Where is the ‘sensus fidelium’?
Russell Shaw of OSV has a column at InsideCatholic.com that discusses “Polarization and the Church” and takes a not unexpected tilt in blaming what I guess would be considered the “left,” though Shaw sees it as a problem of politically-oriented bishops versus religiously-orthodox. (He also pins much of the blame on Barack Obama, but says it’s nothing personal–just politics.)
But the interesting part, for me, comes at the end, when Shaw argues that the divide in the Church is really between practicing, mass-going Catholics and less observant or largely “lapsed” (or “col-lapsed,” in NYT editor Bill Keller’s coinage) Catholics.
“On the whole, the polarization of American Catholics isn’t a split among practicing members of the Church.
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, only 23 percent of Catholic adults in the United States now attend Mass every Sunday — which is to say 77 percent do not. Moreover, reports CARA, 75 percent receive the Sacrament of Penance — confess their sins, that is — less than once a year or never.
This isn’t American Catholicism at some point in an imagined future — it’s a snapshot of where we are now: three out of four adults seldom or never participating in the central religious acts of their Church, while only one in four does. Here’s the real polarization of American Catholics.
In the Notre Dame dust-up, 56 percent of Catholics who don’t attend weekly Mass thought the university did the right thing by honoring Obama, but only 37 percent of the weekly Mass-attenders agreed. More polarization. Instead of criticizing the university’s critics, bishops would do well to address this pervasive crisis at its roots, while at the same time considering the possibility that the views of people who go to Mass every week are the sensus fidelium at work.”
There are some inherent problems in Shaw’s invocation of polling data to locate the sensus fidelium. For one thing, the Pew poll he refers to showing a 45-37 majority of weekly attenders disapproving of the ND invite included only white non-Hispanic Catholics. That’s a pretty big hole in the poll.
Also a Quinnipiac poll just before Obama’s visit to ND showed that weekly mass-goers felt Notre Dame should not rescind the invite by a slim 49-43 percent majority.
So pick your numbers. But Shaw does raise an interesting and very relevant question of theology and, I suppose, sociology and political science: Who gets to speak for the church, and above all, where does the sensus fidelium reside? Is it among mass-goers or all the baptized? At what point does one become sufficiently “practicing” to be counted as part of the sensus fidelium?
This is, I suppose, an irrelevant exercise in many respects. But it is also inevitable as the church has a voice in the affairs of the day, and figuring out what that voice is would be a question for political sicentists and the Holy Spirit. And I think Russell Shaw raises an issue that Catholics themselves of all stripes sense–that those who attend have a larger say in the sensus fidelium because they are developing their sense of the faith. Maybe it comes down to a sense of possessiveness, maybe something else.