The sensus fidei, “Amoris laetitia,” and the state of the Church

At Rorate Caelithere is a translation of a talk Roberto de Mattei gave back in October. It is all about infallibility, indefectibility, and the sensus fidei. It is stupendously good, and you need to read it. A brief selection to whet your appetite:

The ultimate rule of the faith is not the contemporary ‘living’ Magisterium, in what it contains as non-defining, but Tradition, or rather the objective and perennial Magisterium, which constitutes, along with Holy Scripture, one of the two sources of the Word of God. Ordinarily the Magisterium is the proximate rule of faith, inasmuch as it transmits and applies infallible truths contained in the deposit of Revelation, but in the case of a contrast between the novelties proposed by the subjective or “living” Magisterium and Tradition, the primacy can only be given to Tradition, for one simple motive: Tradition, which is the “living” Magisterium in its universality and continuity, is in itself infallible, whereas the so-called “living” Magisterium, meant as the current predication by the ecclesiastical hierarchy, is only so in determinate conditions. Tradition, in fact is always divinely assisted; the Magisterium is so only when it is expressed in an extraordinary way, or when, in ordinary form, it teaches with continuity over time, a truth of faith and morals. The fact that the ordinary Magisterium cannot constantly teach a truth contrary to the faith, does not exclude that this same Magisterium may fall per accidens into error, when the teaching is circumscribed in space and time and is not expressed in an extraordinary manner.

This does not mean in any way that the dogmatic truth must be the result of the sentiment of lay-people and that nothing can be defined without first hearing the opinion of the universal Church, as if the Magisterium was simply a revealer of the faith of the people, quasi-regulated by them in its magisterial function. It means, however, as Padre Garcia Extremeno asserts, that the Magisterium cannot propose anything infallibly to the Church, if it is not contained in Tradition, which is the supreme regula fidei of the Church.

Tradition is maintained and transmitted by the Church, not only through the Magisterium, but through all the faithful, “from the bishops down to the laity”[70], as the famous formula by St. Augustine, cited in Lumen Gentium no. 12 expresses. The doctor from Hippo makes an appeal in particular to “the people of the faith”[71], who do not exercise a Magisterium, but on the basis of their sensus fidei guarantee the continuity of the transmission of a truth. 

(Emphasis supplied.) The whole talk is absolutely essential reading, not least since questions of infallibility (or lack thereof), indefectibility, and the sensus fidei have come up with some regularity in recent years.

In addition to his own cogent and engaging argument, Professor De Mattei does us a great favor by pointing to a 2014 intervention of the International Theological Commission: Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church. It is a lengthy document, but it is very accessibly written and well worth your time. We have some comments of our own upon it, as a matter of fact. The document observes:

Three principal manifestations of the sensus fidei fidelis in the personal life of the believer can be highlighted. The sensus fidei fidelis enables individual believers: 1) to discern whether or not a particular teaching or practice that they actually encounter in the Church is coherent with the true faith by which they live in the communion of the Church (see below, §§61-63); 2) to distinguish in what is preached between the essential and the secondary (§64); and 3) to determine and put into practice the witness to Jesus Christ that they should give in the particular historical and cultural context in which they live (§65).

‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God ; for many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (1Jn 4:1). The sensus fidei fidelis confers on the believer the capacity to discern whether or not a teaching or practice is coherent with the true faith by which he or she already lives. If individual believers perceive or ‘sense’ that coherence, they spontaneously give their interior adherence to those teachings or engage personally in the practices, whether it is a matter of truths already explicitly taught or of truths not yet explicitly taught.

The sensus fidei fidelis also enables individual believers to perceive any disharmony, incoherence, or contradiction between a teaching or practice and the authentic Christian faith by which they live. They react as a music lover does to false notes in the performance of a piece of music. In such cases, believers interiorly resist the teachings or practices concerned and do not accept them or participate in them. ‘The habitus of faith possesses a capacity whereby, thanks to it, the believer is prevented from giving assent to what is contrary to the faith, just as chastity gives protection with regard to whatever is contrary to chastity.’

Alerted by their sensus fidei, individual believers may deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognise in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd. ‘The sheep follow [the Good Shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run away from him because they do not know the voice of strangers’ (Jn 10:4-5). For St Thomas, a believer, even without theological competence, can and even must resist, by virtue of the sensus fidei, his or her bishop if the latter preaches heterodoxy. In such a case, the believer does not treat himself or herself as the ultimate criterion of the truth of faith, but rather, faced with materially ‘authorised’ preaching which he or she finds troubling, without being able to explain exactly why, defers assent and appeals interiorly to the superior authority of the universal Church.

(Emphasis, both bold and red, supplied and footnotes omitted). De Mattei discusses this at some length, calling it ultimately “Catholic common sense.” That is, when confronted with an intervention of a “legitimate pastor,” which includes, we would think, anyone from one’s parish priest up to the most exalted prelates in the Church, a believer needn’t check his or her “common sense,” so to speak, at the door. If, to use the ITC’s music analogy, the notes are wrong, that may not be rigidity or stiff-necked resistance, but, instead, the sensus fidei alerting the believer to trouble. And, alarmed by the inconsistency between the teaching and one’s common sense, one “appeals interiorly to the superior authority of the universal Church.”

A little later on, discussing concrete applications of the sensus fidei, the ITC document observes:

There is a genuine equality of dignity among all the faithful, because through their baptism they are all reborn in Christ. Because of this equality they all contribute, each according to his or her own condition and office, to the building up of the Body of Christ.’ Therefore, all the faithful ‘have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church’. ‘They have the right to make their views known to others of Christ’s faithful, but in doing so they must always respect the integrity of faith and morals, show due reference to the Pastors and take into account both the common good and the dignity of individuals.’ Accordingly, the faithful, and specifically the lay people, should be treated by the Church’s pastors with respect and consideration, and consulted in an appropriate way for the good of the Church.

The word ‘consult’ includes the idea of seeking a judgment or advice as well as inquiring into a matter of fact. On the one hand, in matters of governance and pastoral issues, the pastors of the Church can and should consult the faithful in certain cases in the sense of asking for their advice or their judgment. On the other hand, when the magisterium is defining a doctrine, it is appropriate to consult the faithful in the sense of inquiring into a matter of fact, ‘because the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and because their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church’.

The practice of consulting the faithful is not new in the life of the Church. In the medieval Church a principle of Roman law was used: Quod omnes tangit, ab omnibus tractari et approbari debet (what affects everyone, should be discussed and approved by all). In the three domains of the life of the Church (faith, sacraments, governance), ‘tradition combined a hierarchical structure with a concrete regime of association and agreement’, and this was considered to be an ‘apostolic practice’ or an ‘apostolic tradition’.

Problems arise when the majority of the faithful remain indifferent to doctrinal or moral decisions taken by the magisterium or when they positively reject them. This lack of reception may indicate a weakness or a lack of faith on the part of the people of God, caused by an insufficiently critical embrace of contemporary culture. But in some cases it may indicate that certain decisions have been taken by those in authority without due consideration of the experience and the sensus fidei of the faithful, or without sufficient consultation of the faithful by the magisterium.

(Emphasis, bold and red, supplied and footnotes omitted) Now, this is interesting. On one hand, one sees that the canonical provision that the faithful have the right to express themselves to their pastors and one another is not a condescension of the hierarchy, which could be revoked and replaced by “pay, pray, and obey” at any minute. No, the right of the faithful to express themselves is founded in the equality of dignity, itself founded in baptism, of all the faithful. Certainly one would not, keeping in mind the Apostle on the various ministries within the Church and the papal documents Quod apostolici muneris and Fin dalla prima nostra, though those documents are from another context, argue that this equality of dignity makes everyone equal in a natural sense. There is still a hierarchy—multiple hierarchies, really. And this must be kept in mind when the faithful manifest their opinions to their pastors and to each other.

Putting that to one side, this is important: the sensus fidei “enables individual believers to perceive any disharmony, incoherence, or contradiction between a teaching or practice and the authentic Christian faith by which they live.” Based upon this perception, which may be more or less inchoate (the individual may not be able to explain precisely why he or she perceives a disharmony, incoherence, or contradiction), the believer has the right, founded in his or her dignity as an adopted son or daughter of God, to express to the magisterium (i.e., the hierarchy) his or her concerns about the teaching. Obviously, this must be done in keeping with the believer’s state in life, but St. Thomas teaches all Catholics how to correct their prelates, if necessary, while remembering not only their station in life but also the demands of charity. This is interesting enough, insofar as it draws a connection between one’s Catholic common sense and the correction, if necessary, of one’s prelate.

But it is what the document goes on to say that is more interesting. On one hand, a teaching that is not received by the faithful, either through indifference or outright rejection, may reflect a failure of faith on the part of the faithful. The most obvious example of this is the teaching against contraception in Humanae vitae. (Though we are sympathetic to the argument that the prohibition was actually proclaimed, perhaps infallibly, by Pius XI in Casti connubii, and merely restated by Paul in response to the clamor of the proponents of contraception in the 1960s.) However, this is not the only possibility. It is possible that the resistance of the faithful represents a failure on the part of the hierarchy to consider the Catholic common sense of the faithful or to consult with the faithful sufficiently. That is, if, exercising their common sense, the faithful don’t accept a teaching, then there is a possibility that the faithful know better than the hierarchy, and this ought to be considered by the hierarchy. In this regard, the sensus fidei can serve as a firewall within the Church.

What does this mean? Does it mean, as some might have it, that the question is to be decided in majoritarian terms? Does it mean that, if a majority of the faithful are okay with a teaching, then the matter is settled, the teaching is consistent with the sensus fidei? By no means. The ITC notes:

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.

i) First of all, the sensus fidei is obviously related to faith, and faith is a gift not necessarily possessed by all people, so the sensus fidei can certainly not be likened to public opinion in society at large. Then also, while Christian faith is, of course, the primary factor uniting members of the Church, many different influences combine to shape the views of Christians living in the modern world. As the above discussion of dispositions implicitly shows, the sensus fidei cannot simply be identified, therefore, with public or majority opinion in the Church, either. Faith, not opinion, is the necessary focus of attention. Opinion is often just an expression, frequently changeable and transient, of the mood or desires of a certain group or culture, whereas faith is the echo of the one Gospel which is valid for all places and times.

ii) 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. The Old Testament knew the ‘holy remnant’ of believers, sometimes very few in number, over against the kings and priests and most of the Israelites. Christianity itself started as a small minority, blamed and persecuted by public authorities. In the history of the Church, evangelical movements such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, or later the Jesuits, started as small groups treated with suspicion by various bishops and theologians. In many countries today, Christians are under strong pressure from other religions or secular ideologies to neglect the truth of faith and weaken the boundaries of ecclesial community. It is therefore particularly important to discern and listen to the voices of the ‘little ones who believe’ (Mk 9:42).

It is undoubtedly necessary to distinguish between the sensus fidei and public or majority opinion, hence the need to identify dispositions necessary for participation in the sensus fidei, such as those elaborated above. Nevertheless, it is the whole people of God which, in its inner unity, confesses and lives the true faith. The magisterium and theology must work constantly to renew the presentation of the faith in different situations, confronting if necessary dominant notions of Christian truth with the actual truth of the Gospel, but it must be recalled that 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.

(Emphasis, bold and red, supplied.) This is, we think, a strong rebuke to some voices in the Church today, who claim that this or that disputed question has been resolved because this or that group—be it the College of Cardinals or the Synod of Bishops or this or that group of theologians—has made a decision or endorsed a decision. (We will have more on this in a moment.) The sensus fidei, which serves as an important voice in the Church (indeed, one may argue that it may be the response of the faithful to the voice of the Holy Spirit), is not a numerical question. And when the sensus fidei is opposed to this or that decision, taken by this or that pastor or group, even if the group of faithful is not numerically large, it is necessary, the ITC observes, to consider what that means. It could be, as with the case of Humanae vitae, that the faithful have simply embraced worldly concerns. But it could be that the hierarchy has simply gotten out of tune with the pure, apostolic faith and the Catholic common sense of a group of faithful detects the sour notes. This is a question of discernment, obviously, but discernment is not buffaloing the faithful with indignant pronouncements of division and numerical superiority. It is a process of consultation.

Now, one might object and say that this is simply traditionalist rhetoric: “the Tradition of the Church is thus and such and I know thus and such as well as the pope by virtue of my sensus fidei.” In a very real sense, the whole point of the sensus fidei fidelis is that a believer, by virtue of his or her Catholic common sense, who makes efforts to form his or her sensus fidei correctly, may well know thus and such as well as a pope, especially when something sounds off. But the ITC undermines that argument in another way, noting that the Second Vatican Council, which it refers to in dreary “new Pentecost” language, reinvigorated the concept of the sensus fidei, which is indeed an ancient idea. Moreover, the ITC argues that it was none other than Yves Congar who led the Council to inject new life into the doctrine:

 Yves M.-J. Congar (1904-1995) contributed significantly to the development of the doctrine of the sensus fidei fidelis and the sensus fidei fidelium. In Jalons pour une Théologie du Laïcat (orig. 1953), he explored this doctrine in terms of the participation of the laity in the Church’s prophetical function. Congar was acquainted with Newman’s work and adopted the same scheme (i.e. the threefold office of the Church, and the sensus fidelium as an expression of the prophetic office) without, however, tracing it directly to Newman. He described the sensus fidelium as a gift of the Holy Spirit ‘given to the hierarchy and the whole body of the faithful together’, and he distinguished the objective reality of faith (which constitutes the tradition) from the subjective aspect, the grace of faith. Where earlier authors had underlined the distinction between the Ecclesia docens and the Ecclesia discens, Congar was concerned to show their organic unity. ‘The Church loving and believing, that is, the body of the faithful, is infallible in the living possession of the faith, not in a particular act or judgment’, he wrote. The teaching of the hierarchy is at the service of communion. 

In many ways, the Second Vatican Council’s teaching reflects Congar’s contributionChapter one of Lumen Gentium, on ‘The Mystery of the Church’, teaches that the Holy Spirit ‘dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful, as in a temple’. ‘Guiding the Church in the way of all truth (cf. Jn 16:13) and unifying her in communion and in the works of ministry, he bestows upon her varied hierarchic and charismatic gifts, and in this way directs her; and he adorns her with his fruits (cf. Eph 4:11-12; 1Cor 12:4; Gal 5:22)’. Chapter two then continues to deal with the Church as a whole, as the ‘People of God’, prior to distinctions between lay and ordained. The article (LG 12) which mentions the sensus fideiteaches that, having ‘an anointing that comes from the holy one (cf. 1Jn 2:20, 27)’, the ‘whole body of the faithful … cannot err in matters of belief’. The ‘Spirit of truth’ arouses and sustains a ‘supernatural appreciation of the faith [supernaturali sensu fidei]’, shown when ‘the whole people, … “from the bishops to the last of the faithful” … manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals’. By means of the sensus fidei, ‘the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (magisterium), and obeying it, receives not the mere word of men, but truly the word of God (cf. 1Thess 2:13)’. According to this description, the sensus fidei is an active capacity or sensibility by which they are able to receive and understand the ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints (cf. Jude 3)’. Indeed, by means of it, the people not only ‘unfailingly adheres to this faith’, but also ‘penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life’. It is the means by which the people shares in ‘Christ’s prophetic office’.

(Emphasis supplied.) Now, one needn’t get too far into Congar’s argument or the argument in Lumen gentium, to say nothing of the ITC’s argument, to see that we are not adverting to ancient doctrines to serve as a bulwark against Modernist innovations. Such bulwarks should not be needed, though whether that is the case is up to you, dear reader. Our point is merely this: one finds oneself deep in the heart of the thought of the Second Vatican Council and the theologians of the 20th century who shaped that Council’s thought when one talks about the sensus fidei.

Obviously, we’re talking about Amoris laetitia. So is Professor De Mattei. The Santa Marta party has decided to defend that document’s troubling conclusions about communion for bigamists in a couple of ways, most notably these: (1) the Pope has acted with a definite act of the magisterium, which must be obeyed; (2) most of the world’s cardinals and bishops are with the Pope, except for a few malcontents; and (3) a Synod reached these conclusions. (The third is actually false, but we’ll take it as true.) And for all these reasons, the sensus fidei is relevant.The faithful do not have to check their Catholic common sense at the door when receiving teachings from pastors. Now, they owe, as a threshold question, submission to teachings from their pastors, and we would argue that that means that they ought to make every reasonable effort to reconcile a troubling teaching with the tradition of the Church and the previous magisterium. However, that the faithful may retain the use of their Catholic common sense when receiving teachings has consequences for each of the arguments advanced by the Santa Marta party. In short, if the teaching of a pope, joined by any number of cardinals and bishops, based upon a synod’s relatio, doesn’t jive with one’s Catholic common sense, this is a problem.

Of course, this does not mean that snap judgments and prejudices are the order of the day; instead, the faithful have an obligation to form their Catholic common sense carefully and with reference to the authentic life of the Church, including participation in the sacraments, the reading of scripture, and right reason. But, if one has formed one’s common sense carefully and with reference to the authentic life of the Church and one still hears a false note in a teaching, that cannot be ignored or set aside lightly. In extreme cases, the faithful may defer assent and appeal to the authority of the universal Church, making, we suspect, every effort to resolve their difficulties about the teaching. And if there is a group of faithful who share these doubts, they may not be dismissed purely on numerical grounds; the sensus fidei is not a question of numbers (even numbers of prelates), but instead a question of faith. And, given the dignity of the faithful as sons and daughters by adoption of God, a dignity that they share with the most exalted prelates, they have the right to make their doubts and concerns about a teaching known to their pastors and to each other.

Now, we hasten to note, briefly, that the response to Humanae vitae must be kept in mind. Sometimes the faithful will delay assent to a teaching because the faithful are too close to the lures of the world. This is obvious. Yet, there is a difference, manifestly, between ignoring or rejecting out of hand a teaching, and expressing concerns or doubts about a teaching, founded carefully in a well-formed sensus fidei fidelis. To treat one like the other does violence not only to the concept of the sensus fidei but also to the dignity of those Catholics who, in good faith and in communion with Peter, want to talk about a teaching in the light of the tradition of the Church. It may be inconvenient for some of the leaders of the Santa Marta party to explain themselves or take seriously the objections of prelates and faithful alike, but the faith is occasionally inconvenient.

To put it another way, this is hardly the teaching of rigid traditionalists who imagine themselves as Paul addressing Peter in Antioch. It is certainly, as the ITC document demonstrates clearly, an ancient teaching with Patristic origins. But, more relevantly for our purposes, it is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, of Yves Congar, of the International Theological Commission under the Holy Father. Therefore, it may be said that the arguments of the Santa Marta party, seeking to silence Cardinals Burke, Brandmüller, Caffarra, and Meisner, to say nothing of the faithful who have expressed grave concerns about Amoris laetitia, or certain interpretations of Amoris laetitia, cut against the teachings of the Council. So far from representing the sort of dialogue and discernment that is required whenever groups of the faithful, appealing to the universal Church, defer assent to magisterial acts, their response represents an ossified clericalism that, we are told, was rejected at the Council.