Sexual Ethics and the Sensus Fidelium

At The Wild Reed, Michael Bayley has a short extract from an old NCR article by Arthur Jones on Richard Sipe, speaking about the disjunction of the official teaching on sexual matters and the attitudes and practices of the laity.

At one point in Jones’ article, Sipe notes that “In terms of human sexuality, the Church is at a pre-Copernican stage of understanding” – a reference, notes Jones, to “15th century Catholic priest and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who resurrected, despite church opposition, the scientific theory of the sun rather than the Earth as the center of the solar system.”

Says Sipe: “The church has not come to understand the nature of sex. And it’s not easily understood – we have to struggle along with the neurological, the genetic, the psychological, the evolutionary basis of it. The church has not done that and is frightened of doing it.”

The post then continues with observations on the response of the laity and its importance:

What the laity has began to realize, [Sipe] said, is that the reason the [clergy sexual abuse] scandal is so destabilizing to the church is because it goes to the fundamentals of the doctrine. The laity wants all these questions reexamined and rediscussed – from contraception, homosexuality, masturbation, sex before marriage, to sex after divorce, even abortion. The laity is beginning to ask the church on questions of human sexuality, “On what basis are you saying this is natural and this is unnatural? The laity is questioning the church’s reasoning on what is natural and how it’s natural and demanding it be rethought. This questioning is so compelling that nothing can turn it back,” he said.

“If you put it in religious terms, where we are today,” said Sipe, “concerns the obvious step from the hypocritical to an actual reformation. Historically, corruption comes from the top and reform comes from the bottom. I mean why does reformation come about? Reformation comes about because, my God, you’re teaching this and you’re practicing that. And people say: Either change what you’re practicing, or change what you’re teaching.

The laity is the force,” he said. “Articles say, ‘Oh, it’ll be different when we get a new pope.’ It may or may not. That’s not the real force in this. The real force of this is in the sensus fidelium, because, if the people don’t believe it, it’s not true.”

From a personal point of view, what I found remarkable was how these few paragraphs bring together the key conclusions that I have been reaching myself, with with some recent comments on this site, and with some very recent reading I have been doing elsewhere.  As I wrote in my own comment on the post:

The official teaching of the church on sexuality no longer has the support of the sensus fidelium; this goes to the heart of the problems facing the church, especially the problem of abuse; and that what is need now is not just a new poe or some tinkering with the doctrines, but a complete reformation.

But I do now want to dwell too much on the Michael’s content. Read the full post yourself at “If People Don’t Believe it, it’s Not True” (and follow the excellent links to some of his related posts.)

I was equally intrigued by what for me was the sequel to my reading.  One of the comments asked,

“What is one then to make of those early years of the Church when Arianism was rampant, and by some accounts, the majority of “believers” did not affirm the Divinity of Christ?”

This reference tot he Arian heresy reminded me of another Wild Reed post I read some time ago, so I tried to track it down – and eventually did, at Robert McClory’s Prophetic Work. Guess what?  Totally contradicting the anonymous commenter, McClory quotes  Cardinal Newman to show that the heresy was not overturned by the hierarchy acting in defiance of the laity, but by the hierarchy yielding to the sensus fidelium:

Following the Council of Nicaea, for example, many Catholic bishops campaigned against the correct teaching on Jesus’ humanity and divinity. Instead, they told people to accept heretical Arianism. But the laity did not listen, and 56 years later the correct dogma was reiterated at the Council of Constantinople. Cardinal John Newman later wrote about the incident: “The Nicene dogma was maintained during the greater part of the fourth century . . . not by the unswerving firmness of the Holy See, Councils or bishops, but . . . by the consensus fidelium.”

This highlights for me yet another theme I have become conscious of:  so much of our popular perceptions of church history (where we have any at all) are simply wrong. The hierarchy makes no attempt to correct these misperceptions, instead selectively extracting from 2000 years of history that suits and matches their interpretations of what “must” have been, not of what actually was the case.

Then another nugget:  In trying to track down the quotation I was looking for, I found another excellent and useful post on McCrory, “A Catholic Understanding of Dissent.” This deals with a keynote address McCrory gave to a prayer breakfast, in which he spoke (inter alia) about Bishop Nienstad, and an extraordinary action he took concerning his predecessor, Bishop Raymond Lucker.

“At that time,” said McClory, “[Nienstedt] had done something newsworthy in relation to a book entitled, Revelation and the Church: Vatican II and in the Twenty-First Century. This book had been largely written and edited by his predecessor, Bishop Raymond Lucker,” explained McClory, “and, in it, Bishop Lucker said that there were a lot of things that the Church needs to think about. He listed 37 matters of authoritative Church teaching that have undergone substantial change over time – including the Church’s approach to religious liberty, the Bible, slavery, and the Jews. Bishop Lucker’s book also contained a list of 15 teachings that could change in the future, including clerical celibacy, artificial birth control, intercommunion between Protestants and Catholics, condemnation of homosexual activity, and the ordination of women. When Bishop Nienstedt came in and saw that book he said: ‘Take that off the shelf.’”

This, of course, chimes very well with yet another theme becoming very clear to me:  the startling arrogance of some bishops in asserting their own views over their colleagues (think Bishop Martino of Scranton before his sudden departure), but also the welcome existence of countervailing views, in the hierarchy as well as the laity.

Too often, it is the stridency and arrogance of the hardline conservatives that get the publicity.  We need to do what we can to publicise and promote more widely the moderate countervailing voices. I would be particularly interested in further exploring, and promoting, Bishop Lucker’s book, about which I had not heard before.

2 Responses to “Sexual Ethics and the Sensus Fidelium”

  1. William D. Lindsey Says:

    Terry, this is a powerful and very good posting. I’ve used it in a posting on my Bilgrimage blog today. It ties right into what I said on Bilgrimage yesterday. I think you were posting your piece at the same time I was writing that posting, so I didn’t see yours until you left a comment on my blog later in the day. Amazing how several of us were thinking about and responding to the same themes at the same time.

    • queeringthechurch Says:

      Amazing indeed, Bill. I saw your posting, and also Michael’s at the Wild Reed. This is clearly a good time to be raising these issues. The various exchanges have led me into several trains of thought which I am now working on, to develop into two separate posts of my own: one on the synchronicity itself, and (possibly) a further one on elaborating on Sipe’s ideas. His reference to a second reformation matches exactly the ideas of Tom McMahon on the psychology of priesthood, which I started writing on this week, and must continue. In turn, this reminds me of the observations of James Alison and Michael B Kelly on the appropriate response of gay men to the Vatican: Allison recommends an attitude of Ignatian indifference, Kelly writes of an Emmaus walk away from the church, followed by a prophetic return to Jerusalem, taking the message of Christ back to the institutional church. McMahon and Sipe suggest to me that this an appropriate response not just for gay for men, but for all the progressive faithful.

      These are the ideas I am grappling with- but they still need untangling before I can post.

      These are the ideas I

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