Synods are not new in the history of the Church. From the very beginning of the Church, the Apostles and later their successors, the bishops, gathered to discuss doctrinal and disciplinary matters. They were assisted by deacons. From the election of the Apostles and the morning of the Resurrection the Apostles received the spiritual gift to teach, govern and sanctify the faithful. This threefold gift or power was a participation in the life and authority of Jesus Christ. The clergy and laity have some share in the threefold gift of Christ. The idea behind the 2023 synod on Synodality is to highlight the participation of all of the faithful in the Church’s synods.
In view of understanding better this participation of the faithful we should consider St. John Henry Newman’s reflections on the sensum fidelium (the sense of the faithful). In his article On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine (1859), Newman wrote: “I think I am right in saying that the tradition of the Apostles, committed to the whole Church in its various constituents and functions per modum unius, manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgies, rites, ceremonies, and customs, by events, disputes, movements, and all those other phenomena which are comprised under the name of history. It follows that none of these channels of tradition may be treated with disrespect; granting at the same time fully, that the gift of discerning, discriminating, defining, promulgating, and enforcing any portion of that tradition resides solely in the Ecclesia docens.”
Newman recognized that the faithful, comprising clergy and laity, bore witness to the doctrine of the faith. He called this testimony by the name of sensum fidelium. It was a recognition of the tradition received and transmitted in the Church. Newman noted the importance of this sense of the faithful during the fourth century when for many decades bishops and clergy adopted Arian beliefs.
Over the last two centuries the notion of sensum fidelium has been highlighted by different authors and in the documents of Vatican II. Although there is an innate understanding of what this term means, it will be helpful to try to specify its meaning. In Lumen Gentium, n. 12 we read: “That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God.(112) Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints,(113) penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life.”
This sensum fidelium or sensum fidei is the acknowledgment by the faithful of the doctrines, liturgy and moral norms that are in conformity with the teaching of the Apostles and authentic development of these under the authority of the hierarchy. It is, so to speak, a confirmation of authentic doctrinal development in contrast to corruption of doctrine. It can also be described as a spiritual instinct for Catholic truths.
This sense of the faithful draws from many sources:
- The moral conscience’s perception of natural law
- The received teaching and practices in the Church found in Tradition and Revelation
- The liturgy and prayers of the Church
- The lives and teaching of the saints
For people to express the sensum fidelium it is not sufficient for them to be baptized members of the Church. These persons must profess the Faith of the Church and live by it. Otherwise the sensum would now not be the sensum fidelium, rather it would be the sensum mundi. St. John Henry Newman would call this a religion of the world or worldly religion.
The faithful in the Church are those who 1. have been instructed in the faith, 2. exercise daily prayer and regular sacramental life, 3. discern the times, and 4. live in obedience to the Church’s hierarchy. In other words, it is a mistake to think that someone has the sensum fidelium merely by virtue of being baptized or of attending Sunday Mass occasionally or even every Sunday.
In an article “Newman on Synods and Synodality in the Catholic Church, published in The Downside Review, (April, 2023) I discuss the roles that bishops, clergy, theologians and laity at large have in the Church. To be sure clergy, laity and theologians, whether clergymen or laity, can exercise the sensum fidelium. However, we must avoid the facile notion that any Catholic’s private judgment constitutes a guide or sense of what is to be believed. In his article On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine Newman indicated that there is a breathing together or conspiratio between the pastors and the faithful:
“As to the particular doctrine to which I have here been directing my view, and the passage in history by which I have been illustrating it, I am not supposing that such times as the Arian will ever come again. As to the present, certainly, if there ever was an age which might dispense with the testimony of the faithful, and leave the maintenance of the truth to the pastors of the Church, it is the age in which we live. Never was the Episcopate of Christendom so devoted to the Holy See, so religious, so earnest in the discharge of its special duties, so little disposed to innovate, so superior to the temptation of theological sophistry. And perhaps this is the reason why the “consensus fidelium” has, in the minds of many, fallen into the background. Yet each constituent portion of the Church has its proper functions, and no portion can safely be neglected. Though the laity be but the reflection or echo of the clergy in matters of faith, yet there is something in the “pastorum et fidelium conspiratio,” which is not in the pastors alone.” (This term can be translated as “the breathing together of pastors and the faithful”).
Earlier in the same article Newman asserted that even so it is the role of the pastors, that is, the bishops, to discern, discriminate, define, promulgate, and enforce any portion of that tradition.
In a future post, the relationship of the sensum fidelium to Tradition, Revelation and Magisterium will be discussed further.