Monday, May 17, 2010

What is the role of the sensus fidelium in the development of moral doctrine? Why does Vatican II prefer the term sensus fidei?

NOTE: This is one in a series of posts from my moral theology assignments. They are intended to be brief responses. In many cases, the topics could be extensively explored, but that was not the intent of the assignment.

Much of what Catholics believe has been handed down as part of the lived tradition. In a Catholic cultural tradition, there comes to be a sense of what is of the faith (de fide) and what is not, and what conforms to the doctrines of the faith while not being specifically defined. The “sense of the faithful” is one of the factors guiding the college of bishops and the Holy Father when they attempt to define doctrine: what has been believed always, everywhere, and by everyone. Ashley points out that many dogmas are very clear to the faithful before ever being declared: for example, the dual natures (Divine and human) of Christ defined at the Council of Chalcedon.[i] While eminent theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas have been hesitant to accept beliefs such as the sinlessness of the Blessed Mother, the people’s devotion convinced the bishops and the Holy Father that this teaching had been held perpetually by the faithful. As with all teaching, according to the guarantee of Jesus in Matthew 29, the Counselor guides the Church in such matters to prevent her from going astray. The Vatican II constitution Lumen Gentium explains: “The whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy one… cannot err in matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium 12).

This is not to say that the faithful cannot be misled or that their sense of the faith cannot become distorted, particularly by the surrounding culture. While the prohibition on contraception has been consistent since the early days of the Church, the secular culture of Western Europe and North America in the 20th century inculcated a greater trust in science than in the Church, which turned many Catholics against the traditional teaching of the Church. When Humanae Vitae was promulgated in 1968 in the midst the sexual revolution, it came under widespread condemnation by many theologians in North America and Europe. The culture that informed the sense of the faithful, in this case, could hardly be described as Catholic, as it came not from the perpetual teaching of the Church but from modern secular culture. In fact, in a largely democratic sphere, the term sensus fidelium gives the impression of majority rule rather than a sense of unified faith—that what the faithful decide is correct for the time is somehow the truth. This belief, of course, is far from the true meaning of sensus fidelium and is more a symptom of Catholics in the West projecting their views on the whole Church.

Lumen Gentium employs the term sensus fidei because it more adequately captures the notion that it is the faith that unites us rather than our secular democratic culture. A citation in Lumen Gentium 12 defines the sensus fidei as “the instinctive sensitivity and discrimination which the members of the Church possess in matters of faith.” In order to have a true sensus fidei, there must be a common Catholic enculturation and faithful instruction in the teachings of the Church. Where this enculturation exists, a true sensus fidei resides.

i. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 4B—Lesson 8,” International Catholic University, 27 February 2010,
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