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So, what is the sensus fideii and why does it matter, anyway?

We are delighted to welcome our second guest blogger, Marti R. Jewell. Marti generously helped us get PVP off the ground and remains a part of our praying partners. She is an Associate Professor Emerita of pastoral theology, and holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from The Catholic University of America.

Sensus fideii. The sense of the faithful. Okay, easy enough. The bigger question is how do we know what the sense of the faithful is? It’s certainly not “majority rules”. We all know the church is not a democracy. Right? Goodness knows we have heard that often enough. So, let’s begin with a couple of Church teachings. We believe, as described in the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum 8) that each of the faithful carries, and contributes to, the faith tradition through their lived experience of Church and the Spirit. In other words, we have the sensus fideii – the ability of each of the baptized to discern and receive the Spirit.

From this flows the sensus fidelium - the understanding of a faith-filled people. The Church also teaches that the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are in the Holy Spirit, cannot err in matters of belief. (Lumen Gentium 12). Really! While we have little trouble believing we can each receive inspiration from the Holy Spirt, we KNOW we don’t all agree on everything! But the entire body of believers? Laity and bishops together? Okay. But again, how do we know what that is? Wait. There’s another step.

This is where the “not a democracy” part comes in. Discovering the answer is not just a simple matter of what most people believe, no matter how much we might like that to be the case. We are, also, called to listen to the bishops, to what they are telling us. But – and this is a BIG one - the Church is not an autocracy, either. The Church also teaches that neither the pope nor the bishops, individually, can speak unerringly. They must reflect the sensus fidelium discerned in union with the whole college of bishops who are honestly reflecting the learned experience of the faithful. (Lumen Gentium 22) Now there’s a mouthful!!!

We don’t talk about this part very much. The baptized live out the faith and practices, with the bishops listening and discerning how this is contributing to the tradition of the church. (Lumen Gentium 35) When we come together in agreement, even in its diverse expressions, we form the consensus fidelium. In other words, we are all called to listen to one another and discern the movement of the Spirit. In the end, we need each other, all of us in a mutual dialogue, guided by the Holy Spirit.

If this is true, then how do we engage this dance? Pope Francis has offered us a three-year synodal process as a way to become a listening Church – laity and hierarchy walking together, both essential, listening to one another. This is a difficult task, not for the faint-hearted, indeed. We must listen to each other; hear what we are saying, collectively; see how it fits within our Tradition; and then decide what to do about it.

The working document for the third stage of the Synod process, the continental phase, offers an excellent way to see the sensus fidelium in action. One of the most significant points in the document, which bishops from every continent tell us they heard, is the call for an end to exclusion. This call is coming from all over the globe. The Spirit is saying, quite loudly I think, that we must be a church of inclusion. Not every individual agrees with this statement nor how to accomplish it. But the fact that we have heard this cry from every corner of our planet shows us this is the sense of the faithful and must be listened to and brought into conversation with the Tradition. Other issues are not so clear cut, especially those issues based on man-made rules. But it is a long, gentle process. As we each take the time to listen to the Spirit speaking to us, so, too, must the local church and the greater Church do the same. Only then can we hope to reach a consensus fidelium. And that is why it matters.

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash/Zuzana Ruttkay

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