'Sensus fidelium': the sense of the faithful - Catholic Courier
Faithful attend Pope Francis' Angelus in St. Peter's Square Feb. 11 at the Vatican. The Holy Spirit guides not only bishops and the pope, but also the faithful, who make up the mystical body of Christ in unity with the magisterium. (CNS photo by Max Rossi/Reuters) Faithful attend Pope Francis' Angelus in St. Peter's Square Feb. 11 at the Vatican. The Holy Spirit guides not only bishops and the pope, but also the faithful, who make up the mystical body of Christ in unity with the magisterium. (CNS photo by Max Rossi/Reuters)

‘Sensus fidelium’: the sense of the faithful

In this issue:
‘Sensus fidelium’: The sense of the faithful
‘Sensus fidelium’: A sacred ‘common sense’
An instinct: Always faithful
Food for Thought

In a nutshell

There are many moving examples where the sense of the faithful can be seen preserving the faith.

In the “sensus fidelium,” there is a breathing together of church teaching and people’s lived experience.

Nourished by prayer and worship, the faithful gain knowledge and understanding of the faith from the community of believers that is the church.

‘Sensus fidelium’: The sense of the faithful’

By Maria C. Morrow/Catholic News Service

“Sensus fidelium” is a Latin phrase that can be translated as the “sense of the faithful.” The concept concerns how the faithful together understand and live the faith. “Sensus fidelium” is intrinsically bound up with the teaching of the church’s magisterium, that is, the bishops in union with the pope, as successors to the apostles.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus announces to his apostles, “When he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (16:13). At an initial level, Jesus is speaking of his immediate apostles, so that they can rest assured the Holy Spirit will enable them to recall all things.

This statement also includes the role of some of these apostles as inspired authors of sacred Scripture, guided to truth in their writings. Beyond this, the statement applies to the magisterium of the church, because the bishops and pope are successors of the apostles.

At another level, however, Jesus’ words apply to the faithful collectively; the Holy Spirit guides not only bishops and the pope, but also the faithful, who make up the mystical body of Christ in unity with the magisterium. “Sensus fidelium” represents a profound unity that is crucial to the church’s identity.

One of the most difficult and earliest heresies our Christian ancestors in the faith had to face was Arianism, the notion that Jesus was not God and not consubstantial with God the Father. The famous line from Arius in reference to the Son of God was that “there was a time when he was not.”

During the time of the Arian heresy, the majority of the bishops agreed with and followed Arius.

Despite this fact, the majority of the faithful were on the side of orthodoxy, believing the truth that Jesus is God. In part, this was because it was the faith as it had been handed on to them — the “sensus fidelium” at work.

Ordinary believers kept the traditional faith they had been taught, and this sense of the faithful was significant for affirming and preserving the teaching of Jesus’ divinity.

Complicated words like “consubstantial” (from the Greek “homoousious”) were used to explain this truth believed by the faithful: Jesus is the son of God, and, as such, is divine. It may seem complicated, but the bishops who affirmed the teaching saw it as the best way to represent the “sensus fidelium.”

When we now say the word “consubstantial,” we show that we are united with the faithful who came before us, including those who held fast to Jesus’ divinity despite the popularity of Arianism among many bishops.

God speaks infallibly through the church. This includes the pope, the bishops in union with the pope, and the sense of the faithful, which includes the bishops and pope as well as the baptized collectively.

This gift of the Holy Spirit guiding the church to truth is because God wants all to be saved. Thus, the bearers of infallibility are always at the service of others, keeping the salvation of the church in mind.

When thinking of “sensus fidelium” as infallible, it is helpful to keep in mind that it is the sense of faith of the entire people of God. This notion is connected to the saying, “the rule of prayer is the rule of faith.” That is, how we pray is how we believe.

The church’s infallibility is ordered to sanctity. In other words, the faithful are all called to become saints. This is the point of the “sensus fidelium.”

At its core, the sense of the faithful is rooted in the virtue of faith infused in the individual members of the faithful at baptism, their individual growth in faith and collectively their representation of the church’s faith in union with the magisterium.

Sometimes the magisterium seeks clarity to better understand and communicate the sacred deposit of faith. This can be inspired by the sense of the faithful indicating that some pressing matter needs more light.

Although the example of Arianism above shows “sensus fidelium” at work in the face of heresy, the sense of the faithful is not ordered to resolving such conflicts in the way that formal statements from the magisterium do. Rather, the sense of the faithful preserves the one true faith over time and amid obstacles.

There are many moving examples where the sense of the faithful can be seen preserving the faith. For example, Japanese Catholics had a complete absence of priests in the 17th through 19th centuries, and thus they were unable to celebrate the sacraments (other than baptism and marriage) for over 200 years.

And yet, when missionaries returned to Japan, they found the faith handed on despite the obstacles.

The “sensus fidelium” is much broader than any local Christian community such as the Japanese Catholics, but that local church provides a glimpse into how the sense of the faithful works. The “sensus fidelium” refers to the infallibility of the church with regard to handing on the faith encompassing the whole faithful, priests, bishops and pope.

It is a gift from God to aid the church’s practice of the faith so that all of the members of the people of God can become holy. 

(Morrow is the mother of six and adjunct professor of Catholic studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.)

‘Sensus fidelium’: A sacred ‘common sense’

By Anna Capizzi/Catholic News Service

Although many Catholics may be unaware of it, they possess a kind of spiritual instinct that helps to guide the church.

The “sensus fidelium,” or “sense of the faithful,” is the “church’s conviction that all believers, individually and as a whole church, have a kind of sacred common sense, sort of a shared spiritual instinct for the truth of the faith,” said Edward Hahnenberg, professor of systematic theology at John Carroll University in Ohio.

“It’s pointing to a kind of a mode of knowing that’s not purely the result of rational deduction,” Hahnenberg said, rather it’s a sort of spontaneous or natural knowledge.

Massimo Faggioli, professor of historical theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, said, “Every member of the church is an interpreter of the church, of the faith, an interpreter of the fundamental decisions made by the church in a particular time, on a particular issue.”

“There are different roles for the leaders of the church and of the people, but all of them share this fundamental task of being infallible believers and carriers of the faith,” Faggioli added.

In 2014, the Vatican’s International Theological Commission released a document called “‘Sensus Fidei’ in the Life of the Church.”

The document uses the example of close friendships to explain how the believer can know something at a deep heart level, even if he or she is unable to put it into explicit theological statements, Hahnenberg said.

When you know a friend, or are so closely united to a spouse, you become almost spontaneously able to judge what suits the other person because you share in their inclinations, Hahnenberg explained. “That’s the kind of heart knowledge that the ‘sensus fidelium’ is pointing to.”

There are a very few moments when you can see the “‘sensus fidelium’ at work,” Faggioli said, since it works in a mysterious and invisible way.

“There are no mechanisms, no polls taken either before or after,” he said.

The “sensus fidelium” becomes visible through “the process of reception of a teaching,” Faggioli said, how a teaching of the church is received, interpreted, accepted or not accepted over a long period of time.

Faggioli used the example of the First Vatican Council’s teaching on papal primacy and infallibility as an example of the “sensus fidelium” at work.

The teachings “have been subject to the scrutiny of the Catholic people in this last century and a half, and so they at the time were controversial, but after almost 150 years,” he said, “there is a fundamental consensus in the Catholic Church on what the papacy is, what it is about, why it’s important, how it works.”

Hahnenberg pointed to “the growing conviction of God’s universal saving grace,” as an example.

Whereas “Catholics in an earlier era might have somewhat uncritically condemned everyone who wasn’t Catholic,” he said, over time, “there’s been a real shift in terms of Catholics appreciation for the ways in which God works in mysterious ways beyond the boundaries of the church.”

That shift, prompted by Catholics who gradually entered a more religiously diverse world and lived among people who, while not Catholic, exhibited Christ-like behavior, demonstrates what John Henry Newman referred to as “conspiratio,” a breathing together of church teaching and people’s lived experience, Hahnenberg said.

When looking at how a particular teaching is received, it’s important to have a global Catholic perspective, Faggioli said.

“We tend to see what’s important for our national church, our local church or our continent,” he said, but to have a Catholic perspective on the history and meaning of the “sensus fidelium” on a particular teaching, Catholics must consider “how it was received in the entire world,” he said.

Catholics should take note of the “sensus fidelium” because “in your lived experience, in your sense of what’s good and true and faithful you have something to contribute to the church as a whole,” Hahnenberg said.

Although the process is largely unconscious, “it’s a good idea to be aware of what’s happening inside of you,” Faggioli said. Becoming more conscious about the “sensus fidelium” is a way to be more active in your faith, he said.

(Capizzi is the special projects editor at Catholic News Service.)

An instinct: Always faithful

By Daniel S. Mulhall/Catholic News Service

In 2014 the Vatican’s International Theological Commission published the document “‘Sensus Fidei’ in the Life of the Church” with the approval of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The idea of “sensus fidei” expresses the belief that “the faithful have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them to recognize and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false” (No. 2).

This means that while individual believers may be lead astray, the faithful as a whole will never be.

The “sensus fidei” reflects two realities, “the personal capacity of the believer, within the communion of the church, to discern the truth of faith” as well as a “communal ecclesial reality: the instinct of the church herself” (No. 3).

The convergence of the two, “the consensus fidelium” is a “sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the apostolic faith” (No. 3).

Although the phrase “sensus fidei” does not appear in Scripture or in the formal teachings of the church until the Second Vatican Council, the concept “that the church as a whole is infallible in her belief” is “everywhere apparent from the very beginnings of Christianity” (No. 7).

The Christian faith comes down to us from Abraham, the prophets, and then through Jesus and the early church. Ultimately, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit and a result of God’s grace (No. 8). The good news calls forth from those who hear it belief in God’s offer of salvation, with “all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk 12:31).

Faith is “both an act of belief or trust and also that which is believed or confessed” (No. 10). “Both aspects work together inseparably,” meaning that the proclamation of the good news of Jesus that I believe is bound together with my act of believing. My belief in the Gospel will encourage others to believe.

The Letters of St. Paul show that the personal and ecclesial dimensions of faith are linked. Paul understands that “the faith of believers” is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that this same spirit “incorporates every believer into the body of Christ and gives him or her a special role in order to build up the church” (No. 11).

Paul wrote to the Ephesians that while we are called by the Spirit individually to believe in Christ, we are united in “one hope ‚Ķ one Lord, one faith, one baptism” in the one God who is the “Father of all” (Eph 4:4-6).

Nourished by prayer and worship, the faithful gain knowledge and understanding of the faith from the community of believers that is the church. From this understanding we are led to humbly recognize and confess our failures, trusting confidently in the faith that is vouched to be true by the communion of saints (Heb 12:1), the believers who came before us.

It is from this confidence that we can trust in the “sensus fidei.”

(Daniel S. Mulhall is a catechist in Louisville, Kentucky.)

Food for Thought

In his first Angelus address March 2013, Pope Francis spoke of the wisdom of a humble elderly woman who once approached him when he was a pastor.

He asked her if she wanted to make a confession, and she said yes, and spoke of her confidence in God’s great mercy. Then she told him something that astounded him, the pope said. She said, “If the Lord did not forgive everything, the world would not exist.”

Pope Francis said he felt an urge to ask her, “Did you study at the Gregorian (university)?”

Her wisdom, the pope said, “that is the wisdom the Holy Spirit gives.”

To illustrate the sense of the faithful, the International Theological Commission used this example of Pope Francis’ interaction with the elderly woman in the introduction to its 2014 document, “‘Sensus Fidei’ In the Life of the Church.”

Even the humblest of Catholics possess this sense of the faithful, though they may not be able to express their belief in theological language or categories.

“The woman’s insight is a striking manifestation of the ‘sensus fidei,'” the document stated. It enables certain discernment regarding questions of faith and “fosters true wisdom and gives rise, as here, to proclamation of the truth.”

This “supernatural instinct” enables Catholics to recognize what is true and allows them to fulfill their “prophetic calling,” the commission stated.

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