Sensus Fidelium & Pastoral theology


There are two conceptions of faith, one as “instinct for the truth” and the other as trust in God. The first is developed in Sensus Fidei,the recent document of the International Theological Commission.

The sensus fidei refers to the “instinct for the truth” allowing one “to recognize and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false.” (2) It is the cognitive power to distinguish “authentic” doctrine from error; it is the power to “discern” and “judge.”(49) The “virtue of faith” is the “interior disposition” to “adhere without reserve to the whole truth revealed by God” through the magisterium (56). Unfortunately, “in the actual mental universe of the believer, the correct intuitions of the sensus fidei can be mixed up with various purely human opinions.” (55) Hence “theology needs to provide principles and criteria for its discernment.” (83) Theology can be most helpful by providing with “clarity and precision the authentic meaning of Scripture, the true significance of conciliar definitions, the proper contents of the Tradition.” (85). With theology and the magisterium as guides, the mixed up mental universe of believers can discern the truth from error.

This does not seem to be working. About 10 million American Catholics and many more millions in Latin America have switched to Protestant churches. But the document has an answer to that: only the true faithful are the faithful. To be called a true faithful, “The first and most fundamental disposition is active participation in the life of the Church” which means “constant prayer, active participation in the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, regular reception of the sacrament of reconciliation... and active engagement in the Church’s mission and in her diakonia.” Moreover “It presumes an acceptance of the Church’s teaching on matters of faith and morals.”(89) This definition practically restrict the faithful to the members of the clergy; it tends to exclude nearly all non-practicing Catholics and all non-Catholics.

Quite different is the notion of faith in the Synoptics. About the Roman centurion, a non-practicing pagan, Jesus said, “I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel.” To the Phoenician women, a non-Jew, Jesus said, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” Instead of excluding the non-practicing Jews and the non-Jews, Jesus could see faith in their mixed up mental universe.

What follows is inspired by the “theology of the people” of Argentina. In this perspective the job of pastoral theology is to help and encourage the faith of sinners rather define with “clarity and precision” the “authentic” official doctrine. Archbishop Dolan announced recently that the archdiocese will merge or close one third of its parishes for lack of Mass attenders. Pastoral theology would want to inquire empirically rather than judge “with clarity and precision.” According to the Pew Forum, in Africa 80% attend church at least weekly and 90% says that religion is “very important” in their lives; pastoral theology would want to learn about such dynamic faith. Cardinal Dolan called the Catholic schools “a pearl of a great price,” but he closed 60 of them during the last two years. Pastoral theology would want to inquire why Catholic parents prefer public schools.

According to a Pew report of 2009, “Those who have left Catholicism outnumber those who have joined the Catholic Church by nearly a four-to-one margin. Overall, one-in-ten American adults have left the Catholic Church after having been raised Catholic.” As to the reasons for leaving, among those who joined Evangelical churches, 78% said that their needs were not met in the Catholic church, and 81% said that they enjoy Protestant worship services (but not their previous Catholic liturgies). This is stunning blow to Catholic pastoral practices. Pastoral theology would would want to inquire. Discursive reflection is not enough: pastoral theology has to get dirty hands in empirical research – which is as simple as listening for endless hours in order the understand the faith of these non-practicing or non-Catholics.

What is your opinion?