Stephen Kent

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: