Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sensus Fidelium

The Bear's readers will have at least heard of this mysterious power they possess called the sensus fidelium: the sense of the faithful. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about it.

91 All the faithful share in understanding and handing on revealed truth. They have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who instructs them and guides them into all truth.54 (737) 
92 “The whole body of the faithful … cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful,’ they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.” (785) 
93 “By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium), … receives … the faith, once for all delivered to the saints.… The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.” (889)

Catholic Church. (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed., p. 28). Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference.

Before the Bear tries go on further about what it is, what it isn't almost more important.

  • it doesn't operate independently of the magisterium
  • it doesn't protect individual Catholics from error

In other words, the Devil can fool some of the faithful some of the time, but he can't fool all of the faithful any of the time. Or, to put it positively, we, as sheep (and the occasional Bear) know our Master's voice.

One sometimes sees the sensus fidelium spoken of like it is a new lay superpower, possibly invented at Vatican II. There are plenty of people that want to transfer power and prestige from the clergy to the laity. But that's not the way it works.

The magisterium still calls the shots, and the faithful -- as a whole -- adhere to its teachings. One supports and, the Bear supposes, cross-checks the other.

Occasionally, some bishops and their claques of theologians, will float novel ideas. Ideally, those ideas are legitimate developments of Church teachings, but not always. If recent history has taught us anything, it is that bishops can have unsound ideas and make bad decisions. They are men, subject to the temptations of pride, limitations of intellect, deformation of character and coolness of ardor. Same with theologians. It is the sensus fidelium that allows the faithful to discern sound doctrine from codswallop.

A single bishop or some collection of bishops do not teach infallibly. That doesn't mean the faithful are free to disregard what they say, only that the faithful must have a surer teaching on which to base their disagreement.

Let's say the Bishop of Bugtussle, perhaps enthused by the upcoming Synod, declares that in his diocese, all second marriages of divorced persons are in the same position as legitimate first marriages. Divorced and remarried Catholics may take communion in the diocese of Bugtussle. Catholics might disagree with the bishop by appealing to Holy Scripture, and everything the Church has done and taught during its history. The foundation for their objection would be superior to the fallible ordinary magisterium of the the Bishop of Bugtussle.

Catholics who dissented from that bishop's novel teaching on divorce and remarriage would be doing a service to the Church by upholding superior teaching and gently coaxing their shepherd back into heartland of the Church's teaching.

One might object that a large percentage of Catholics agree on various topics. Perhaps most, for example, think there's nothing wrong with contraception, and there are probably a disturbingly large number that accept their friends' trendy opinions on homosexuality. How do we know they're not using their supernatural insight to arrive at the truth?

Simple. There's a reason it's called the sense of the faithful, and not the sense of nominal Catholics. It belongs to the faithful, not dissenters and innovators. For that reason, it might be only a minority of Catholics who comprise the faithful, and whose sensus fidelium is in operating order.

Earlier, the Bear said that it does not empower individual Catholics with their own personal infallibility or anything, but was exercised collectively. Yet that collective experience of faithful adherence to and valid insights into Church teachings is exercised by individuals. So, in a sense, it does keep faithful Catholics in the fold and close to the shepherd.

Are the teachings of a synod infallible? They are certainly worthy of serious consideration. However, the Bear has not seen anything to suggest that a synod is infallible in the way an ecumenical council or a pope speaking ex cathedra is infallible.

The Bear and his readership are -- the Bear hopes -- among the faithful. We all try to accept the tried and true teachings of the Church. We share a sense of what's true and proper. And that is what will protect us in the coming months and get us through this papacy.


  1. This is extremely helpful, Bear. I'm still creeped out by the ferocious insistence, by an adversary on one of the discussion forums I used to frequent, that the rampant use of contraception by nominal Catholics demonstrates the sensus fidelium which demonstrates that the Church ought to reverse its prohibition of contraception. This individual would have made the same argument for Communion for the divorced and remarried, homosexual "marriage"...etc.

    We likely will soon be confronting a re-invigorated push for that particular "take" on the matter -- only this time it won't just be the lay lunatic fringe promoting it.

    So, thank you.

  2. That is a very disturbing comment, Jane. How could someone be so silly? I'll admit it was with some trepidation that I tackled this subject even to the extent I did, because it is rather slippery and prone to misuse. I suppose any segment of the Church could claim they were the faithful, but holding fast to the true teachings of the Church ought to provide a reality check. I'll admit I have not seen the distinction I drew between faithful Catholics and dissidents, since the way it "works" is for the faithful as a whole. But how can you say people who don't follow the Church in what is clear somehow participate in the sensus fidelium?

    "Discernment of spirits" is a gift of the Holy Spirit and is different, operating on an individual level. Right now it is primarily manifested by a large number of Catholics beating their heads against their computers.

  3. Lol - now I know why I've been getting so many Excedrin headaches lately :-D


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