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The ITC’s compelling exploration of the sensus fidei—the sense of faith

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 08, 2014

The International Theological Commission has just issued a study of “the sense of the Faith”—Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church. The Commission, composed of up to thirty of the best theologians from around the world, each with a five-year term, was established by Pope Paul VI in 1969. Its purpose is to serve as a resource for the Magisterium of the Church. Often its studies suggest important clarifications that need to be made in our understanding of Catholic doctrine. This latest document is no exception.

Over the past fifty years, we have experienced an unfortunate era of widespread dissent from the certain truths enunciated by the Church’s magisterium. During this period, the “sense of the Faith” which is theoretically enjoyed by all Catholics by virtue of their baptism has frequently been cited in opposition to formal Catholic teaching. Meticulous attention by wayward theologians to things like the “lived experience” of the faithful has too often produced a wedge to separate the teaching Church (ecclesia docens) from the learning Church (ecclesia discens). This has led to enormous confusion, especially in moral theology, as cultural values have shifted rapidly.

One of the most important services performed by the Theological Commission in this new document, therefore, is its clarification of what it takes to participate in the “sensus fidei fidelis”, “the sense of faith of the faithful”. For while this innate spiritual discernment of what belongs to the Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and the other sacraments, like any sacramental grace it can be latent rather than active. Thus this discernment can very easily be confused or misled by cultural influences, public opinion, and personal weaknesses. In fact, to be operative in the thinking of a Catholic, the sensus fidei fidelis must be both welcomed and nourished. Like all sacramental gifts, it must be embraced and fostered to make a critical difference.

Participation in the Sensus Fidei

The sensus fidei belongs to the whole Church, and we participate in it effectively only by actualizing its gift in our own souls. The Theological Commission lists and explains the following essential dispositions for authentic participation in the sensus fidei:

  1. Participation in the life of the Church (see the long quotation at the end of this list)
  2. Listening to the Word of God
  3. Openness to reason
  4. Adherence to the Magisterium
  5. Holiness as minimally reflected in humility, freedom and joy
  6. Seeking the edification of the Church

The most complex of these dispositions is participation in the life of the Church. The following passage explains what this means:

The first and most fundamental disposition is active participation in the life of the Church. Formal membership of the Church is not enough. Participation in the life of the Church means constant prayer (cf. 1Thess 5:17), active participation in the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, regular reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, discernment and exercise of gifts and charisms received from the Holy Spirit, and active engagement in the Church’s mission and in her diakonia. It presumes an acceptance of the Church’s teaching on matters of faith and morals, a willingness to follow the commands of God, and courage both to correct one’s brothers and sisters, and also to accept correction oneself. [#89]

It is worth pointing out that several of these dispositions highlight essential Christian attitudes and motives (which makes the word “disposition” extraordinarily apt). For example, “listening to the Word of God” raises the whole question of what voices our hearts are disposed to heed. Surely it is extremely clear that there are many in the Church who hang on every word from “the world” while caring little about penetrating the Word of God. Hearts moved in this way will not discern the treasures of the Catholic Faith. They will have “tin ears” when it comes to that sweet music.

So too with seeking the edification of the Church. Here the Commission simply quotes St. Paul to highlight the proper disposition, a disposition often painfully missing among our secularized brethren, especially those who so vociferously reject what they find onerous in Catholic teaching. But St. Paul says: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1Cor 12:7).

Openness to reason may seem to be a surprising criterion, but it shouldn’t be. How much rationalization is at work in our time, changing white to black and black to white—especially in the more or less deliberate inversion of the moral order to justify personal desires! As Our Lord teaches, a true openness to reason requires that we love God not only with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength, but also with all our mind (Mk 12:30).

Perhaps the disposition of adherence to the magisterium also requires comment. At first we may wonder whether this does not put the cart before the horse. Dissenting theologians typically argue that the sensus fidei ought to guide the Magisterium, and not the other way around. But, as we will see shortly, they constantly confuse the sensus fidei with public opinion.

Any given member of the faithful exercises the sensus fidei only imperfectly. As St. Vincent Lerins explained in the fifth century, what is certain is that which has been held everywhere, always and by everyone (“quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est”)—a tall order! But the Magisterium enjoys a special promise of Christ, so that Peter, who will not fail in faith, can confirm his brothers (Lk 22:32). Thus what has been enunciated by the Magisterium is received by the Church as belonging to the deposit of Faith. The disposition to receive this Faith fully is, of course, essential to the exercise of the sensus fidei fidelis.

Sensus fidei fidelis AND sensus fidei fidelium

This becomes even clearer as soon as we recognize that the “sensus fidei” is really a two-part concept, corresponding to what we might call the bipartite character of the Church. CatholicCulture.org readers are no strangers to the two ways in which Catholics must consider the Church: In her members, on the one hand, and in her identity as the bride and body of Christ, on the other. It is all the same Church, of course, but it must be considered both in terms of the members, who are always sinful, and in the profound Christic dimension of the Church’s very being, which is “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27).

In much the same way, the sense of faith must be considered under two aspects, the “sensus fidei fidelis” (“the sense of faith of the faithful one”) and the “sensus fidei fidelium” (“the sense of faith of the faithful ones”). As the Theological Commission explains, the former refers to “the personal aptitude of the believer to make an accurate discernment in matters of faith”, considered as an individual, as one of many. The latter refers to “the Church’s own instinct of faith” (#3), that is, the Faith of the whole body of Christ taken as a unity. The former varies in its power according to its cultivation by each person; the latter is unerring.

Where there is a true convergence of the two, a consensus fidelium emerges which “is a sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the apostolic faith” (#3). We saw this at work, for example, in the extensive consultations by the popes with the bishops of the world prior to the proclamation of the great Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. The popes asked specifically for the bishops to report on the presence or absence of devotion to these attributes on the part of the faithful in their dioceses.

There is no question, then, that the sensus fidei fidelis (note again that this means the sense of faith of the faithful, those who are “full of faith”) must be taken seriously by the Magisterium of the Church; it is an important reality in the life of the Church. But it must be distinguished sharply from our common understanding of what we call public opinion. The Theological Commission explains the differences in the final chapter of the text, “How to discern authentic manifestations of the sensus fidei”.

Not only is “opinion” not the same as “faith”, but the whole sociological process by which we measure public opinion is very different than the theological process by which we cultivate, appropriate and then respond to the sensus fidei. Everyone, to the sociologist, is entitled to his own opinion. But not everyone who claims the Catholic name has the dispositions necessary to participate effectively in the sensus fidei. Nor are the Church’s teachings determined by opinion (which, to cite yet another disqualification, is so easily manipulated by the media). The Church’s teaching is the guide to a life determined “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).

A Strong Document

This new text of the International Theological Commission is divided into four chapters. The copy in our library conveniently includes a linked outline of the contents at the very beginning. But the major sections and topics are worth mentioning here to demonstrate the full scope of the document, for I have touched only on what is of greatest interest to me.

The first chapter covers The sensus fidei in Scripture and Tradition. It draws heavily first on Scripture and then on the theological developments of the Patristic, Medieval, Reformation and Post-Reformation periods, and of the 19th and 20th centuries. This is meat and drink to those interested in learning how deeply rooted the sensus fidei is in Catholic thought.

The second chapter is occupied with The sensus fidei in the personal life of the believer. Included are sections on the “The sensus fidei as an instinct of faith” and “Manifestations of the sensus fidei in the personal life of believers”.

Chapter three deals with The sensus fidei fidelium in the life of the Church. It considers the sensus fidei in the development of Catholic doctrine and practice, in relationship to the Magisterium, in relationship to theology, and in its ecumenical dimensions.

The final chapter, which includes most of the points emphasized in this essay, is entitled How to discern authentic manifestations of the sensus fidei. As we have seen, this chapter includes sections on the dispositions necessary to participate in the sensus fidei as well as a final section of “applications”: to popular religiosity, to public opinion, and to ways of consulting the faithful.

Conclusion

Not everything in the document is theologically rich. Some topics seem to be covered in what we might call a basic, common sensical manner, as if making sure to cover a list. But on the whole “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church” is an excellent contribution to an important topic. Its chief value lies unquestionably in reconnecting the various ways in which we have considered the “faithful” in the Church over the past few generations, considerations that have been too frequently disjointed and prone to conflict.

Ultimately, the Theological Commission here strengthens our understanding of what it means “to think with the Church” (sentire cum ecclesia). The authors translate this as “to feel, sense and perceive in harmony with the Church”. In passing, let me mention that this is the bedrock principle of CatholicCulture.org, and it is undoubtedly the reason that so many readers find our work here to be unusually “balanced”. Nobody does this perfectly, of course, and I have no doubt that a peculiar hobby horse or two bucks up and down in these pages from time to time. But we take it as a solemn responsibility of anyone claiming to represent Catholicism to work hard at thinking with the Church—and avoiding preoccupation with personal injuries, passions, opinions and tastes.

It seems to me that, regardless of our own success, this effort is a key to spiritual growth. If we review the dispositions required for effectively participating in the sensus fidei, we will see a summary of what it means to take the Christian life seriously. This list of dispositions is both a reminder and a challenge. It is not too much to say that those who cultivate them enrich and unify the body of Christ, and those who do not tear it apart by driving nails. In this light, the spiritual wealth of this latest offering by the International Theological Commission is made manifest. We all have our work cut out for us.

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