Monday, January 23, 2006

A proper understanding of the sensus fidelium

What do we mean by the sensus fidelium? For an understanding of this concept, we need look no further than to my good friend Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. In The Catholic Catechism - A Contemporary Catechism of the Teachings of the Catholic Church, Fr. Hardon explains that:

"Those who believe, and insofar as they believe, are one community not only or mainly because they subjectively believe but because what they believe is objectively true, indeed is the Truth that became man and dwelled among us. Against this background, it is easier to see what universal agreement among the faithful must mean. They are faithful insofar as they are agreed on the truth, where the source of their agreement is not a semantic use of the name 'Christian' or 'Catholic,' but the deeply interior adherence to what God has revealed.

Consequently, whether they realize it or not, all who agree on the revealed truth, under the guidance of the sacred magisterium, belong to the faithful. Their agreement on the truth and allegiance to the magisterium gives them universality, i.e., spiritual unity. The truth interiorly possessed gives them consensus, and not the other way around, as though their consensus on some doctrine made it true." (pp. 226-227).

There are those within the Church, however, who would appeal to the sensus fidelium in an attempt to justify dissent. Their argument is that if a significant portion of those who identify themselves as Catholics hold or adhere to a dissenting opinion, the Holy Father and Bishops should submit their minds and wills to that group's opinion. In other words, such people would have us believe that the sensus fidelium is something independent of the Magisterium.

But such an attitude is in direct opposition to the teaching of Vatican II:

"The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. Jn 2:20, 27), cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole people's 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. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the People of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the Word of God (cf. 1 Thes. 2:13). Through it, the People of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints (cf. Jude 3), penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life." (Lumen Gentium, No. 12; citing St. Augustine, De Praed. Sanct. 14, 27:PL 44, 980).

Moreover, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, had this to say:

"Although theological faith as such then cannot err, the believer can still have erroneous opinions since all his thoughts do not spring from faith. Not all the ideas which circulate among the People of God are compatible with the faith. This is all the more so given that people can be swayed by a public opinion influenced by modern communications media" (No. 35).

Those who attempt to justify their dissent by referring to the sensus fidelium would do well to meditate upon these passages as well as Lumen Gentium, No. 25.


Anonymous said...

I think that was the problem with contraception. And still is. Many Catholics believe it's somehow "okay" to strap on a condom since so many other Catholics are doing it. Your post is very insightful.

Anonymous said...

Those who promote that flawed interpretation of the sensus fidelium do so because they view the Church as a democracy rather than the hierarchical Church which Jesus established.

I always enjoyed reading Fr. Hardon. Thank you for explaining in more detail his passage on this important subject. Love the quote from the Constitution on the Church of Vatican II.


Anonymous said...

Hopefully, priests from the Manchester Diocese will soon begin speaking out against dissent in the Church. So far, their silence has been deafening.

But then, we hear so little about sin in general these days. The sacharrin-coated homily still reigns supreme.

Let's not "trouble" anyone with talk of sin and its consequences.

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