Our Next Text: Sensus Fidei

Maybe Bugnini was too ambitious – after a very interesting initial post, and two very rich comments, the thread went quiet.

So the next proposal is something shorter, and I hope more inspiring, which was in fact brought to my attention by a commenter on my blog, in response to my unease with some aspects of episcopal leadership…

It is Sensus Fidei, a recent document (2014) from the Church’s International Theological Commission. It may be found here.

It is in four chapters (with an introduction and conclusion) so I propose we read the Introduction and Chapter One over the next week, with a view to some discussion next weekend, and so on…

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5 Responses to Our Next Text: Sensus Fidei

  1. This is indeed inspiring and enlightening – but reading it is also somewhat like watching a tight-rope walker without a safety line: impressive and inspiring, but I’m also left worried that the next step may be a precipitate a fatal fall. The sensus fidei is obviously very important, and an invaluable gift from the Holy Spirit to the Church, but precisely because it is a gratuitous gift of grace it cannot be harnessed or turned into an instrument for human use. The insights contained in the text are crucial and uplifting, at least as far as I have read yet, but I’m a bit uneasy about the possibility of using the sensus fidei as a means of resolving controversy. The Biblical and Patristic foundation talks of a universal consensus fidelium, which seems to rule out controversy entirely. I would have been more reassured it there was a fuller discussion of the term sensus to begin with. The modern translations of the terms sensus fidei and consensus fidelium seem to allow for a subjectivist interpretation that would not be as obvious according to the Christian Latin of antiquity and the middle ages. Sensus in Latin is both perception of what is extrinsic and an internal process of discernment and analysis; and consensus is not simply intrinsic and reciprocal agreement within a group, but also in relation to some extrinsic object. So while the text so far is inspiring in its proclamation of this gift of the Holy Spirit to and in the Church, I am just a bit apprehensive about what would happen if this teaching is not understood correctly (if, and that is of course a bit if, I understand it correctly). Am I being too jumpy?

  2. Ben Trovato says:

    I know just what you mean: and indeed have seen the notion of sensus fidei to justify dissent from the magisterium (eg with regard to Humanae Vitae).

    I have only really read the Introduction and Chapter One (I have skimmed ahead a bit, but don’t want to issue any spoilers!). A few things struck me. One is the declared purpose of this document:

    “The purpose of the present text is not to give an exhaustive account of the sensus fidei, but simply to clarify and deepen some important aspects of this vital notion in order to respond to certain issues, particularly regarding how to identify the authentic sensus fidei in situations of controversy, when for example there are tensions between the teaching of the magisterium and views claiming to express the sensus fidei.” (§6)

    So that is where the document is heading, but I don’t think the first chapter gets there yet, reasonably enough.

    In fact, I found Chapter 1 very interesting in providing a historical overview of the concept, and indeed some of the difficulties inherent in it. It seems to me to lay some groundwork for what I hope will be an interesting and valuable development in the rest of the document. I was particularly struck by this:

    ‘Vincent of Lérins (died c.445) proposed as a norm the faith that was held everywhere, always, and by everyone (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est).’ (§23)

    The inclusion of ‘semper’ (always) is very important to my understanding of the relationship between the sensus fidei and tradition; and also relates to Chesterton’s notion of democracy: taking the beliefs of previous generations as seriously as our own.

    I draw a veil over the quotations from Gaudium et Spes, simply because they seemed to have a peculiarly soporific effect on me: my eyes pass over the words, but nothing goes on in my brain. My problem, I am sure, but there it is.

    Finally, and of direct relevance to the concerns you raise, there is this:

    ‘In the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (1981), Pope John Paul II considered the question as to how the ‘supernatural sense of faith’ may be related to the ‘consensus of the faithful’ and to majority opinion as determined by sociological and statistical research. The sensus fidei, he wrote, ‘does not consist solely or necessarily in the consensus of the faithful’.’ (§47)

    So I look forward to seeing how the historical survey of Chapter One is used to inform the discussion and development of ideas later in the document; and am heartened that the document begins with a consideration of the roots of the sensus fidei in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. That in itself seems a good sign: the right place to start.

  3. I read this the first time and experienced the worst of Sig’s concerns while battling the same “eyes glazing over” as Ben, so I went happily back to 1862, and discovered more about priests in wigs fifty years before that.

    Sig’s comment and Ben’s exhortation persuaded me to reread, to see if I’d missed anything first time around – to see if I had missed the point – but I don’t think I have. Early on the document says, regarding the sensus fidei:

    “In the reception and application of the council’s teaching on this topic, however, many questions arise, especially in relation to controversies regarding various doctrinal or moral issues.”

    I’m afraid I wondered whether the problem isn’t simpler: it is the council’s teaching which is confusing, and rather than try to explain it, or indeed explain it away, or to deform it, a better approach would have been to go back to basics: the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius on the Catholic Faith (at least on basis of the extracts in Denzinger) feels to me like a much better starting place.

    I’ll give the rest a go at some point, but I think it will be duty rather than pleasure.

  4. I see what you mean about the importance of ‘semper’, Ben, and the heartening fact that the discussion is rooted in tradition is important to me as well. But (why am I butting buts? I didn’t set out to be a nay-sayer) I can no longer read that famous quote by Vincent of Lérins without recalling Newman’s critique of it in ‘Development’. Which is a way of clarifying my doubts so far, I guess: I realize that I ought to get through the whole thing before passing judgement, but I would have been more comfortable with the argument so far if the potential differences between the connotations of terms in the Patristic age and ours had been highlighted more strongly, and the tradition of obedience to the magisterium of the Church and the ontological and binding primacy of truth over subjective sensation had been at the forefront to a greater degree than what is the case. The sensus fidei surely cannot be an independent faculty of perception, but rather a consequence of the objectivity of Truth and our capacity to see it? Was the round of consultation prior to the recent synod a practical application of the sensus fidei? Has the nocturnal marking of half-term tests addled my brain and rendered me incapable of making sense?

  5. cumlazaro says:

    Apologies for being a bit late to join in, but…

    I completely sympathize with Sig’s ‘watching a tightrope walker’ analogy! It reads very much to me as a (selective) setting out of tools. It’s hard to object to anything said; but the awareness of a selection and the awareness of what some others will do with those tools (sensus fidei=stuff Humanae Vitae) makes me hesitant.

    Personally, I think the great issue of the sensus fidei is its relation to modernity: roughly, the modern idea that an individual has to make sense of life by himself (or for himself). (I’m not sure it really is a modern idea any more than (say) a Platonic one, but put that aside just now.) There is clearly some truth in that general thought: we need to make Christian teaching our own in some way (rather than something external to us); at least part of that making our own involves debate and making mistakes. But the other side is that it is something objective: something we (often struggling) have to accommodate our minds to, rather than something that depends on us to construct.

    So I think the building blocks of this discussion are something like this:
    a) We need to make teaching our own.
    b) ‘Making our own’ involves some sort of trial and error.
    c) ‘making our own’ involves public discussion and argument.
    d) Truth is something objective to which we need to accommodate ourselves rather than change.
    e) We as human beings are often wrong in our convictions.
    f) The Church (and particularly the bishops and Pope) possess a divinely mandated teaching authority not possessed by the laity to articulate truths.

    And at least two conclusions we know are:

    i) Not everything I as a human being (or we as a group of human beings) believe is true.
    ii) The Pope and bishops cannot simply make up and teach whatever they like.

    Not everything that needs to be said, but a start perhaps….

    (On a tangent, not sure if it’s just my background, but found myself wishing for a more analytical introduction and ch1. Historical surveys are all very well, but I think they do end up hypnotizing the reader with spectacle: as I said above, echoing Sig and some of the other comments, it’s difficult to know what to do other than watch with trepidation!)

    And Happy 2015 to you all!

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