In 2014 the Vatican’s International Theological Commission published the document “‘Sensus Fidei’ in the Life of the Church” with the approval of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The idea of “sensus fidei” expresses the belief that “the faithful have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them to recognize and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false” (No. 2). This means that while individual believers may be lead astray, the faithful as a whole will never be.
The “sensus fidei” reflects two realities, “the personal capacity of the believer, within the communion of the church, to discern the truth of faith” as well as a “communal ecclesial reality: the instinct of the church herself” (No. 3).
The convergence of the two, “the consensus fidelium” is a “sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the apostolic faith” (No. 3).
Although the phrase “sensus fidei” does not appear in Scripture or in the formal teachings of the church until the Second Vatican Council, the concept “that the church as a whole is infallible in her belief” is “everywhere apparent from the very beginnings of Christianity” (No. 7).
The Christian faith comes down to us from Abraham, the prophets, and then through Jesus and the early church. Ultimately, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit and a result of God’s grace (No. 8). The good news calls forth from those who hear it belief in God’s offer of salvation, with “all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk 12:31).
Faith is “both an act of belief or trust and also that which is believed or confessed” (No. 10). “Both aspects work together inseparably,” meaning that the proclamation of the good news of Jesus that I believe is bound together with my act of believing. My belief in the Gospel will encourage others to believe.
The Letters of St. Paul show that the personal and ecclesial dimensions of faith are linked. Paul understands that “the faith of believers” is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that this same spirit “incorporates every believer into the body of Christ and gives him or her a special role in order to build up the church” (No. 11).
Paul wrote to the Ephesians that while we are called by the Spirit individually to believe in Christ, we are united in “one hope … one Lord, one faith, one baptism” in the one God who is the “Father of all” (Eph 4:4-6).
Nourished by prayer and worship, the faithful gain knowledge and understanding of the faith from the community of believers that is the church. From this understanding we are led to humbly recognize and confess our failures, trusting confidently in the faith that is vouched to be true by the communion of saints (Heb 12:1), the believers who came before us.
It is from this confidence that we can trust in the “sensus fidei.”
(Daniel S. Mulhall is a catechist in Louisville, Kentucky.)
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
In his first Angelus address March 2013, Pope Francis spoke of the wisdom of a humble elderly woman who once approached him when he was a pastor.
He asked her if she wanted to make a confession, and she said yes, and spoke of her confidence in God’s great mercy. Then she told him something that astounded him, the pope said. She said, “If the Lord did not forgive everything, the world would not exist.”
Pope Francis said he felt an urge to ask her, “Did you study at the Gregorian (university)?”
Her wisdom, the pope said, “that is the wisdom the Holy Spirit gives.”
To illustrate the sense of the faithful, the International Theological Commission used this example of Pope Francis’ interaction with the elderly woman in the introduction to its 2014 document, “‘Sensus Fidei’ In the Life of the Church.”
Even the humblest of Catholics possess this sense of the faithful, though they may not be able to express their belief in theological language or categories.
“The woman’s insight is a striking manifestation of the ‘sensus fidei,'” the document stated. It enables certain discernment regarding questions of faith and “fosters true wisdom and gives rise, as here, to proclamation of the truth.”
This “supernatural instinct” enables Catholics to recognize what is true and allows them to fulfill their “prophetic calling,” the commission stated.