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On the 'sense of the faithful,' Bishop Lynch is exactly wrong

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 25, 2014

Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida has drawn a lot of attention with his report on how the Catholics of his diocese responded to questions about marriage and family life. The artful Bishop Lynch doesn’t say that he agrees with the responses from the pews, but if he’s upset by the fact that most of his flock rejects Church teaching, he conceals his disappointment very well.

Most of the Catholics of St. Petersburg oppose same-sex marriage, the bishop reports. However, he adds that they think “the Church needed to be better prepared to respond to the reality of same-sex marriage.” (Oh, is same-sex marriage a reality, then?) He notes the belief that “the Church needs to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ on cohabitation,” and the invocation of “economic realities” as a justification for shacking up.

But Bishop Lynch saves his strongest language for the question of birth control:

Finally, on the matter of artificial contraception the responses might be characterized by the saying, “that train left the station long ago”. Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium suggests the rejection of Church teaching on this subject.

It’s impossible for the sensus fidelium to reject Church teaching; it’s a contradiction in terms. The sense of the faithful is in accord with what the Church teaches; that’s what it means to be faithful. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (92) teaches that the sense of the faithful is evident “when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”

There is, unfortunately, no “universal consent” among Catholics today on the issue of contraception. We don’t need Bishop Lynch to remind us of that fact. But a sloppy opinion survey, taken among people who have in all likelihood never heard the Church teachings explained, does not change what faithful Catholics semper et ubique have understood.

“Of course, the sensus fidelium cannot be confused with the sociological reality of a majority opinion,” Pope Francis reminded the International Theological Commission in December. Of course.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Aug. 26, 2017 5:45 PM ET USA

    Thank you for your wonderful work. I am getting from you all the Catholic news that matter. Would you be able to include a "counter" next to each news title showing the number of comments under each link? This would allow monitoring the publication of any new comments without re-clicking the links.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 26, 2017 12:26 AM ET USA

    I like the idea. Among the most valuable news items from my perspective are the reports from Catholic prelates on the ground in countries under siege. I believe their accounts to be vastly more reliable than those of the itinerant reporter. Informed public policy ought to be aware of and give substantial weight to their reports. This system of embedded leaders and observers has been keeping the papacy up to date on world affairs for centuries. It should be afforded its proper respect today.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Aug. 25, 2017 10:17 PM ET USA

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  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Aug. 25, 2017 6:50 PM ET USA

    Excellent idea! I have recently noticed that I have become bored with the news reports by CWN -- they just state the facts, ma'am, without any guidance for thinking about the facts in relation to Catholic teaching. Since there is nothing new under the sun, at 78 I have read all the news facts I need to. (Actually, I think that happened way back when I was about 40.) What I need is help figuring out what to think about the facts.

  • Posted by: MatJohn - Aug. 25, 2017 6:46 PM ET USA

    Looking forward to the format change. Hope you're including graphics.

  • Posted by: schndj2254 - Mar. 09, 2014 7:37 PM ET USA

    It's understandable that Bishop Lynch is confused about the sensus the past he's been equally confused about the HHS bill's coverage of abortion, what constituted extraordinary medical measures for Terri Schiavo, LA Cardinal Roger Mahoney's understanding of the Eucharist (well he was busy transferring priests), and finally, his own problems with personnel mgmt. in his own Diocese...cmon 75!! so he can join Mahoney, Hubbard, Gumbleton and others in Emeritus status

  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - Mar. 02, 2014 5:20 PM ET USA

    His Excellency has set an episcopal record for use of particularly vacuous cliche

  • Posted by: - Mar. 02, 2014 12:42 PM ET USA

    Isn't this the same bishop who heads the USCCB committee which supposedly has oversight as to the soi-disant "Catholic" News Service ("CNS") ??

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Mar. 01, 2014 9:28 PM ET USA

    Lynch is like so many of our bishops. His attitude is really let us take a poll on what doctrines we should teach and make everyone feel good. Another feckless bishop who has a backbone of straw that cracks in the slightest wind.

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Mar. 01, 2014 11:36 AM ET USA

    The level of ignorance of most Catholics reflect the two things upon which the bishops have been most cowardly, the reality of sin and the delusional belief systems people create for themselves to accomodate their sins.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 01, 2014 11:04 AM ET USA

    And if the sensus fidelium says Bishop Lynch should be removed? What then? Would he still believe that the fidelium has any sensus? Our Attorney General would agree with Lynch: why defend a law that you don't like?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 01, 2014 8:23 AM ET USA

    Unfortunately the difficulty these days in not necessarily fallacious thinking. In his case the bishop is probably employing a reasonable amount of logic in his conclusions. In other words he is consistent with his belief system or whatever one might call it. With regard to his mindset about the Church's teaching, it is sadly the case that "the train" has indeed left the station. There are far too many Catholics whose entire perspective is outside or opposed to the true sensus fidelium.

  • Posted by: abc - Feb. 28, 2014 8:08 PM ET USA

    Unfortunately, he is not alone. It amazes me how so many bishops (German ones at the top of the list) may say things like this at the same time as they acknowledge that "Catholics don't know Church teaching", as if it was the duty of the Holy Spirit alone to teach them, disregarding the bishops. They simply wash their hands, as if they were not aware that they are publicly acknowledging their failure...

  • Posted by: bruno - Feb. 28, 2014 4:21 AM ET USA

    Unfortunately, Mr. Lawler's analysis is spot on. As one of his flock, I would just ask that the readers of CC keep the catholics of St. Petersburg (yes, including our bishop) in your prayers.

  • Posted by: Defender - Feb. 26, 2014 3:00 PM ET USA

    This is probably one of the most major things that the pope needs to change before anything else. How can the laity follow their bishop when he doesn't seem to believe in the Magisterium? The Vatican needs to be more certain in the bishops chosen and to keep tabs on what they're doing and saying.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Feb. 26, 2014 11:48 AM ET USA

    Just as he was exactly wrong when it came to Terri Schiavo. Unfortunately, May 2016 can't come soon enough for the people of St. Petersburg.

  • Posted by: lak321 - Feb. 25, 2014 10:22 PM ET USA

    Fr. Faber listed many reasons why so many bishops go to hell. What temptations they are under, what a great responsibility they have, and what a fearsome judgment awaits them. Let us pray for them.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Feb. 25, 2014 4:51 PM ET USA

    Doesn't sound like he has much of a will to catechize. "Train left the station. Oh well, nothing I can do about it. Ho hum." I looked up on Ed Peters' page when he is due to retire: May 2016. Next bishop in a diocese like this has his work cut out for him.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Feb. 25, 2014 4:12 PM ET USA

    Many things may be in doubt, but there is one we can bank on with no fear: Bishop Lynch has never taught his flock about the truths of Humanae Vitae. In fact, place a safe bet by wagering that it has never crossed his mind to even try to teach them.