Regular Faculty

On the Place of the Sensus Fidelium

by Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP

At the DSPT we try to foster the dialogue between faith and reason, between theology and philosophy. To avoid confusion it might be pertinent to say that the question of the sensus fidelium is not about this distinction. Rather, it is a distinction within the field of theology and faith itself.

So, then, within the field of theology, what is the sensus fidelium? Let me begin by saying what it is not: it is not a democratic vote on Church doctrine. It is not about questionnaires being sent out to Catholics (and non-Catholics) about what the Church should be teaching. This suggestion would have problems: for one, this would exclude the vast majority of the faithful whose sense this is supposed to be: namely, the dead Catholics. The Church is a democracy that excludes none, not even the dead. Their sense, which is enshrined in the tradition and past teachings of the Church, is part of what the faithful sense. How, then, do we get at this sense, if not by questionnaires? Since all of these elements are never completely present in person, the magisterium might therefore have to articulate this sense vicariously. And this might be understood perhaps in analogy to the third mode of infallible teaching listed in Lumen Gentium LG , the mode in which the pope speaks for the universal consensus of the bishops when they are “dispersed around the world,” rather than assembled at an ecumenical council. [1] 

Nevertheless, even though it is tied to the magisterium in this manner, the sensus fidelium so understood is itself infallible and even fundamental, more fundamental than the magisterium itself, which is at its service.

In the words of Theology Today by the International Theological Commision DSPT

34. “The sensus fidelium does not simply mean the majority opinion in a given time or culture, nor is it only a secondary affirmation of what is first taught by the magisterium. The sensus fidelium is the sensus fidei of the people of God as a whole who are obedient to the Word of God and are led in the ways of faith by their pastors.”
From this quote we can now also begin to look at a few positive articulations of where the sensus fidelium can be seen at work; the decisive words in this quotation are these; it says: “…nor is it only a secondary affirmation of what is first taught by the magisterium.

A simple example for this fact are canonization processes: here the Church will make a declaration on the merits of the case only after the sensus fideliumhas expressed itself in an existing local cult and in the veneration of the faithful. The evaluation of such a veneration is first made at the “periphery” of the Church – to use Congar’s terminology – namely by diocesan authorities. But even this peripheral investigation is based on the preexisting fact of a popular veneration – not to mention the fact of the miracles wrought by the saint. Canonizations are not a procedure beginning from the center, they are not a top-down process. The magisterial declaration only puts the final seal on it; it is the necessary capstone of the whole process.

Similar things can be said about the approval of visions and apparitions, such as those of Fatima, Lourdes and Medjugorje. While nobody is obliged to believe in these particular phenomena, the Church recognizes their role in the sensus fidelium in general and therefore needs to pay attention to them and supervise their propagation. This begins with the spiritual director of visionaries, as a presence of the center to the periphery, as Fr. Congar points out.

Another example is the rise of popular devotions: such devotions are indeed popular, i.e. emerge at the periphery. They are not so much local in the geographic sense, but personal in the sense that they will involve the legitimate spirituality of only some, but not all. Nevertheless, they have to be in tune with the sensus fidelium and the teaching of the Church as a whole. Lex orandi, lex credendi – there is a magisterial impact on the prayer life of the faithful. Therefore, the magisterium supervises the rise of such devotions. Yet, again, this supervision does not mean the creation of devotions by magisterial decree. A pope like Pius V might standardize existing uses of the rosary, but a pope does not typically invent new mysteries of the rosary, unless he himself happens to be a saint with a great personal devotion to the rosary. In that case, charism and office, center and periphery would seem to be curiously mixed. I think we have been witnessing such a development since the 19th century, related less to the declaration of papal infallibility but more to the development of modern mass media. Since Pius IX, the use of mass media has made the popes themselves figures of popular appeal in ways that they were not before. Papal travel to the periphery on a global scale, as we have it in the 20th century, has further contributed to this tendency and has mixed center and periphery.

In this way, the magisterium has become a promoter rather than a monitor of the sensus fidelium, and one might wonder whether this is always healthy. It might overload the central authority with work it cannot handle. It might be a more pertinent role for the center to be curbing abuses than to invent new things.

For example, one might wonder whether the New Evangelization should begin by the foundation of yet another congregation at the Vatican, and whether this is the best way of reforming the curia. New Evangelization begins with the faithful, with particular persons who have caught fire for our Lord and cannot contain themselves – such people as we call saints. Or it begins with groups of faithful that organize themselves to pursue this end – something like an Order of Preachers comes to mind.[2] Here, as in the economy, it might be true that big government is only going to stifle such local efforts. Subsidiarity has its place in the Church as well.

We might also remember that Church art and Church music are not made by the hierarchy. Vivaldi and Monteverdi were priests, but in composing music they exercised their personal charism, not their office. What it does to liturgical expressions, when the Church invents a new liturgy from the center, by way of committees, commissions and ecclesiastical bureaucracies, can be seen from the experience of the last few decades. Cardinal Newman thought that such a thing could never happen in the Church. This procedure has been unprecedented in the whole history of the Church, even though not without parallels in the secular world. Such a bureaucratic approach does not produce the “noble simplicity” envisioned by the Vatican II. Such noble simplicity might be found in medieval Cistercian monasteries such as Casamari, or Fossanova, where Thomas Aquinas died. It is different from the beige banality that followed Msgr. Annibale Bugnini.

I do believe that it is significant that Pope Benedict has begun to liberate the voice of tradition in liturgical matters, as a genuine piece of the sensus fidelium, and we will see how this unfolds in the life of the Church. What has been less recognized is that Pope Francis in turn might suggest something similar not so much for the traditional liturgy, but for the traditional devotional life of the little people. And both popes have emphasized the faith of these little people as a corrective for the skeptical intellectualism of some theologians.

Even in matters of dogma this simple faith is of importance. For example, the declaration of the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption has appealed to the factum ecclesiae as one of their sources. The fact that the faithful throughout the ages have believed and celebrated these dogmas is a crucial point of reference for dogmatic declarations of the magisterium. It is therefore presupposed by the magisterium. And so, again, the periphery precedes the center.

Finally, a word on theology. We have had some great theologians in papal office, especially in the persons of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But while popes themselves need to be solidly grounded in theology, the work of theologians is not the same as that of the magisterium. To be sure, theologians share in that teaching office in some form. But they are not the final arbiters of Church doctrine. For that, the faith of the little people and the papal magisterium might be more important than that of a theology professor.

It is, on the other hand, the role of academic theology to explore matters of faith by reason and argument. And in that theologians might be their own incarnation of the sensus fidelium, albeit with a specific and sometimes precarious[3] task. With the rise of theological dissent from Church teaching around the encyclical Humanae Vitae DSPT , in particular, these lines have been blurred. Ever since, theologians and pastors demand that the magisterium should give them the arguments for why they should believe such teachings. But this is not the role of the magisterium. It is the role of theologians to provide arguments, not the role of the pope or of the CDF. The role of the magisterium comes in only after the theologians have done their job of arguing. It is not to usurp their role. The center is not to occupy the role of the periphery and its debates. The teaching authority comes in only at the end, in order to declare an argument to be over. By its nature, there is no end to argument, it is potentially infinite. And so the debate will finally have to be settled by authority, not by argument. Otherwise the sensus fidelium will be left without the certainty necessary to continue its life of faith. The implication is that the magisterium cannot be just another voice in an ongoing theological debate. Otherwise it cannot fulfill its proper role. It would also invade the legitimate territory of the theologians with their own charism and place in the development of the sensus fidelium. The magisterium provides an important service to the theologians by giving them a legitimate space in which to experiment with arguments, with the assurance that they are on a strong leash on which they can be pulled back, if they are going astray. Far from being a straightjacket, this leash is meant to be a safety net. If rightly understood, it should feel liberating to anyone who truly wants to “think with the mind of the Church.”

Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Philosophy Department Chair at DSPT. The classes that he teaches include Modern Philosophy, Philosophical Aesthetics, What Is a Person?, Does God Exist?, Contemporary Philosophy. More information about his classes, research interests and publications can be found on his faculty page. 
[1] "Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly. This is so, even when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter’s successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith or morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively. This authority is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church. Their definitions must then be adhered to with the submission of faith." (Lumen Gentium 25). back to text

[2] One can only wonder how the newly planned Congregation for the Laity will fit into this scenario. Will it produce “5 year plans” for the laity, or will it institutionalize secular style lobbying groups of the laity against the clergy? back to text 

[3] “In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognize dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.” Pope Benedict XVI. back to text