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Vatican Commission Defines the Role of the Faithful in Church Teaching

Vatican Committee Defines the Role of the Faithful in Church Teaching Jeffrey Bruno

Jeffrey Bruno

Marge Fenelon - published on 07/17/14

The ways it counts, and doesn't.

It wasn’t too long ago that the National Catholic Reporter opined  that the “sense of the faithful” affirms that women should be ordained priests.

Our message is that we believe the sensus fidelium is that the exclusion of women from the priesthood has no strong basis in Scripture or any other compelling rationale; therefore, women should be ordained,” the newspaper wrote. “We have heard the faithful assent to this in countless conversations in parish halls, lecture halls and family gatherings. It has been studied and prayed over individually and in groups. The brave witness of the Women’s Ordination Conference, as one example, gives us assurance that the faithful have come to this conclusion after prayerful consideration and study — yes, even study of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.”

The “sense of the faithful” is invoked from time to time in support of ideas that are not affirmed by the Church’s magisterium.

But now the Vatican has produced a document to help people better understand what “sense of the faithful” means.

Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church was produced by the International Theological Commission, a body that was instituted by Pope Paul VI in 1969 with the task of “helping the Holy See and primarily the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in examining doctrinal questions of major importance,” according to the Vatican website.

“The document was drawn up as a service to the bishops, other theologians, and the rest of the faithful in order to review the Church’s experience, practice, and teaching on this matter, to suggest a consistent definition of terms and to propose criteria by which the authentic sensus fidei may be discerned,” said Sister Sara Butler, M.S.B.T., a member of the International Theological Commission.

In brief, sensus fidei, or “sense of the faith,” is a spiritual sensitivity by which Christians are able to discern what is compatible with Catholic teaching on faith and morals and what is not. It’s called a “sense” because it’s a spontaneous judgment or instinctive response. When sensus fidei is exercised by all of the faithful together under the guidance of their pastors in agreement over some question of faith and morals, it’s called sensus fidelium.

"Sensus fidei in the Life of the Church" points out the importance of the laity taking an active role in the discernment of questions regarding faith and morals. Evidence of this is found in Lumen Gentium, where it says that all baptized persons share in Christ’s prophetic, or teaching, office. In Article 35 it states, “He does this not only through the hierarchy who teach in His name and with His authority, but also through the laity whom He made His witnesses and to whom He gave understanding of the faith (sensu fidei) and an attractiveness in speech (200) so that the power of the Gospel might shine forth in their daily social and family life.”

An example of sensus fidei on the ground level, so to speak, might be a pastor and his parish council enlisting parishioner help in coordinating an evaluation and planning process to address the drift of young adults from the practice of their faith. Valuing sensus fidei, the pastor will listen to parishioner concerns and advice and enlist their help in finding a solution.

Another example might be the bishop of a Southwestern diocese who is troubled by the influx of mothers and children who are refugees from Central America, and feels obliged to take a stand and offer them shelter, even though the issue is highly politicized. His valuation of sensus fidei will urge him to consult both the clergy and laity in his diocese in determining a just response.

Sensus fidei, and in particular the the theological commission’s recent document on it, has generated some controversy as the Church attempts to wrestle with difficult issues such as birth control, pre-marital sex, cohabitation, divorce, remarriage, and the definition of marriage. The upcoming Extraordinary Synod of Bishops will study questions such as these. In light of that, some bishops and episcopal conferences have invited contributions of the laity in an attempt to discover their beliefs and practices. The overwhelming response has generated an expectation that there will be changes in the Church’s teaching and discipline.

Therein lies the controversy. Although these contributions will enter into the bishops’ discernment, the Church is not run by majority vote. In that respect, it should be noted that persons who are not in communion with the Church aren’t capable of fruitfully participating in sensus fidei.

“It is important to realize that the sensus fidei is a property or expression of faith, and those who participate fully in the Church’s life are the most likely to discern correctly what can or cannot be reconciled with the Apostolic Tradition,” Sister Sara Butler said.

Because of that, the commission’s document reviews the Church’s experience, practice, and current teaching in order to suggest a consistent definition of terms and to propose criteria by which the authentic sensus fidei may be discerned.

“It may serve as a common point of reference for people who have diverse expectations about how the experiences of the faithful will be assessed and integrated into the Synod’s work,” said Sister Sara. “For example, the ITC report identifies the set of six ‘dispositions’ needed for participation in the authentic sensus fidei.”

According to the document, the dispositions are interrelated and can’t be separated, as it states in paragraph 88:

“There is not one simple disposition, but rather a set of dispositions, influenced by ecclesial, spiritual, and ethical factors. No single one can be discussed in an isolated manner, its relationship to each and all of the others has to be taken into account. Only the most important dispositions for authentic participation in sensus fidei are indicated below, drawn from biblical, historical, and systematic investigation, and formulated so as to be useful in practical situations of discernment.”

The dispositions are as follows: a) Participation in the life of the Church; b) Listening to the Word of God; c) Openness to reason; d) Adherence to the Magisterium; e) Holiness—humility, freedom, and joy; f) Seeking the edification of the Church.

"Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church" concludes by pointing out the impact sensus fidei can have on the new evangelization.

“Vatican II was a new Pentecost equipping the Church for the new evangelization that popes since the council have called for. The council gave a renewed emphasis to the traditional idea that all of the baptized have a sensus fidei, and the sensus fidei constitutes a most important resource for the new evangelization. By means of the sensus fidei, the faithful are able not only to recognize what is in accordance with the Gospel and to reject what is contrary to it, but also to sense what Pope Francis has called ‘new ways for the new journey’ in faith of the whole pilgrim people.” (paragraph 127)

"Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church" calls all Catholics to a greater awareness and understanding of their vital place in the Church. As the document explains, "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.” When the faithful have that sense of the faith,” the truth will be upheld.

Marge Fenelon is a Catholic author, columnist, and speaker and a regular guest on Catholic radio. She’s written several books about Marian devotion and Catholic family life, including Strengthening Your Family: a Catholic Approach to Holiness at Home (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011) and Imitating Mary: Ten Marian Virtues for the Modern Mom (Ave Maria Press, 2013). Find out more about Marge at

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