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Bishop Richard Umbers: Sensus fidei is much more than a feeling

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Pope Francis attends the first session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican in October 2019. A synod can have participation from representatives of all states of life in the Church, but final decision making is reserved to bishops and the Pope. Photo: CNS, Vatican Media

One thing the Church must never lose sight of is keeping Christ at the centre of all She does. And this applies to every member of the Church – all the baptised, no matter their vocational calling and regardless of whether they are successors to the Apostles, members of the ministerial priesthood, consecrated religious, or lay.

All the baptised – by virtue of our incorporation into the life of Christ through our anointing by the Holy Spirit at baptism – are called to live a life of faithful witness to Christ.

In the first letter of St John, the faithful are told: “you have been anointed by the Holy One, and have all received knowledge … the anointing that you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you … his anointing teaches you about all things’ (1 Jn 2:20, 27).

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Because of the anointing we have received, all “the faithful have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them to recognise and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false. That supernatural instinct, intrinsically linked to the gift of faith received in the communion of the Church, is called the sensus fidei, and it enables Christians to fulfil their prophetic calling.” (ITC, 2014)

This terminology – sensus fidei – has been used frequently in more recent times, and in certain circumstances has been cited to justify a particular perspective akin to a consensus of the masses or popular opinion.

The sensus fidei (sense of the faithful) is an instinct and active capacity to discern the truth of faith, to recognise authentic doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false.

Theologically, the sensus fidei refers to two distinct but connected realities – both the Church as a whole, and to the individual believer who belongs to the Church through the Sacraments of Initiation. On the one hand, it relies on the personal capacity of the believer to discern the truth of faith, and on the other hand to a communal instinct of faith of the Church Herself.

The International Theological Commission (ITC), in their 2014 document on this topic, states: “the sensus fidei is presented as Christ’s gift to the faithful, and … is described as an active capacity by which the faithful are able to understand, live and proclaim the truths of divine revelation.”

While addressing members of the ITC a year earlier in December 2013, Pope Francis said:
“By the gift of the Holy Spirit, the members of the Church possess a ‘sense of faith’. This is a kind of ‘spiritual instinct’ that makes us sentire cum Ecclesia [think with the mind of the Church] and to discern that which is in conformity with the apostolic faith and is in the spirit of the Gospel.

Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on 11 October 1962. A total of 2,540 cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops and bishops from around the world attended the opening session. Photo: CNS, Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo

Of course, the sensus fidelium cannot be confused with the sociological reality of a majority opinion.”

The Pope then went on to encourage those theologians “to develop criteria that allow the authentic expressions of the sensus fidelium to be discerned.”

This criteria now appear in the ITC document as dispositions needed for an authentic participation in the sensus fidei. They include: a) active participation in the life of the Church; b) attentive and receptive listening to the word of God; c) openness to reason; d) adherence to the Magisterium; e) holiness – humility, freedom, joy; and f) seeking and contributing to the edification of the Church.

Without these dispositions, present both in the individual Christian and the Church as a whole, we cannot participate authentically in the sensus fidei.

John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio, makes this point: “The ‘supernatural sense of faith’ however does not consist solely or necessarily in the consensus of the faithful. Following Christ, the Church seeks the truth, which is not always the same as the majority opinion.”

As such, we bishops, as successors to the Apostles, also hold a particular role in the sensus fidei: “Because it is the task of the apostolic ministry to ensure that the Church remains in the truth of Christ and to lead her ever more deeply into that truth, the Pastors must promote the sense of the faith in all the faithful, examine and authoritatively judge the genuineness of its expressions, and educate the faithful in an ever more mature evangelical discernment.” (FC, 5)

Together, in this way, every member of the Body of Christ holds a particular responsibility to ensure they are properly disposed to authentically participate in the sensus fidei, such that they can safeguard the correct intuition of the sensus fidei from being mixed up with “various purely human opinions, or even with errors linked to the narrow confines of a particular cultural context.”

It is sobering to think that “although theological faith as such cannot err, the believer can still have erroneous opinions since all his thoughts do not spring from faith. Not all the ideas which circulate among the People of God are compatible with the faith.” (CDF, Donum Veritatis, 35)

This gift of the sensus fidei bestowed by the Holy Spirit is one that must be cultivated, nurtured and fostered with a great sense of authenticity, rooted in prayer, grounded in the Scriptures, centred on the continuity of apostolic Tradition and open to the work of God’s grace in and through the sacramental life of the Church.

Our faithful witness to Christ at the centre of all we seek to do, think and say, is essential to the individual role we each play in building the Body of Christ.

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