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.