Lesson 2: Sensus Fidei

Lesson 2: Sensus Fidei

When I announced I was considering writing about current events, Lupe and Myron responded with situations that illustrate the modern dilemma. Lupe wrote of the turmoil that has arisen in Bolivia about the question of whether a ten-year-old girl who was raped should be allowed to receive an abortion. Catholic Church leaders insist it would be a crime. Where should the followers of Christ stand, especially if this would mean risking the young girl’s life?

Lupe, also, mentioned the situation her son faced when on assignment for the World Bank in Pakistan during Ramadan. With extremely high temperatures, over 700 people died observing the fast that includes not drinking water during daylight hours. Does following God’s will include this kind of renunciation?

Myron found a NYT article questioning the refusal of India’s Hindu prime minister to serve eggs to undernourished children, because they might be fertilized and therefore violate his religion’s prohibitions about killing life. Should a politician’s religion be allowed to stand in the way of public health care?

You probably noticed these situations somewhat parallel some in the US. I liked them for a variety of reasons. First, they demonstrate we are addressing a modern religious rather than a Christian problem. Second, they assume the modern characterization of belief systems as out-of-date and impractical. And third, they might help separate the intellectual and emotional aspects of trying to discern God’s will.

My goal is not to answer the three questions at this point, but to begin presenting factors affecting the Church’s making societal decisions. In this lesson, I examine sensus fidei, a teaching championed by Pope Francis. From the earliest times, the Church has evaluated personal experience and societal positions by using the three standards of leadership, tradition, and community. All three play roles in all Church bodies throughout all history, even though some have been emphasized by different groups and at different times. Today, we think of Roman Catholics giving priority to leadership, the epitome being papal infallibility. Protestants are known for focusing on tradition as judged by scripture. Quakers who operate by consensus are associated with the community standard. Sensus fidei falls in this last area, as it generally is defined as the opinion of all the faithful.

Actually, all Christian groups have always had a role for sensus fidei. To some extent, it has always been acknowledged that genuine apostolic tradition must be accepted by all the faithful people of God. Odd as it might seem, the Roman Catholics used the idea in the acceptance process for making the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary official doctrine, arguing they could be accepted even though not biblical, because the people already observed them.

Needless to say, the teaching has become far more important in modern times when the authority of the hierarchy and tradition are questioned. You see the former when the laity do not practice the teaching of the bishops and the latter when believers do not agree on what the Bible says.

The big question then becomes how to use sensus fidei when making decisions. All agree it does not mean taking polls to determine popular opinion. Pope Francis accepts Vatican II’s call to consult with the laity. He also prompted the International Theological Commission to come up with the most thorough treatment in 2013 that claims apostolic practice includes “that which affects all should be discussed and approved by all.” This kind of thinking is behind Francis’ words when he calls for dialogue. He thinks the Church should consult the laity when making all decisions. Their opinion is then weighed with that of the leadership and tradition.

You often hear resistance to sensus fidei when some groups claim we are not called to be relevant but rather to be faithful. That reaction misses the point, as the big question remains “to what are we to be faithful”. Myron suggests “engagement” might be a better word choice than “relevant.” Engagement would imply an ongoing conversation with society, what Francis means by dialogue.

You can appreciate the significance of sensus fidei when you see how medieval spirituality has been turned on its head in the modern context. Modern spirituality has nothing to do with renunciation for renunciation’s sake. It is now defined as wellness or living in harmony with nature. People no longer see self-denial as a self-serving, but rather as giving up some of what you have, so that you can share with others.

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  1. Fritz Foltz says:

    My intention was to make the summer easy by simply quickly writing my opinion on current events. Then I found I had written a lesson on sensus fidei and had to ask, “What is going on?”

    After a little reflection, I found I had responded to John’s comment at http://frontlinestudy.com Although we do not seem to agree on this one issue, I find myself constantly using his words. I call for strong leadership, so we can once again be prophetic. I wonder how we can really be “relevant”. And I ask what role popular opinion should play for Christians in a democratic society.

    Unconsciously, I had decided to write about factors that should affect how Christians make decisions in modern society. It seemed sensible to begin with sensus fidei, because most of us have not noticed how it has rather suddenly assumed great importance. If you want to get a good summary of this development, check out http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_cti_20140610_sensus-fidei_en.html

    I strongly believe the Holy Spirit calls us to continue an ongoing conversation that gives appropriate weigh to leadership, community, and tradition. This is extremely important in issues like same-sex marriage. One of my friends found one of his demanding no further communication of any kind, because he regarded his position as dangerously evil. That kind of response assumes we have a final and absolute grasp of the Holy Spirit that has always been described as fire and wind.

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