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.