Sensus Fidei, the Survey and the Synod

The Church has released a couple on interesting documents this month that coincide with each other. The first was a document by the International Theological Commission clarifying Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church. The second was the working document for the Synod of the family this October. Although the documents are interesting in and of themselves, their relationship to each other is what is of most interest. (Personal sidebar: Both documents are rather long, by the way, which the Vatican is wont to do)

Last year Pope Francis called for an Extraordinary General Assembly, or Synod, of Bishops to meet in October of 2014 for the purposes of addressing the challenges the Church faces concerning the family. This Synod would bring together the presidents of national bishop’s conferences, the heads of Eastern Catholic churches and Vatican officials. This is to be followed up by the Ordinary General Assembly, or world Synod of Bishops, in October of 2015. This Synod will consist of a larger representation of bishops from around the world. In order to better ascertain the true nature of meeting these challenges at the diocesan and parish level, the Vatican issued a preparatory document that included a survey mainly from the clergy, but also asking for observations from the laity. The Cardinals had a meeting in February for the purpose of freely expressing their thoughts. This meeting was not a decision making body, featured no votes, will not preempt the Synod nor is it binding on the Synod, although synod members will be informed about what the Cardinals said. Finally, the Vatican released a working document describing what they learned from the survey and offering some suggestions regarding solutions. That is the timeline so far but let’s break it down into simpler terms a little. The Church recognized that in today’s culture there are urgent situations concerning the family. They called for the pastoral leadership to come together, giving themselves two years to prayerfully and seriously consider different aspects of these situations and the challenges they present. They asked “What’s up?” at the diocesan and parish level. The Cardinals got together to express some preliminary thoughts. They then presented a working plan concerning what’s up and what might help, as an initial guide for the discussions at the Synod.

So what is the big deal about all this and what does it have to do with Sensus Fidei? (By the way, what does Sensus Fidei mean, anyway, you and your high falutin, booshie sounding Latin?) Don’t worry, we will get there.

The big deal is that we need to recognize what is a big deal and what isn’t (Which is an important part of the Sensus Fidei process). We need to remember that formal proposals about the church’s pastoral care of families will not be made until after the second, larger gathering in 2015. What we have been hearing and seeing over the last few months has been discussion and conversation. What we will be hearing and seeing in the coming months, as well, can be considered as part, but only part, of the discussion or conversation. The working document, right now,  is just part of the discussion. None of it can be considered as foregone conclusions or absolute indications of the actual determinations that the Synod will eventually make. This is a process and is, in fact, a demonstration of authentic Sensus Fidei in action. Remember that in the 60's it was pretty foregone conclusion that the Church would be accepting artificial birth control but then Pope Paul VI wrote Humanae Vitae.
Sensus Fidei literally means sense of faith. Guided, assisted and empowered by the Holy Spirit, it is the instinct for the truth of the Gospel which enables us to recognize and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false. This supernatural instinct is intrinsically linked to the gift of faith received in the communion of the Church through baptism. On one had it refers to the personal capacity of the believer, in communion with the Church, to discern the truth of faith. On the other hand it refers to the instinct of the Church, in a communal and ecclesial sense, to recognize the Lord and proclaim his word. The personal aptitude of the believer to accurately discern matters of faith is often referred to as sensus fidei fidelis. The term when referring to the Church as a whole is sometimes sensus fidei fidelium. The convergence of the two in authentic sensus fidei is often termed consensus fidelium and is a reliable standard for determining whether a doctrine or practice belongs to the apostolic faith. The key word there is authentic. The phrase itself is not found in scripture nor in the formal teaching of the Church until Vatican II. However, the concept “that the Church as a whole is infallible in her belief, since she is the body and bride of Christ and that all her members have an anointing that teaches them, being endowed by the Spirit of truth,” has been part of the Church from earliest Christianity.

The document goes on to explain what all this means and how it is applied in the life of the Church, as well as the proper disposition of the believer for authentic sensus fidei. To give a summary of the entire document is beyond the scope of this blog. I can say that the proper disposition for the believer involves: participation in the life of the Church; listening to the word of God; openness to reason; adherence to the magisterium; holiness, humility, freedom and joy; and seeking the edification of the Church. Authentic sensus fidei is not about popular opinion or majority rule.  Although authentic consensus fidelium is a reliable standard, it is not a consensus  of what people want or are of the opinion of. Authentic sensus fidei recognizes the sensus fidei of the entire history of the Church past and present. At the same time the Church recognizes and determines the times that the sensus fedei was applied specifically to particular situations during particular times and may not be applied in the same way to all situations in all times.

The Church has made a statement by releasing these two documents to coincide with each other together. They are letting us know of their intention to pursue an authentic sense of faith in making these decisions and that we, too, should have such a disposition in order to assist them.
Faith involves confidence and trust. The prayers of the Church for the Synod began right away, with special intentions being said at shrines dedicated to the family. They realize that it is only within the embrace of the Church and the Mass that anyone can even have access to a proper formation of the truth or to have the proper disposition for an authentic sense of faith.

Pope Francis in a letter to families asked for our prayers. He said Your prayer for the synod of bishops will be a precious treasure which enriches the Church. I thank you and ask you to pray also for me, so that I may serve the People of God in truth and in love. The Church will also be declaring a world day of prayer on September 28. It is time now for us to enter into a disposition to foster a sense of faith for the Church, a consensus fidelium displaying our faith and belief that it will indeed be the Holy Spirit that guides us all in facing the challenges of today's world.


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