On “Consulting the Faithful” in Preparation for the 2014 Family Synod

I have been pondering on the significance of the Holy Father’s recent declaration that “The Church must pay attention to the sensus fidelium, or ‘sense of the faithful’, … but never confuse that sense with popular opinion on matters of faith.” He was addressing members of the International Theological Commission, a “Vatican advisory body.” The Magisterium, said the Pope (ie, he himself), has the “duty to pay attention to what the Spirit tells the Church through authentic manifestations of the ‘sense of the faithful’.” But he insisted that this “must not be confused with the sociological reality of majority opinion. That is something else. It is therefore important, and it is your task, to elaborate the criteria that permit discernment of authentic expressions of the ‘sense of the faithful.’”

The point is, of course, that it is precisely that kind of confusion—of majority, in other words, secularized, opinion with what the Church ought to be teaching—in which his conservative critics have been accusing him of being mired in; and towards which his liberal admirers have been desperately hoping he is heading. One focus of their hopes has been the synod on the family planned for next October, when liberals hope that the discussions will lead to major changes in the teachings of the Church. They are particularly excited by the announcement that in preparation for this meeting, the Vatican has asked national bishops’ conferences around the world to conduct a wide-ranging consultation of Catholic opinion on church teachings on contraception, same-sex marriage and divorce. Take the following, for example, from the Queering the Church website:

This is hugely significant. Initial reports of discussions about the synod focussed on its likely concerns surrounding divorce, such as procedures for annulment, and more sensitive pastoral responses to people who have been affected by marital breakdown in their own lives. For a major two week conference though, it was obvious from the start that much more than divorce would be at stake. The consultation announcement makes this explicit, with specific reference also to contraception, and same-sex marriage. In effect, this is the start of a process which could (and should) lead to a comprehensive reassessment of Catholic teaching on sexuality and family life.

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The same writer adds that “The notion of the ‘sensus fideii’ [the what?] is central to a proper understanding of Catholic teaching, but not widely known. In essence, it states that unless a particular matter of doctrine has been accepted and received by the Church as a whole, it cannot be valid. That’s a great simplification.” You bet it is. Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say on the matter:

92  The whole body of the faithful … cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.

93  By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium) … receives … the faith, once for all delivered to the saints … The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.” (My emphasis.)

Note the emphasis here on the guidance of the Magisterium. This whole discussion reminds me strongly of the way in which Newman answered suspicions that he was himself doctrinally dicey on precisely the question of “consulting the faithful.”

In those days, it was the Pope whose suspicions had been aroused; we are now in a situation in which some are preposterously suspicious of the Pope himself on precisely this question. Like Pope Francis, Newman, too, made it clear that the sensus fidelium wasn’t a matter of the Church being bound by what people happened to think: consulting the faithful was finding out what they did think. He had got into trouble for defending the following statement in a periodical called The Rambler: “in the preparation of a dogmatic definition, the faithful are consulted, as lately in the instance of the Immaculate Conception.”

“Now,” comments Newman, “two questions bearing upon doctrine have been raised on this sentence … viz, first, whether it can, with doctrinal correctness, be said that an appeal to the faithful is one of the preliminaries of a definition of doctrine; and secondly, granting that the faithful are taken into account, still, whether they can correctly be said to be consulted.” He then goes on to explain what he actually means by defending the Rambler’s statement: and in doing so, he preveniently gives a perfect explanation of what the present “consultation of the faithful,” via the world’s bishops’ conferences, is actually all about.

Doubtless, he says, “if a divine were expressing himself formally, and in Latin, he would not commonly speak of the laity being ‘consulted’ … because the technical, or even scientific, meaning of the word ‘consult’ is to ‘consult with,’ or to ‘take counsel.’ But the English word ‘consult,’ in its popular and ordinary use, is not so precise and narrow in its meaning; most considerable deference was paid to the ‘sensus fidelium;’ their opinion and advice indeed was not asked, but their testimony was taken, their feelings consulted; it is doubtless a word expressive of trust and deference, but not of submission.

“It includes the idea of inquiring into a matter of fact, as well as asking a judgment … we may consult a watch or a sun-dial about the time of day. A physician consults the pulse of his patient; but not in the same sense in which his patient consults him. It is but an index of the state of his health.” He goes on to add that “the fidelium sensus and consensus is a branch of evidence which it is natural or necessary for the Church to regard and consult, before she proceeds to any definition, from its intrinsic cogency; and by consequence, that it ever has been so regarded and consulted.” He later gives the example of the Church’s definition of its teaching on purgatory: “most considerable deference,” he says, “was paid to the ‘sensus fidelium;’ their opinion and advice indeed was not asked, but their testimony was taken, their feelings consulted.”

That’s what’s happening in preparation for next year’s synod on the family. The opinion and advice of the faithful is not being asked, in any sense that it will form or influence the content of the Church’s teachings on the family. But the testimony of the people is being taken, its feelings consulted. So, how the Church’s teachings on matters to do with family are expressed in the future, how it will act pastorally, may well be influenced by this consultation.

But, says Pope Francis, the sensus fidelium isn’t an opinion poll. In other words, there will be no major changes in the teachings of the Church on questions to do with marriage or sexuality. None at all. OK?

Editor’s note: This column first appeared December 18, 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: AP /Alessandra Tarantino)


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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