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The instinct of faith

The International Theological Commission has just published an important text entitled Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church,” which discusses the topic in some detail and in its many implications. Key to its treatment is a distinction:

3. As a theological concept, the sensus fidei refers to two realities which are distinct though closely connected, the proper subject of one being the Church, ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1Tim 3:15), while the subject of the other is the individual believer, who belongs to the Church through the sacraments of initiation, and who, by means of regular celebration of the Eucharist, in particular, participates in her faith and life. On the one hand, the sensus fidei refers to the personal capacity of the believer, within the communion of the Church, to discern the truth of faith. On the other hand, the sensus fidei refers to a communal and ecclesial reality: the instinct of faith of the Church herself, by which she recognises her Lord and proclaims his word. The sensus fidei in this sense is reflected in the convergence of the baptised in a lived adhesion to a doctrine of faith or to an element of Christian praxis. This convergence (consensus) plays a vital role in the Church: the consensus fidelium is a sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the apostolic faith. In the present document, we use the term, sensus fidei fidelis, to refer to the personal aptitude of the believer to make an accurate discernment in matters of faith, and sensus fidei fidelium to refer to the Church’s own instinct of faith. According to the context, sensus fidei refers to either the former or the latter, and in the latter case the term, sensus fidelium, is also used.

Each of these two realities is explored at some length, but there does not seem to be enough attention to how these two distinct “realities” are related to one another. Is it enough to say that the sensus fidei of the entire Church “is reflected in the convergence of the baptised in a lived adhesion to a doctrine of faith or to an element of Christian praxis”?

I haven’t read the whole thing closely yet, but it does seem to be a very serious treatment of the issue. It includes a discussion of the relationship between the sensus fidelium and opinion polls.

The sensus fidelium will also be the theme of next year’s convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America, a choice made before this document was published.

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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"This convergence (consensus) plays a vital role in the Church: the consensus fidelium is a sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the apostolic faith."

The devil may be in the details. In the final analysis there may be very few "doctrines" that belong to the Apostolic faith. It might be easier to list those doctrines that do not belong to the Apostolic faith.

From the Dept. of Understatement & Easier Said than Done (#80):


There are occasions, however, when the reception of magisterial teaching by the faithful meets with difficulty and resistance, and appropriate action on both sides is required in such situations. The faithful must reflect on the teaching that has been given, making every effort to understand and accept it...The magisterium must likewise reflect on the teaching that has been given and consider whether it needs clarification or reformulation in order to communicate more effectively the essential message. 


At NCR, Eugene Kennedy comments on the same document:

Bill Mazzella,

It is sort of the opposite of the problem of creeping infallibility.

Chris Loestcher,

The tricky part is that clarification and reformulation can mean more than merely repackaging the previous teaching in a more persuasive or more palatable form. It can include discerning the essense of the truth from the false elements that provoked the rejection.

As usual in such documents we can single out the paragraphs we like and ignore others. It is hard to reconcile the following two paragraphs:   

63. Alerted by their sensus fidei, individual believers may deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognise in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd. ‘The sheep follow [the Good Shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run away from him because they do not know the voice of strangers’ (Jn 10:4-5). For St Thomas, a believer, even without theological competence, can and even must resist, by virtue of the sensus fidei, his or her bishop if the latter preaches heterodoxy.[78]In such a case, the believer does not treat himself or herself as the ultimate criterion of the truth of faith, but rather, faced with materially ‘authorised’ preaching which he or she finds troubling, without being able to explain exactly why, defers assent and appeals interiorly to the superior authority of the universal Church.[79]

64. The sensus fidei fidelis also enables the believer to distinguish in what is preached between what is essential for an authentic Catholic faith and what, without being formally against the faith, is only accidental or even indifferent with regard to the core of the faith. For example, by virtue of their sensus fidei, individual believers may relativise certain particular forms of Marian devotion precisely out of adherence to an authentic cult of the Virgin Mary. They might also distance themselves from preaching which unduly mixes together Christian faith and partisan political choices. By keeping the spirit of the believer focused in this wayon what is essential to the faith, the sensus fidei fidelis guarantees an authentic Christian liberty (cf. Col 2:16-23), and contributes to a purification of faith.

from those other two:

77. The magisterium also judges with authority whether opinions which are present among the people of God, and which may seem to be the sensus fidelium, actually correspond to the truth of the Tradition received from the Apostles. As Newman said: ‘the gift of discerning, discriminating, defining, promulgating, and enforcing any portion of that tradition resides solely in the Ecclesia docens’.[95] Thus, judgement regarding the authenticity of the sensus fidelium belongs ultimately not to the faithful themselves nor to theology but to the magisterium. Nevertheless, as already emphasised, the faith which it serves is the faith of the Church, which lives in all of the faithful, so it is always within the communion life of the Church that the magisterium exercises its essential ministry of oversight.

79. All of the gifts of the Spirit, and in a special way the gift of primacy in the Church, are given so as to foster the unity of the Church in faith and communion,[96] and the reception of magisterial teaching by the faithful is itself prompted by the Spirit, as the faithful, by means of the sensus fidei that they possess, recognise the truth of what is taught and cling to it. As was explained above, the teaching of Vatican I that infallible definitions of the pope are irreformable ‘of themselves and not from the consent of the Church [ex sese non autem ex consensu ecclesiae]’[97] does not mean that the pope is cut off from the Church or that his teaching is independent of the faith of the Church.[98] The fact that prior to the infallible definitions both of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of her bodily Assumption into heaven an extensive consultation of the faithful was carried out at the express wish of the pope at that time amply proves the point.[99] What is meant, rather, is that such teaching of the pope, and by extension all teaching of the pope and of the bishops, is authoritative in itself because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, the charisma veritatis certum, that they possess.


Claire, I had the same reaction to the document.  I  began to wonder as I read it whether various sections  might have been assigned to separate sub-committees, and the final version just patched together. In particular, that  detailed account of terrible mistakes the magisterium had made in every era,  and admissions tsometimes the faithful were right when the Bishops were wrong  doesn't logically lead to the conclusion  that because the Pope and the bishops possess the charism of certain truth ,their teaching  is authoritative in itself --if that means it always trumps the sensus fidei in individual believers.

 Pope Benedict  said this in an address to the Commission in 2012:

" Today, however it is particularly important to clarify the criteria used to distinguish the authentic sensus fideliyum from its counterfeits, In fact, it is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the magisterium, this because the sensus fidei can not grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to the Magisterium".


Small wonder then, that,despite all their labors, the group came up with the sort of Catch 22 for the faithful identified in Eugene Kennedy's NCR piece linked to above by Gene Palumbo.  Perhaps their next task should be to work out in more detail what responsible adherence to the Magisterium might mean. in hard cases like some of those cited in their long account of the Magisterium's errors down through history.

Ouch. "sensus fidelium." How did that "y" get in there?

How can this text be important if it says many things and their opposite? By what it does not say. So let's ask: what is absent from this document, that one might reasonably have expected to find there?


Susan GAnnon


When the sensus fidelium is like Bdelliyum in Gen. 2:12, it becomes the sensus fideliyum. :-)

The big problem behind all this seems to be our obsession with needing to be "certain".

Somehow the reality is that while the Holy Spirit  may be promised "to lead to all truth", that discernment of truth is always a work in progress. We need to let go of the notion that we have achieved the final perfect expression of "the truth".

It is quite OK and "safe" to act on the pronouncement of "the magisterium" but ultimately we need to be secure enough to follow out own conscience - - the "with-knowledge" -- that we possess and then trust that is all that God expects of us.

We don't need to be "absolutely certain". We act with the best knowledge we have, and leave room to grow in wisdom and truth.

I don't see the opposition noted between those two paragraphs. They have in common that individual believers' instinct of faith enables them, on the one hand, to "recognise the truth of what is taught and cling to it" and, on the other, to "deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognise in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd." This is an acknowledgment that the response of believers is a free and responsible act, whether it is one of assent and obedience or of dissent and disobedience. This, I take it, is what "a responsible adherence to the Magisterium" means.

As with other exercises of teaching-authority, as, for example, that of a professor in a university, authority and trust are correlatives--to be an authority is to be trusted--and where there is trust, there is an expectation that one is being taught reasonably and responsibly, so that the burden of proof is on the part of those learning and expecting to learn. 

On my blog I've posted three essays on the magisterium and theology, and I'd love to receive comments on them, either here or there:

individual believers' instinct of faith enables them, on the one hand, to "recognise the truth of what is taught and cling to it" and, on the other, to "deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognise in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd."

Ok, so we choose what to assent to. But in addition, our "instinct of faith" would supposedly equip us to do it with good judment. How is that compatible with the following?

 judgement regarding the authenticity of the sensus fidelium belongs ultimately not to the faithful themselves nor to theology but to the magisterium.


So a member of the faithful may - using his instinct, and "without being able to explain exactly why" - choose to dissent from his bishop, but the bishop is the one who judges whether that member is right or wrong. Is that how those two paragraphs can be reconciled?

Claire:   You speak of "using one's instinct" as if it is a tool.  It's not.  The presentation of what is meant by the phrase makes it clear that it is a function of one's growth in the Christian life, faith, hope and charity--all of them.  They used to say of William Foxwell Albright, great OT scholar, that he could go on an archaeological dig, rub the dust of a shard between his fingers, and date it.  That's not the sort of knowledge one gains from books, but only from long experience and familiarity with the terrain. Or I think of my niece commenting about her young child's cry:  "Uncle Joe, I know my baby." Something analogous is meant by the "instinct of faith"--one might almost translate it as a sensitivity to the faith. That is why I don't think we should pass hastily over nos. 48 to 59 before getting into practical applications and inferences. Could I ask what people think of this section, before getting to questions of potential conflict?

I think the ITC has made a major effort to overcome the distinction between the "teaching Church" and the "learning Church," the latter being identified with a passive laity and the former with the lone active agent, the hierarchy. That the hierarchy has a distinct role in the articulation of the Church's faith is clearly maintained, as is only natural; but an attempt is made to make sure that the hierarchy is not conceived of as if it is outside and over and above the Church or as if the consensus fideliun has no role in the process by which an authoritative judgment is reached.

48-59: crystal clear and compelling.


This (from #59) is straightforward enough:

[T]hose who teach in the name of the Church should give full attention to the experience of believers, especially lay people.

I'd like to hear those who teach briefly describe how they give full attention to the experience of lay people.

Section 55 contends that the infallibility of the sensus fidei fidelis is rendered problematic because "in the actual mental universe of the believer, the correct intuition of the sensus fidei can be mixed up with various purely human opinions, or even with errors linked to the narrow confines of a particuar cultural context. Although theological faith as such cannot err, the believer can still have erroneous opinions since all his thoughts do not spring from faith. Not all the ideas which circulate among the people of God are compatible with faith."

Do the authors of this document think that all of the thoughts of  the Pope and the Bishops spring from faith? Or that they have no erroneous, purely human errors, linked to the narrow confines of a particular cultural context?

I am quite certain that the authors of this document do not think either of these things.

The document reads as though it was written in English - it doesn't 'feel' like a translation.  What would have been the language in whihc it was composed?

It's interesting that the authors (or translators) use the RSV bible for their translation of Heb 11:1 in paragraph 9: "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

The other day I read Bernard Haring's article on the Encyclical Crisis back in the 60's. It was so clear and convincing, so carefully developed, so fair-minded and rational--yet the Magisterium was unpersuaded, and remain so.  Father K's three articles  are thoughtful, well-reasoned, persuasive, and subtle .  "The Magisterium and  Theologians," is as timely today as it was in 1990. Check out that final section. Great advice, if only those who need it could learn to listen.


The personalities and pastoral approaches of “those who teach” vary (consider Cardinals Burke and Tagle).


Most American bishops aren’t too keen on speak-ups, assemblies or synods. Consultative committees, boards and councils tend to be comprised of carefully hand-picked members who are amenable to the teacher’s line of thinking. Mutual admiration societies are loath to pay attention to experience beyond their frame of reference.


Discerning and living in accord with the “mind of Christ” is no easy task, but it belongs to every member of the church, including bishops. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are practices that help us to imitate Christ and connect us with the experience of others. (Bishops should spend less time “instructing the ignorant.")


I only took a superficial look at the ITC document. Engaging with it requires study, and it's easier to nitpick one sentence or another than to engage it seriously. My bad. I would be interested if others commented, though.

Yes, the last section of that text on "The Magisterium and Theologians" is balanced and subtle.

Jim:   I suspect that the document was written in English.

The article on "Authority and conversion" is a pleasure to read.

It is delightful to acknowledge someone's authority, to listen to what they say with the expectation that they know things that we don't know, and to greet differences of opinion and apparently wrong statements as an indication that there is something new for us to understand. I see how that article is a good description of a rewarding relationship built over time and based on experience.

But what about the authority that is supposed to come purely from status, position? Can a new teacher, for example, expect anything more from the students than to be given a chance? They will, for a few lectures, listen attentively to what he might have to say, then decide for themselves whether he deserves it. His status does not of itself give him full authority, but only buys him a little time to try to establish himself as an authority. In some ways that's been happening to pope Francis. He had people's attention for a bit after his election, and managed to gain their trust in a very short time.

On the other hand one paragraph describes a crisis in authority in a way that, it seems to me, perfectly describes the current state of the relationship between US Catholics and their bishops: "It is a sign that an authority relationship is either dead or moribund if every act of Alice is skeptically questioned by Bob: it means that Alice is no longer trusted. A credibility gap is a crisis in authority. On the other hand, a consistent unwillingness or inability on the part of Alice to provide the reasons behind his decisions is likely to generate the suspicion that no such reasons exist and to weaken Bob's constitutive acknowledgment of Alice's authority." 

Yet I wonder if the article's description of authority is not slightly incomplete. If a policeman tells me to get out of the way, chances are that I will do it, not that I know him, not that I necessarily believe that his decision is right - I may even be convinced of the opposite -, not that I am necessarily very afraid of getting in trouble, but maybe out of a sense that, in the main, it's a desirable thing for society to have law and order. That has little to do with trust in the policeman. Similarly I may go to confession once a year, not because it is not unpleasant, nor because it has any noticeable effects, nor because I think that it is a good rule, nor because I fear consequences of not complying, but maybe because of a sense that, barring a clear conviction that something is wrong with them, it is better to abide by the rules; that, in the main, the church has over the years built worthwhile directives even if neither reason nor experience can justify some of them. One always hopes that some day they will make sense. I'm not sure that can be called "trust". It is more along the lines of: "What's the harm in complying?", and a very weak form of compliance, one that is open to change as soon as some evidence comes to point the other way.

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