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Sensus fidelium

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The concept of sensus fidelium (also referred to as sensus fidei fidelium, and related to sensus fidei fidelis, which is also called sensus fidei or sensum fidei) in Roman Catholic teachings can be implicitly traced back to the early Fathers of the Church. In literal terms, sensus fidelium simply means the "sense of the faithful" and refers to doctrinal truth recognised (sensed) by the whole body of the faithful. Note that sensus fidei by itself as commonly used in theological dialogue, which literally means the "sense of the faith", refers to this understanding as belonging to the individual believer within the community of the faithful.[1]

While most Catholic doctrines and theological teachings either originate in scripture or are established by the higher levels of the Church hierarchy, sensus fidelium works from the ground up, from the beliefs of the masses of the faithful, not only as understood through the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible, but also as inspired by the Holy Spirit, which guides the faithful at large within the framework of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that:

Christ . . . fulfills this prophetic office, not only by the hierarchy . . . but also by the laity. He accordingly both establishes them as witnesses and provides them with the sense of the faith [sensus fidei] and the grace of the word.[2]

But sensus fidelium is not a basis for a democratic approach to determining the teachings of the Holy See. It stipulates that the concepts involved must be viewed under the guidance of the Magisterium. However, in his letter to the 1998 Inquisition Symposium, Pope John Paul II suggested that sensus fidei may also be used in the other direction, i.e. to reflect on the past actions of the Magisterium. He stated that:

One must appeal to the "sensus fidei" to find the criteria for a just judgment on the past of the life of the Church.[3]

The pontiff then referred to the freedoms provided in the context of Dignitatis Humanae, stating that: "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it wins over the mind with both gentleness and power."

Some theologians have commented critically on the Church's failure to effectively listen to the sensum fidei, such as Donal Dorr, who has also noted a western and ethnocentric leaning in Catholic social teaching.[4] There are opposing theologians, such as George Weigel, who believe that Catholic social doctrine is emerging as more liberal and attentive to this tendency in the community of the faithful.[5]

A key example of the recent use of sensus fidelium was the development of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, as defined by Pope Pius IX. It came about not so much because of proofs in scripture or ancient tradition, but due to a sensus fidelium shared by the faithful and the Magisterium.[6] The Vatican quotes in this context the encyclical Fulgens Corona, where Pope Pius XII supported such a faith:

If the popular praises of the Blessed Virgin Mary be given the careful consideration they deserve, who will dare to doubt that she, who was purer than the angels and at all times pure, was at any moment, even for the briefest instant, not free from every stain of sin?[7]

A related term is sensus Ecclesiæ', or sense of the Church.

References

  • Daniel J. Finucane, 1996, Sensus Fidelium: The Use of a Concept in the Post-Vatican II Era, International Scholars Publishing, ISBN 1573090816.
  • Ormond Rush, "Sensus Fidei: Faith 'Making Sense' of Revelation," Theological Studies, June 2001.

Notes

  1. ""Sensus Fidei: Faith 'Making Sense' of Revelation"". CBS Interactive Bnet.com. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb6404/is_2_62/ai_n28842535/. 
  2. Vatican Website on sensus fidei http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2A.HTM
  3. Pope John Paul II, Letter http://www.catholic.org/featured/headline.php?ID=1058
  4. Dorr, Donal, Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Vatican Social Teaching, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1992.
  5. Grasso, K.L., Bradley, G.V., and Hunt, R.P. (eds.), Catholicism, Liberalism, and Communitarianism: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition and the Moral Foundations of Democracy, London: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995, 257-8.
  6. Agenzia Fides - Congregazione per l'Evangelizzazione dei Popoli
  7. Fulgens Corona, 10


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