Church & Laity: More on the Sensus Fidelium

Michael Bayley at the Wild Reed has already noted how his post on Richard Sipe, with his observations about sexuality and the sensus fidelium, has provoked widespread comment. I want to elaborate now on why this should have been so, and why it is important – and also to address some of the confusion in that comment.

Sipe’s observations were just a few comments extracted from a longer article on the coming reformation of the church: “Sexuality Sets Stage for Church’s Next Reformation, Expert Predicts.” (Arthur Jones, NCR January 2003). Let us not forget this context.  Many other observers have commented on the same idea, not as something to be desired, but as an imminent event. The challenge then, is to identify the ways in which we can accelerate and participate in this Kairos moment. But before venturing into the bigger picture, we must consider the specific points covered in the original Wild Reed post, and the subsequent discussion.

In the short extract posted, Sipe notes that there is a sharp divergence in thinking between the hierarchy and the laity on matters of sexuality, and goes on to remind us that in terms of traditional teaching on the sensus fidelium (SF), a teaching which does not carry with it the support of the faithful as a whole, lacks authority. It was this observation in particular that produced most of the vigorous discussion.

One anonymous comment dismissed the whole idea, arguing that if the church had followed the views of “the laity” and not the bishops, the Arian heresy would not have been suppressed. William Lindsey and I independently pointed out Newman’s observation that on this heresy, it was the laity, and not the bishops as a whole, who opposed it. So it was the SF which was responsible for overturning the heresy, not fro supporting it.  Whereupon Liam riposted with reference to the Donatist heresy, where, he argued, the laity supported the heresy, while the hierarchy did not.

All of this misses the point.  The SF is not about opposing laity and hierarchy, not about counting yeas and nays in some sort of ecclesiastical ballot initiative. The whole concept is rather more complex.  It requires the discernment of the sense, and consent,  of the faithful as a whole – and “the whole” obviously includes clergy and hierarchs as well as lay people.  So to try to assess the value of the SF by determining which side, laity or hierarchy, “won” any particular battle is entirely irrelevant.  All that matters is the existence of the concept as a key point in traditional church teaching, and its crucial importance at some points in history.

The second red herring in the comments thread was a pointless exchange about the precise significance of a finding that 96% (or 95%) of US Catholics use some form of contraception (a figure originating from the bishops themselves).  This led to questioning by Liam whether it was technically sound to deduce from a raw figure of that sort, that the teaching lacks the support of the SF.  This too is irrelevant (although even a single figure of that magnitude must offer at least a working hypothesis).  Surely, if the SF is to mean anything at all, we should be discussing not just whether it a teaching is proven to be rejected, but whether it has been shown to have support?  Whatever else one can say about a reported 95% of Catholics using birth control, it surely does not represent any clear support for the official teaching.

What this whole discussion has done for me, is to show how much confusion there is about the entire question of this important but neglected aspect of traditional teaching. I certainly do not know as much as I would like, and so have been attempting some explorations to improve my own understanding, which I hope to share with you in time. But the discussion has also opened up additional trains of thought on the whole relationship between the clergy and the laity.

Beginning with further ramifications of the SF doctrine itself, I ask how is this to be determined, and by whom?  I am certain that in practice, those currently holding ecclesiastical power would claim for themselves the right to pass judgement on any dispute:  but who gives them that right?  Early this year, Colleen Kochivar-Baker, writing about the fuss over the lifting of the excommunication orders on the SPXII bishops, expressed frustration with the entire debate, because it assumed the right of the authorities to determine  unilaterally who is, and who is not, accepted as a member of the Catholic church. I have the same reservations here.  In any discussion of a dispute with clerical authority, discussion so often reverts to points about how the church dictates that these disputes are to be resolved. Why?

Thinking specifically of gay men, I have been struck by the attitudes of James Alison and Michael B Kelly on their appropriate relationship to the institutional church.  Alison recommends an attitude of Ignatian indifference.  Kelly recommends a metaphorical Emmaus walk – away from the institutional church authorities in  Jerusalem/Rome, to a personal Emmaus encounter with the risen Christ.  This should then be followed by a prophetic return to Jerusalem, proclaiming the real truth of Christ to religious authorities who have lost the ability to see it.

Reflecting on Sipe’s observations about a coming reformation, and those of Tom MacMahon on the need for such a reformation, I am now coming to the view that the recommendations of James Alison and Michael Kelly are appropriate not just for gay men, but for all the people of God, seeking a vibrant, living church  free of fossilised medieval feudalism, responsive to the movements of the Holy Spirit, reading the signs of the times, and responsive to the real needs of people today.

Further Reading:

Sullivan, Francis A -The Magisterium:  Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church

One Response to “Church & Laity: More on the Sensus Fidelium”

  1. Michael Bayly Says:

    Great post, Terence – thoughtful and articulate as always.



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