A recently published document by the Vatican deserves everyone’s attention, not just the attention of theologians.
It is useful and practical. It was the work of the International Theological Commission, appointed by Pope Benedict XVI, to determine the capacity of individuals and of the church to discern the truth of the faith.
Formally titled “‘Sensus Fidei’ in the Life of the Church,” it could be popularly titled “How to Believe.”
The “sensus fidei,” the commission said, “is a sort of spiritual instinct” that enables a believer to judge whether a teaching or practice conforms to the Gospel and apostolic faith.
The commission made it clear that the “sensus fidei” is not the same thing as majority opinion.
However, it was frank in saying that “when the reception of magisterial teaching by the faithful meets with difficulty and resistance, appropriate action on both sides is required.”
Read that as a call for openness. It is significant that the publication of the document was approved by Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an office often portrayed as rigid and repressive.
The commission made several points that bear on contemporary events. Catholics are not obliged to blindly obey everything that a pope or bishops tell them, the commission said. This is a good defense against those who are fond of portraying Catholics as thoughtless automatons.
The document can be useful as sincere Catholics wrestle with questions. That doesn’t mean the faithful can go off and believe what they want, but it places a heavy burden on those who would claim to know whether a teaching needs some changes.
When the faithful ignore or reject a teaching, church leaders need to examine whether that teaching needs clarification or if it needs to be restated, the commission said.
There is a need to do a much better job in connecting current affairs to “the why” of the faith. For example, we can explain how immigration and poverty relief trace directly to the principle of human dignity or why capital punishment and “just war” principles relate directly to the teaching of respect for life.
Catholics too often leave unchallenged mistaken perceptions of church teaching, i.e. the Catholic Church forbids divorce when, in fact, the issue is that the church cannot recognize a second marriage when a valid marriage involving either party still exists.
Faith is not based on popular opinion. Sincere questioning requires one to be fully prepared intellectually as well as spiritually.
The church is neither a democracy nor a dictatorship. The theological commission’s work is quite helpful in guiding the “spiritual instinct” in a careful and thoughtful approach to meet new challenges.
Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers and has a master’s degree in spirituality. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
In a time to build, CatholicPhilly.com connects people and communities
As society emerges from the loss and separation of the pandemic, CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you join in our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community.
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103