On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine
by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller
On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine. This is the title of the famous essay written by Saint John Henry Newman in 1859 that I will be commenting on today. I will consider what space and weight ought to be given to the voice of the faithful in matters of doctrine. And I will pose this question amid the crisis of faith that today is shaking the Church to its depths.
When speaking of the laity, some might suppose that we intend to contrast experts with “laity,” where the latter are less “afflicted” by informed consent and more easily make their voices heard even in the most complex issues. Just think of the problem of climate change. But that is not what we are dealing with here and now.
In the present context, “layman” does not designate a non-expert in matters of theology, but rather a baptized and confirmed Christian who has not received the sacrament of Orders. I will therefore examine what role the laity have in the interpretation, explanation, proclamation and formulation of the doctrine of the faith; and, not lastly, I will pose this question against the background of the current situation. The International Theological Commission, then headed by Cardinal Müller, in 2014 also published an important document in this regard, which will be taken into consideration.
First, however, let us take a look at history. There are, in fact, many testimonies of the important role of the laity’s witness of faith. Cardinal Newman turns our gaze to the Arian crisis in the fourth century. In that situation, which dealt with the equal nature of the divinity of Jesus with the Father, and whose stakes were a matter of belonging or not belonging to the Church, the bishops failed in abundance. “They spoke variously, one against another; there was nothing, after Nicaea, of firm, unvarying, consistent testimony, for nearly sixty years.”
While the episcopate was shaken and divided, “in that very day the divine tradition committed to the infallible Church was proclaimed and maintained far more by the faithful than by the Episcopate.” Newman states: “In that time of immense confusion the divine dogma of our Lord’s divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved, far more by the ‘Ecclesia docta’ than by the ‘Ecclesia docens’; that the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism.”
Let us skip over the analogous testimonies in the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the modern era, where preference is given to the witness of faith of the whole Church, without distinguishing between titles of holders of the magisterium and the faithful. There one finds the infallibilitas in credendo spoken of, i.e. the passive infallibility of the Church, which cannot, in its totality, fall into heresy.
The sensus fidei of believers, however, does not act only when dealing with the rejecting error, but also in the witness to truth.
Very significant examples of the importance that several popes attributed to the laity’s witness of faith can be found in the last two centuries; more precisely, in the context of the Marian dogmas of 1854 and 1950.
In both cases, before they were defined all the bishops were invited to verify and report where they themselves, together with the clergy and the faithful, stood in regard to this intention. In this way, both Pius IX and Pius XII ascertained the conviction of faith alive in the Church regarding the two Marian truths. The approval of the two dogmas was general, with a few rare exceptions. “Securus iudicat orbis terrarum.” Augustine had already contrasted this conviction with the heresies of his time. Clearly both Pius IX and Pius XII were aware of the weight that the witness of the faithful has also in relation to the supreme master of faith, making express reference to it in their respective bulls defining the dogmas.
It is therefore the sensus, the consensus fidei, by virtue of which the witness of the faithful has its own weight in the preservation, deepening and proclamation of the truth of revealed faith.
When Cardinal Newman says that it is a matter, on the part of the Magisterium, of consulting the faithful, one might get the impression that he intends a sort of poll, even a plebiscite. Of course this is impossible. The Church is not a democratically constituted society, but the Corpus mysticum of the risen and glorified Christ, with whom and in whom the faithful are united as the members of a body, forming as it were a supernatural organism. Clearly, therefore, laws different from sociological and political ones apply; what emerges here is the reality of grace.
As the faith teaches, through the Sacrament of baptism a person is infused with sanctifying grace, which is a supernatural ontological reality that renders man holy, just and pleasing to God. Through sanctifying grace — one could also say justifying grace — the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are also infused. Faith, hope and charity are a habitus, a predisposition of the soul that make the latter capable of acting, of behaving accordingly.
One way the theological virtue of faith becomes efficacious, among other things, is through the sensus fidei of the faithful. This effectiveness can, positively, enable a deeper vision of revealed truth, a clearer understanding and a stronger profession. Negatively, however, the sensus fidei acts as a sort of spiritual immune system, which enables the faithful instinctively to recognize and reject any error. Leaving aside the divine promise, the passive infallibility of the Church, i.e. the certainty that the Church in its totality can never slip into heresy, also rests therefore on this sensus fidei.
In fact, in number 12 of the constitution Lumen gentium, the Second Vatican Council teaches: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. 1 Jn 2:20 and 27), cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. […] Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life.”
Therefore, the consensus of the faithful and manifestation of the same have a significant importance.
Now, undoubtedly in the history of the Church there have been cases of this kind. Such was the case, for example, with the so-called Pataria movement in Northern Italy, which, approaching attempts at roman reform, in the second half of the twelfth century forcefully rose up against the investiture of the laity, simony and priestly concubinage. Then there were the masses of faithful who in 1300s set out to reach the tombs of the apostles, leading Pope Boniface VIII to establish the Holy Year and to articulate the doctrine on indulgences with the Bull Antiquorum habet fida relatio. It should not be forgotten how important the ultramontanism of the nineteenth century was for the dogmas of Vatican Council I.
But history also teaches us that truth is not necessarily found with the majority, or in large numbers. Indeed, what should have be said when, for example, the apostolic nuncio Girolamo Aleandro reported from the Reichstag of Worms of 1521 that nine tenths of the Germans had shouted “Luther” and “down with the Roman Curia”? What should be said when today our parish communities loudly applaud a priest who has announced his imminent wedding during his homily? What happened when the German Katholikentag of 1968 reacted with excessive protests, even with hatred, to the encyclical Humanae vitae?
Truly, in such cases was — and is — the sensus fidei, the consensus fidelium at work, nourished by the theological virtue? It seems clear, in these and other similar cases, that the consensus fidei fidelium cannot be compared to the volonté generale of Rousseau.
Therefore, when Catholics en masse consider it legitimate to remarry after divorce, to use contraception or other similar things, this is not a mass witness to the faith, but a mass departure from it. The sensus fidei is not an entity that can be determined democratically, through opinion polls. The only question is how mass testimony differs from mass estrangement.
St. John Paul II therefore had already stressed the need to distinguish carefully between “public opinion” and the sensus fidei fidelium.
In this regard, the International Theological Commission also says with great clarity: “It is clear that there can be no simple identification between the sensus fidei and public or majority opinion. These are by no means the same thing.” (The sensus fidei in the life of the Church, n. 118). This also applies to public or majority opinion within the Church. “In the history of the people of God, it has often been not the majority but rather a minority which has truly lived and witnessed to the faith. [...]. It is therefore particularly important to discern and listen to the voices of the ‘little ones who believe’ (Mk 9:42)” (ibid.).
What follows [in the text] is extraordinary: “The experience of the Church shows that sometimes the truth of the faith has been conserved not by the efforts of theologians or the teaching of the majority of bishops but in the hearts of believers” (ibid. n. 119).
One particular example of this is given by the arian confusion surrounding the Council of Nicaea already mentioned by Newman, where even the synods of bishops either supported heresy or were spreading it. The same could be observed when one thinks of the opinions sustained today by the diocesan, pastoral and other councils established in the post-conciliar period. It is perhaps a little far from reality when the above-mentioned document “Sensus fidei” defines them in general as “institutional instruments” for evaluating the sensus fidelium (ibid., n. 125).
Indeed, as the example of the post-Nicaea synods already shows, they can fall into error. Discernment therefore becomes even more essential. This need is highlighted by the document ‘The sensus fidei in the life of the Church published’ published in 2014: “It is necessary now to consider how to discern and identify authentic manifestations of the sensus fidei. Such a discernment is particularly required in situations of tension when the authentic sensus fidei needs to be distinguished from expressions simply of popular opinion, particular interests or the spirit of the age” (n. 87).
Once again, reference can be made to J. H. Newman, who in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine proposes a list of criteria which make it possible to distinguish the legitimate organic development of doctrine from error. Here it suffices to recall the indispensable lack of contradiction with regard to authentic tradition.
And so this document [The sensus fidei in the life of the Church published] also develops criteria, or “dispositions required for authentic participation in the sensus fidei” (ibid., n. 73). This means that not all those who call themselves Catholic can claim they should be taken seriously as a organ of this sensus fidei.
In short: “Authentic participation in the sensus fidei requires holiness. […] To be holy fundamentally means […] to be baptized and to live the faith in the power of the Holy Spirit.” (ibid. n. 99). This defines a very high requirement then.
Once these premises have been laid down, it is necessary to take into account what the Second Vatican Council teaches in number 12 of Lumen Gentium: “Catholics should be fully aware of the real freedom to speak their minds which stems from a “feeling for the faith” [i.e. the sensus fidei] and from love (Lumen gentium, 12). (The sensus fidei in the life of the Church, n. 24). That is why canon 212 §3 also establishes: “According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals.”
Now, however, the question arises as to how to discern the authentic, and therefore theologically relevant, sensus fidelium. In the preparatory phase of the synods of bishops, for example, questionnaires were distributed for this purpose. I cannot judge to what extent these actions were carried out in a professional manner, that is, taking into account the methods developed by modern public opinion research. It is clear, however, that these questionnaires reached the halls of Catholic organizations much more easily than the normal community of the faithful. It was therefore to be expected that the results of the consultation would be influenced by the thinking promoted by the individual associations, etc., rather than reflecting the true public opinion of the people of the faithful. Another problem is the choice, that is to say the formulation of the proposed questions. This made it easy to manipulate the results. It is doubtful whether this [method] will allow the real sensus fidei fidelium to be experienced.
The sensus fidei fidelium, I believe, is expressed much more authentically through spontaneous declarations. One very clear example of this is offered by the “Manif pour tous” mass demonstrations in France. It is also worth noting the participation of hundreds of thousands of people in the Marches for Life. Almost one million Catholics have petitioned the Holy Father about the issues that arose over Amoris laetitia, followed by more than 200 eminent scholars from all over the world. And there are human chains praying the Rosary around the world. These are the forms in which the sensus fidei, the instinct of faith of believing people, is manifested today. It is time that the Magisterium paid due attention to this witness of faith.
In the work cited at the beginning of this talk, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, J. H. Newman writes: “…I am not supposing that such times as the Arian will ever come again…”. Today we would all be better off if he were right.
Translation by Diane Montagna of LifeSiteNews (All rights reserved).
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