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September 22, 2014

The recent document, Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church, produced by the International Theological Commission (ITC), is a landmark statement that gives great credence to the views of the lay faithful in the formation and presentation of Catholic Church teaching. Unfortunately, the Catholic News Service report published in the July 21 WCR failed to capture the ground-breaking nature of this report.

The topic of sensus fidei (the sense of the faithful) has been of growing importance in recent decades as large numbers of baptized Catholics have dissented, either openly or silently, against an array of Church teachings. How ought the Church to react to this dissent? Should it ignore it as an example of the spirit of secularism creeping into the life of the Church? Should it reassert the authority of the pope and bishops to define Church teaching in the face of ill-formed public opinion? Or, should it cave in to such dissent and seek ways to compromise?

The 30 or so papally-appointed theologians who make up the ITC do not give pat or easy answers. They do, however, provide a balanced reflection which emphasizes the role of consultation and dialogue within the Church.

The importance of the sensus fidei is that "the faithful have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel," which is "a supernatural instinct," the theologians write. One can observe that instinct in public religiosity, that is, the wisdom and insight among people of humble faith. The document also states that sometimes dissent may arise because the Church's magisterium has made a decision "without due consideration of the experience and the sensus fidei of the faithful, or without sufficient consultation of the faithful."

In particular, it notes that the contributions of the laity have been of utmost importance in shifts in Church teaching on the morality of usury and religious liberty, and in the development of Catholic social teaching.

Yet, the sensus fidei is much different than public opinion. Sensus fidei grows out of the gift of faith, and it can mature in a person as his or her faith develops. Believers can have erroneous opinions because not all thoughts spring from the gift of faith. Even popular religiosity needs to be evangelized to avoid distortions and superstitions. Nevertheless, the sensus fidei in a person is "proportional to the holiness of one's life."

The report goes into detail about the characteristics required of believers for their authentic participation in the sensus fidei. They must participate actively in the life of the Church,

attentively and receptively listen to Scripture, use their reason, adhere to magisterial teaching, pursue holiness and seek to edify the Church without fostering division. The sensus fidei can be more apparent in a small faithful remnant than in an outspoken majority.

Given all that, the ITC concludes, "public exchange of opinion is a prime means by which, in a normal way, the sensus fidelium can be gauged." Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has developed many forms of consultation, such as pastoral councils of parishes and dioceses as well as diocesan synods.

Such structures of consultation can be of great benefit if in fact pastors and lay people are mutually respectful and listen carefully and humbly to each others' experiences and concerns. This is not a revolutionary proposal; it is, however, an assertion that the sensus fidei is a gift to the Church, one that ought to be treated with utmost respect.