to bishops as the ultimate teachers of the faith.
Yet the new document, which comes in at more than 12,000 words and has been in process since 2009, portrays something of a more nuanced take. At one point, it even recognizes that non-Catholic Christians experience a sense of the faith that should be listened to as well, albeit saying they do so in a different way than Catholics.
Hinze called that acknowledgement "pretty big."
"A certain type of sensus fidei can exist in 'the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but who do not however profess the Catholic faith in its entirety,' " states that portion of the document, citing from the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium.
"The Catholic Church therefore needs to be attentive to what the Spirit may be saying to her by means of believers in the churches and ecclesial communities not fully in communion with her," the document continues.
Said Hinze: "That's very important ... to be acknowledging that we do our work in conversation with other communions, with other churches."
But, the theologian said, that acknowledgment also leads to another question: Can there be some sort of sense of the faithful even from non-Christian faiths? As Hinze put it: "What might we learn from other faith traditions ... that can help us to appreciate in a deeper way certain aspects of our own tradition as well?"
A 10-member subgroup of the theological commission, an international group of some 30 scholars, wrote the theological commission document. The scholars hold five-year terms on the commission, which has met since 1969.
Based in Rome, the head of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, currently Cardinal Gerhard Müller, officially serves as the group's president and must approve its statements.
Despite the positive aspects of the document, one theologian noted that it does not really speak to the issues likely to be faced by the Vatican synod or those facing the church today more widely.
Particularly, said Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, the document does not acknowledge the wide disagreement Catholics have with many church teachings, like those banning divorce and remarriage or the use of birth control.
"They almost skip the difficult issue," said Schüssler Fiorenza, the Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School.
"Does it really address the issues that the bishops are going to have to face at the synod?" he asked. "That's the question. It doesn't really give anything that you could concretely say, 'On the basis of this document, the bishops at the synod should go this way or that way.' "
"They're affirming both things," Schüssler Fiorenza continued. "But they're not saying, 'What about this issue of real conflict?' "
Yet, Hinze said, the document does "concede that there are areas that we're talking about where there's controversy."
"The question is, How can we proceed in a magnanimous way to foster dialogue and to foster collective discernment in the church?" he said.
Answering that question, Hinze said, is part of the task of the church's consultative structures -- from parish councils to international bishops' synods.
Gaillardetz faulted the document's conclusion, which seeks to explain those consultative structures. "There is a too brief consideration of the means by which the faithful may be consulted," he said.
"Much more could and should have been said regarding the inadequacies of these current structures," Gaillardetz continued. "More importantly, the document fails to acknowledge, as Pope Francis did in Evangelii Gaudium ... that any authentic consultation of the faithful must be careful not to limit consultation only to those who agree with you."
Yet the document does clearly call for consultation, stating: "Structures of consultation ... can be greatly beneficial to the Church, but only if pastors and lay people are mutually respectful of one another's charisms and if they carefully and continually listen to one another's experiences and concerns."
"Humble listening at all levels and proper consultation of those concerned are integral aspects of a living and lively Church," it concludes.
Join the Conversation
Send your thoughts and reactions to our online Letters to the Editor column. Learn more here