My first graduate course in theology sucker-punched me. The subject was ecclesiology, and studying the church while thinking for the first time about the Holy Spirit’s work blew me away. One idea in particular caught my attention: the sensus fidelium. First, because cool Latin phrase. But second, and more substantively, because the “sense of the faithful” arises from the belief that the Spirit permeates the church.
The Spirit dwells within us personally and communally, and so the church is not a whited sepulcher but a temple; we are not barren, but the good ground of a bountiful harvest. If we are the People of God and the Body of Christ, it because through the Spirt we are adopted into the divine life by sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection, and are sent forth as daughters and sons of God to build the kingdom with our lives. In the Spirit we become the family of God on the greatest road trip ever: pilgrimage to the eschaton!
Think about your family. Chances are there are some inside jokes, certain songs, a special bedtime book, favorite recipes, memories—sorrowful and joyful—that you share. You probably know which parent to break bad news to first, the sibling to go to when you’re in a jam, which aunt can be counted on for some birthday cash, and what jokes it’s OK to tell Grandpa. Families tend to have cultures all their own that can be hard to understand from the outside (cue the plotlines of many sitcoms and movies).
The sensus fidelium is analogous to that family culture. Except the members of this family are all the baptized; there is not one culture but many; and the family reunion is the communion of saints. Through our baptism we receive the Holy Spirit, who both forms and transforms us so that we share the mind of Christ. We’re given a sensibility for God, for the gospel. The Spirit’s formation is not magical. Rather, we learn through the living tradition of the church; in turn, our lives of faith make that tradition live. The Holy Spirit at work in our family of faith apprentices us in recognizing and responding to God at work: in ourselves and others; in our church and our world.
Without the Spirit’s adoption, the church would be a collection of orphans, unable to receive our inheritance and thus to know our true identity, prevented from growing in our understanding of the mystery of faith, and incapable of incarnating the gospel faithfully and authentically. Through the sensus fidelium, the church is a witness to the gospel that continually lives through diverse persons, histories, and cultures.
Theologians and the Sensus Fidelium
The sensus fidelium is the theme for this weekend’s annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Milwaukee. One question sure to come up is “How do we know the sensus fidelium?” It’s important to ask, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve staked a dissertation and book contract on thinking through one possible answer.
The International Theological Commission indicated that the sensus fidelium is a criterion of Catholic theology, and therefore the question of knowing the sensus fidelium isn’t one that ought to be limited to ecclesiologists, but rather has relevance for all theologians. Yet if the sensus fidelium is a theological source then there’s got to be a way to encounter, describe, and reflect critically upon that source—and the People of God can’t just be checked out like a book from the library.
It’s the substance, and not merely the concept, of the sensus fidelium that is a criterion for Catholic theology. So, while we claim belief in the work of the Holy Spirit that engenders the sensus fidelium, and can use theology to understand the theory of the sensus fidelium, a major theological task still remains: discerning the sensus fidelium itself.
One approach to answering the question of how theologians know the sensus fidelium is to ask a second question: to whom do theologians listen? The work of the Holy Spirit is not reducible to the results of a poll, however, sociological data can contribute important information about people’s perceptions and practices, and ethnographies can help us understand not only “what” the faithful do but the meaning and values they invest in their actions. Certainly listening to those regularly involved in the celebration of the sacraments and life of the church is necessary, as their participation is ongoing formation in the gospel. Further, the Spirit, who inspired the prophets and is the “father of the poor” and “consoler,” is also deeply present to those who are on the margins, including those on the margins of the church. Surely the Spirit shapes and speaks through these lives as well. In addition, in a church that is born through Pentecost, we also must listen for the Spirit through the diverse cultures and histories of the faithful. Nor can we forget our brothers and sisters in other Christian denominations. The one Spirit of baptism is at work in them as well.
Perhaps we also need to put the question of knowing the sensus fidelium in a different way. Given the Spirit’s blowing is far less predictable than the jet stream, it may be that the question is not only “To whom should we listen?” but also “How do we become good listeners?” How do theologians become persons of discernment who hear the Spirit’s voice?
I’m sure we’ll have these little details worked out by the end the conference. Or not. Nevertheless, they are worthy questions to struggle with and I look forward to the conversations the next days will bring.
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