Sensus Fidelium

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Two theological terms have come to express the understanding that all believers participate in elaborating Christian truth: sensus fidei and sensus fidelium. The first refers to the Christian's possession of the fundamental truth of his faith. The second refers to his role in actively defending and elaborating that faith. Though the Second Vatican Council employed both terms (sensus fidelium : GS 52; sensus fidei : LG 12, 35; PO 9; see also John Paul II, Christifideles laici 14 and Ut unum sint 80) writers since the council have generally preferred the more active-subjective term, that is, sensus fidelium.

Historical Considerations. Historically, the common teaching in the Church saw an active role of all the faithful in determining Christian belief. The whole community attested to the apostolicity of the faith. Though the bishops increasingly taught with authority and defined the emerging orthodox synthesis at synods and general councils, the concrete life of the community was always considered and the faithful were routinely consulted. Chapters 6 and 15 of the Acts of the Apostles give us a glimpse of the inclusiveness of the whole community's participation. In the first five centuries, the characterization of a local church as "apostolic" pointed to its whole life: its Scriptures, sacraments and liturgy, authorized leaders, moral norms, ecclesiastical discipline and polity, interaction with pagan culture, socialization of its members, and its explicit beliefs. The belief of the faithful proved decisive in determining the canon of Scripture, the full and unquestioned divinity of Christ, Mary's virginity and her title of Mother of God, baptismal theory and practice, the necessity of grace, the veneration of the saints, etc. The faithful played no minor role in helping to decide doctrines as well as matters of praxis.

Though the influence of the faithful was somewhat diminished in the Latin Church after the fall of the Roman empire in the West, it continued to exercise an active role in the Church's life. However, the struggle to eradicate the practice of lay investiture, the reforms of Gregory VII, and a general tendency toward viewing social reality in more juridical categories and to impose more institutional forms on the life in the Church resulted in a depreciation of the gifts and contributions of the laity. Martin Luther's reassertion of the teaching of the priesthood of all the faithful led to the restriction of its use in the Latin Church, because that teaching was understood as a dimension of his attack on the rightful use of authority by the hierarchy. A few influential theologians, such as Melchior Cano (150960) and C. R. Billuart (16851757), made room for the contributions of the faithful. Gradually, the language of the certitude of propositions of belief, or a propositional view of revelation, replaced the earlier view of the whole Church's witnessing to God's revelation as always active and present. The ancient communio ecclesiology that had supported the earlier view was superseded by the ascendant juridical categories of the second millennium. It was only a matter of time till a theologian like J. B. Franzelin (181686) would distinguish between the faithful as constituting a passive ecclesia discens from the hierarchy as the active ecclesia docens.

Vatican II. The council's focus on what the Church itself was and how it related to the larger world necessarily involved a deeper appreciation of all believers in the Church. The laity in particular needed to be reminded of their inherent dignity and of their contribution to the building up of God's kingdom. The council spoke of all the faithful participating in the offices of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. Baptism into Christ means that each believer can claim to exercise these offices. The council also spoke of the Holy Spirit imparting the gift of faith and bestowing charisms on each Christian. A positive, active, and dynamic understanding of the believer emerged. The teaching of the sensus fidelium in particular helped clarify the prophetic duty of the believer to proclaim the word of God. The laity were challenged to deepen their understanding of the faith by prayer, study, discussion, and committed action. The ambit of their intellectual penetration is not restricted solely to secular matters, though there obviously the laity have an especial contribution to make and in such matters they speak with particular authority. On matters of faith and morals, too, they are called to fulfil their prophetic task in communion with their leaders.

Postconciliar Reflection. Shortly after the council a number of theologians began to argue for retiring the distinction of two categories of members in the Church, the "teaching Church" and the "learning Church." Others related the council's reflections to the broader questions of the nature of revelation and the response of faith. More recently a number of commentators have paid special attention to the nature of truth and the hermeneutics of faith-statements. The postmodern questioning of the whole category of truth and the growing influence of the "hermeneutics of suspicion" and its attendant ideology critique have become a focus of reflection on the sensus fidelium. Recent studies point to the problems surrounding human knowledge and the search for truth, the phenomenon of the ever-increasing pluralism of positions, and the growing sense of the person's lostness in a decentered world. They find in the conciliar and immediately postconciliar discussions a certain naiveté that could prove impotent in the face of the increasingly urgent questions of late modernity.

In practical terms, the postconciliar period saw calls for reducing the degree of centralization in the Church and for greater participation by all in the teaching activity of the Church. Likewise, claims were made that some officials in the Church were impeding efforts to fully acquaint the faithful with their ecclesial responsibilities. Some commentators pointed out, for instance, that the Code of Canon Law of 1983 failed to give juridical expression to the Council's teaching on the participation of the laity also in the teaching activity of the Church and in decision making. There is a growing realization that at some point the sensus fidelium must lead to some form of consensus fidelium. The proper means of communicating effectively in the Church, e.g., greater use of synods, demand implementation for consensus to emerge. "Consensus" is now emerging as a major focal point of the discussion.

The scope of the sensus fidelium includes the whole range of ecclesial questions: morality, sacraments, the social doctrine of the Church, Church practice and polity, the Church-world relationship, etc. Yet the term has no commonly agreed meaning among theologians. Some point to such categories as a sure instinct for the supernatural or knowing by connaturality (M. Löhrer and W. M. Thompson), a conspiratio of faithful, theologians, and the magisterium in understanding Christian truth (J. M. R. Tillard), a precognitive and comprehensive "grasp" (Vorgriff ) of reality (K. Rahner), an interior predisposition for and an internal adhering to the whole of revelation (M. Seybold), a true criterion of the faith and one of the indispensable "synchronic" communities of revealed truth (W. Beinert), a genuine locus theologicus (M. Löhrer and W. Beinert), a "being attuned to" Christian revelation especially in the ordinary experiences of lived faith (H. Wagner), an expression of the communio of all believers that comes to expression in Christian witness to the Apostolic faith in preaching, education, theological scholarship, formation of individuals and communities, etc. (J. M. R. Tillard), and an underlying structured synthesis of lived reality understood in the light of the Gospel (Z. Alszeghy).

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[j. j. burkhard]