Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Church: sensus fidelium is not public opinion

As with the State, when it comes to the Church, most important news and information goes unreported. Hence, these important events and statements never enter the public discussion, leaving it as the almost exclusive domain of either unknowing and uncaring commentators, or fairly knowledgeable commentators with an ideological ax or two to grind. When it comes to speeches by Pope Benedict XVI this seems to be the case almost all the time. To be fair, this is also a function of the Holy Father’s penchant for addressing important thoughts to appropriate audiences and not speaking off-the-cuff to uncomprehending people, thus avoiding the risk of having his message badly distorted. As we near the end of the year, we approach the time when he will give his annual Christmas address to the Roman Curia, which is something like his annual State of the Church address. One can learn much by reading his previous seven December speeches.

On 6 December the Pontiff addressed the International Theological Commission, gathered for their annual plenary session and for the first time under their new president, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, who is president by virtue of his being Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In his speech, Pope Benedict takes on two major threats to authentic Church teaching: the use of public opinion against the magisterium and the idea that faith, particularly monotheistic faith that claims to possess universal truth, inevitably leads to violence.

He began his speech by referring to two recent documents issued by the Commission: Message of the International Theological Commission on the occasion of the Year of Faith and Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria. In his speech, the Holy Father said of the latter document that it takes note of “the vitality and variety of theology subsequent to the Second Vatican Council, this document seeks to present, so to speak, the genetic code of Catholic theology, namely, the principles that define its identity and consequently guarantee its unity in the diversity of its achievements.”

The Holy Father goes on to speak of one criterion set forth in Theology Today, namely the role of the sensus fidelium (the “sense” or “consensus” of the faithful). He went on to note that Vatican II reaffirmed “the specific and irreplaceable role that the Magisterium must play” in addition to emphasizing “that the People of God, in its entirety, participate in the prophetic office of Christ, thereby fulfilling the inspired wish expressed by Moses: ‘would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!’ (Num 11:29).” Pointing to the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Holy Father noted that “the whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy one (cf. 1 Jn 2:20,27), cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people, when, ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful’ they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals’” (par. 12). It is with this that we finally arrive at an important correction:
In the believer this gift, the sensus fidei constitutes a sort of supernatural instinct which has a vital co- naturality with the object of faith itself. We note that the simple faithful carry with them this certainty, this firm sense of faith. The sensus fidei is a criterion for discerning whether or not a truth belongs to the living deposit of the Apostolic Tradition. It also has a propositional value for the Holy Spirit never ceases to speak to the Churches and to guide them towards the whole truth. Today, however, it is particularly important to explain the criteria that make it possible to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeit. It is certainly not a kind of public ecclesial opinion and invoking it in order to contest the teachings of the Magisterium would be unthinkable, since the sensus fidei cannot be authentically developed in believers, except to the extent in which they fully participate in the life of the Church, and this demands responsible adherence to the Magisterium, to the deposit of faith.
What I think is of particular note is his insistence that the development of the sensus fidei in any individual believer is proportional to how fully s/he participates in the faith. To wit: when one looks at public opinion polls among Catholics in the United States it is often the case that there is almost a complete reversal of opinion when one compares the views of self-identified Catholics who do not fully participate in the life of the Church (i.e., don’t go to confession, don’t attend Mass, don’t participate in faith formation, etc.) with those who do. My guess is that this phenomenon is not limited to the U.S. I think another theological note worth citing is that, in the end, only the saints make up the Church.

BXVI in Regensburg with then-Bishop Müller behind him

Following closely on the heels of this important correction, Pope Benedict also used this occasion to respond to one of the persistent criticisms of the so-called “new atheists”:
Today, this same supernatural sense of faith in believers also gives rise to vigorous reactions against the prejudice which holds that religions — and in particular the monotheistic religions — are intrinsically vehicles of violence, especially because they claim the existence of a universal truth. Some consider that the “polytheism of values” alone would guarantee tolerance and civil peace and would be in conformity with the spirit of a pluralistic democratic society
Having set forth the problem, the Holy Father here, too, gives the correction:
it is essential to remember that faith in the one God, Creator of heaven and earth, encounters the rational needs for metaphysical reflection, which is not weakened but reinforced and deepened by the Revelation of the mystery of God-Trinity. On the other hand, it is necessary to emphasize the form that the definitive Revelation of the mystery of the one God assumes in the life and death of Jesus Christ, who goes to the Cross like a “lamb that is led to the slaughter” (Is 53:7). The Lord testifies to a radical rejection of every form of hatred and violence in favour of the absolute primacy of agape. Hence, if in history there have been or are forms of violence perpetrated in God’s name, they must not be attributed to monotheism but rather to historical causes, and, principally, to the errors of men and women. Rather, it is forgetfulness of God itself that immerses human societies in a form of relativism which inevitably gives rise to violence. When the possibility for all to refer to an objective truth is denied, dialogue becomes impossible and violence, declared openly or hidden, becomes the rule of human relationships

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