Listening to the faithful:

Sensus fidei fidelium


What is fides? Who are the fideles?

1) Fides as orthodox doctrine and the fideles as the orthodox Catholics: what contribution can orthodox Catholics make to church doctrine? The answer is usually "very little."  Thus women, the divorced, and the gays are not listend to, only talked about.      

2) Fides as faith in God and the fideles as the followers of Jesus Christ. The faith in God of many Protestant and Catholic evangelicals is joyful, inspiring, and attractive to outsiders, as I found out in my interviews. For them orthodoxy matters little. They constitute  the fastest growing segments of the World Church. Their faith is usually ignored but whould be of great interest to pastoral theology.

3) Fides as implicit faith and the fideles as the "un-faithful." In the U.S. with about one third of Catholics having left and another third having become alienated from church, it is urgent that pastoral theology learn about the lived-faith that implicitly sustains these "un-faithful" in work, family, and trials.

How can the study of the sensus fidelium (and theology)  move beyond its main concern with  orthodoxy? There is ecumenical dialogue with Buddhism and Islam but very little with ex-Catholics, the unchurched, and the "un-faithful."


1. Empirically based theology from below.

I want to offer my own views about the “grassroots approach” or the “bottom-up” dynamics that should nourish Church life and theological reflection.
I have been pleading in the last years for a more 'empirical theology', as a more fitting method, but theology is still far from taking seriously the experiences and voices arising from the communities and the concrete reality. Some of the difficulties are methodological: few theologians and pastors are used to work with empirical methods; our theology is rather a kind of "armchair theology", quite far from the reality of lived faith. It is much easier and comfortable to work in a library and your own studio with books and papers than doing field work or looking for data. There are other issues. The empirical reality elicits some fears in many church leaders and theologians; often reality provides just bad news and could become discouraging. Better to ignore it!
The Second Vatican Council encouraged us to “read the signs of time” and this can only be done paying attention to what is happening inside and outside the Church, in both senses the negative symptoms in very secularized societies, and the signs of revival and vitality still arising even in the most devastated areas. What we need in theology is to pay much more attention to what is more alive and to contrast these trends with those of less vitality, to learn how faith could be restored.
I hope a new generation of theologians will follow such a simple and necessary program.

Lluis Oviedo, &
Pontificia Universita Antonianum, Roma, Italia

2. The sensus fidelium and sociology

Long ago Pius XII insisted on the theological importance of public opinion.Facts of public opinion can sometimes be uncomfortable but the church is not best served by ignoring them or simply claiming that the opposite is true. When a few years ago now the U.S. bishops confidently proclaimed that the whole church was on board with the latest “reform” of liturgical language they were essentially taking a leaf from Pravda and boldly declaring that what was actually not the case, was indeed the case. There are similar examples of ostrich-like sand-burrowing over the opinions of the faithful as a whole on issues of sexuality, same-sex relationships and so on. It doesn’t do to pretend that things are clear when they are not.

The sensus fidelium as outlined in Lumen Gentium is clearly not about taking a poll to determine which way the church should go on this or that complex issue. Indeed, the sensus fidelium is only available in its entirety when it is an expression of the whole body of the faithful—which clearly includes the clergy—as illustrated in the concrete practice of the faith.

Sociology in general and demographics in particular therefore seem to me to have an important role in exploring both those areas of ecclesial teaching where consensus is not currently operative and, even more critically, the direction in which church opinion might be moving towards consensus. The sensus fidelium is of course always a work in progress (see John Thiel’s 2000 publication from Oxford, Senses of Tradition), but there might be situations in which demographics could indicate pretty clearly that a consensus exists. More likely is that it will suggest a range of opinions within the body of the faithful. And then it serves further important role, indicating where current ecclesial teaching authority may need to pay close attention.

Paul Lakeland,
Fairfield University, Fairfield CT

Echo to Lluis Oviedo and Paul Lakeland:

Lluis Oviedo and Paul Lakeland raise the important issue of empirical approaches to theology and ecclesiology. I would like to echo their sentiments. As a practical theologian, I tend to favor qualitative research approaches (like ethnography) because I think that they provide a “thick description” (Geertz) of contemporary praxis and therefore better data for theological construction than quantitative research.
Regardless, the most important thing that such research provides for ecclesiology is a counter to ecclesiological Docetism. Empirical research helps to show what a church “in the world” actually is and does, and counters tendencies towards ecclesiological Docetism which tend to describe the “real” church as an invisible reality understood only by what Lluis called “armchair” theologies. When such theologies ultimately shape the practices, liturgies, and magisterial teachings of the church, they can be found to ignore the facts of what is going on “on the ground” or worse, they can ignore the sensus fidelium, setting up a Docetic ecclesiology wherein the “real” church exists in theories to which the body of the faithful must conform.

Marc Lavallee,
Barry University, Miami Shores

3. Birth control and the sensus fidelium

The demographic statistics appearing in American Catholic publications such as America, The National Catholic Reporter and The Tablet (English) state that 90% of American Catholics believe that it is not sinful for a Catholic family to limit the number of children by using artificial birth control. In another context, cardinals and other bishops have stated it is permissible to use condoms if one marital partner has AIDS. As Pope Francis said we are not required to breed like rabbits.
It is only the celibates, generally, who believe that it is a good idea for a married couple to refrain from sex over long periods of time. So how is the Sensus Fidelium determined in the Church? perhaps a circle of celibate priests addressing one another will do ! The sensus fidelium changes as the eons come and go. I read that the Earth will circle the Sun for 5 or 6 billion more years. If Holy Mother Church is still here, most of the laity believe that there will be changes in our beliefs until then. We are not talking here of the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed but even while Peter and Paul were still alive, Church leaders got into a major fight over allowing gentiles to join the Church.

RIchard Clarkson,

4. Communication, community, and monarchy

I will make two points on top of those already posted.
1. Communication is the heart and soul of community, constituting the community and expressing its meaning. Communication in the community of the church is messy and sometimes even hurtful. When I listened to Pope Francis' homilies at his morning mass I was led to tears often because I hear the Holy Spirit speaking to the churches. His predecessors claimed to be speaking to me they were speaking in the echo chamber of their own convictions, speaking as dedicated office holders. I couldn't hear them for they spoke their own language and not mine. It seems to me evident that Pope Francis has been listening to all sorts of people for a very long time. He is in their, our world. I might even be easily convinced that he has heard me as clearly as I have heard him. Thus a new church was and is being born.

2. Is not the case that monarchy (episcopal and papal in our case) diametrically opposed to authentic communication and “encounter,” as the current pope and his circle say? My view is that monarchy in the church comes as close as one can come in organizational terms to anti-church, i.e., anti community, anti-communication form of governance. Unless I can be convinced otherwise, I can see no alternative to the conviction that the hierarchy is the chief block to communication and to a genuine Catholic community, and ought to be abandoned. If you want real Christian communication, you need to get rid of the Guardians.

Bill Shea,
College of the Holy Cross, Worcester

Rejoinder to Bill Shea

Is there a difference in listening and collaboration between faith communities that operate hierarchically versus those who operate democratically? To my knowledge, that comparative study has not been done, so we don't really know. The Presbyterians, among whom I grew up, do not operate hierarchically; in conversations with them, they are currently struggling to survive. There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of structures.

Other areas about which we have no measurement: to what degree do those in Catholic leadership listen to the people in the pew? Here is an example from my own work about preaching feedback. If a young person gives any feedback at all to a homilist, 94% of the survey respondends say "good homily, Father!" to a homilist whom they rate as above average or excellent but none (0%) of those I surveyed say anything at all to a homilist whom they rate poorly. Thus, the homiletical feedback that is received is heavily scewed. In addition, those parishioners who are in "the inner circle” are are most likely to express an opinion, while the regular attendees are least likely to have the preacher's ear. Again a serious imbalance in feedback for our clergy.

The church invest much time, talent, and treasure in initiatives that are based on conjecture and assumption, which is an unfortunate way to "do business". The secular world does not operate within this vacuum of data, thus has a more effective "ear to the ground" and tailors its responses accordingly.

Karla J. Bellinger,
The Center for Preaching, Evangelization, and Prayer

5. The stew derived from listening to the signs of the times

The best of Catholic teaching has always been a marvelous stew derived from listening to the signs of the times. It becomes richer with novelty as well as with time, from the Ten Commandments to Vatican II. Certainly we no longer think about coveting the neighbor's wife at the same level as desiring his cow – see, we do advance – but the foundation is rooted in reality and practicality. The notion of natural law is not a notion of static tenets but rather an ongoing attempt to understand God's presence in the real and to respond as our understanding grows. (Again: cows and wives are no longer seen as equal "possessions" of a male master – well, maybe not in most cultures.)

A few practical comments:
Moral teaching is always a statement of principle rather than a cement list steadfast rules. Principles must be taken for what they are and applied to the real. A good example is the papal allocution on artificial nutrition and hydration for vegetative patients. The final portion notes the practical limits of application.

The current experience of the rich experience of human flourishing in gay relationships, as well as the idea that women as equally competent and capable, is beginning to soak into people in the pews. That experience is indeed a sign of the times, and must be listened to. The sensus fidelium must be respected with regard to these issues, or – sadly – the institution of church will become more irrelevant than it already is.

Finally, on a personal note: looking back on almost fifty-five years of married life, I see how much my husband and I have changed: a 1960 Catholic rigidity has given way to a listening posture toward the very different experiences of other people. This means taking seriously the lives of our grown children, the marital unions and breakups of good people – both straight and gay whose lives don't fit the old Catholic ideal, and the serious religious commitment of those outside our tradition. Did not John XXIII suggest that the most important rule is charity in all things?

Dee Christie,
John Carroll University

6. For a different understanding of the fides fidelium

So far the discussion seems to presume that the "fidelium" in the “sensus fidelium” refers to Catholics (assumed to be the "laity"), and at best Christians. But of course, anyone who has some contacts with people of other faiths (not "non-Christians"!) knows that these believers are also "faithful," and not rarely more faith-full than Christians. So Christians must "listen" to them – be confronted, corrected, changed, taught, educated, complemented by their teachings, modes of worship, moral practices, and spiritual discipline. Christians must not think that these faithful can teach them only if their non-Christian "things" are in agreement with the Christian "things," that these things are simply "seeds of the Word" (semina Verbi) to be "fulfilled," "purified and elevated" – so go the hallowed phrases – in their Christianity; otherwise they do not really "listen" to these more faith-filled faithful.

This understanding of the sensus fidelium of course entails a different conception of revelation, Christ, Spirit, salvation, church, teaching authority, religion and so on. But that’s "confused and confusing" – to quote a common charge by the magisterium – for proponents of the old theory of "fideles" in the "sensus fidelium." But unless we move to this different theology, our sensus fidelium is nothing more than an echo chamber, as someone splendidly put it.

Peter C. Phan,
Georgetown University

7. Who are the fideles?

The question raised by Peter is challenging. Who are the fideles?
Some of the classic 20th century responses (as in the CCC) are:
∙ The Roman Curia; if there is a question of faith they know all the answers;
∙ The bishops as the successors of the apostles; they have all the answers also;
∙ The Academics, seminary and university professors, they know a lot;
∙ Priests: they have been trained to know all this stuff;
∙ The CCD directors: they know the CCC
∙ A very few educated lay men and women in parishes and universities.

This is the edutated elite. What about the uneducated, the under-educated, the illiterate? There are over 1 billion Catholics and most of them do not belong to the above elite. What value do their beliefs and opinions have? There are about another 1 billion people who call themselves Christians in some sense, what can we learn from them? Then of course, there are the 1.3 billion Islamic people who see Jesus Christ as a minor prophet. Finally, there are about a billion religious Hindus and another half billion religious Buddhists. How and why do we listen to them?

Gene Finnegan,
Calumet College of St. Joseph

8. What can the church learn from the faithful

I have been back in Melbourne, Australia for 3 years now, after 15 years in Chicago and working for the Church in lay leadership roles. My times at Holy Family Catholic Community and St Viator High School in Chicago were full of the Spirit and fed me personally on my faith journey. These past 3 years have been very much wilderness years though as “Catholic re-entry” into Australia has been very tough.
For nearly two years I stuck loyal to applying for Catholic entities, until the reality of feeding my family meant I had to look outside the church for employment. In hindsight I am very happy I did not get the jobs I applied and interviewed for with the church. One of those would have had me working directly with Cardinal Pell in Sydney. Since that time however (2012), Cardinal Pell and the Australian church in general have been front page for the wrong reasons, it’s been all about sexual abuse scandals and the huge cover up by the church over decades.

What can the church learn from the faithful?
∙ That sex abuse victims should not be pressured, emotionally attacked and backed into corners so as to drop lawsuits against the church.
∙ The church should be as accountable with its money and people like any professional organisation.
∙ The church shouldn’t discriminate against its employees and fire them because they support their own family members who live a same sex lifestyle.
∙ Young people see through the hypocrisy of church leaders who preach the gospel but act otherwise themselves
∙ Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result? The mass hasn’t changed down under in 40 years: we’re still singing at Easter today “Lord of the Dance” like in 1972. People vote with their feet. When I left Australia in 1997 church attendance was at about 20% of the faithful; now it is European like at 7-8%.

Cynically, I’d say the church listens to its lawyers more than the faithful. It listens to its Risk Managers more than the faithful. It listens to men more than women. It listens to the abusers more than the abused. Thank God I have the Beatitudes to hang on to!

Paul McMahon,
Scotch College, Melbourne, AU

9. Catholics Don’t Believe Official Sacramental Doctrines Any More

Many Catholics in America today have an intuitive sense that current sacramental policies and practices are misguided. The annulment process is disregarded by 85% of Catholics who divorce and remarry. Limiting ordination to men is perceived as unjust, and limiting it to unmarried men is seen as legalistic. Since the 1970s, Catholics have been avoiding confession in droves. Many are hard pressed to say what difference confirmation makes. Demanding that divorced Protestants obtain annulments before becoming married Catholics seems to be an institutional hurdle. Restricting holy communion to Catholics seems to violate Christian charity. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is increasingly difficult for many church goers to believe.

The scholastic theology of sacraments, which is still official Catholic doctrine, grew out of medieval sacramental practice and spirituality. Then the sensus fidelium was that what they believed was real because people saw the teachings lived out in actual practice. Catholics simply never got divorced, and only the wealthy (usually men) sought annulments. No one in that patriarchal society questioned the all-male priesthood. Everyone knew that you had to be baptized in order to be saved, and that mortal sins had to be confessed in order to avoid going to hell. The mysteriousness of the Latin mass fostered a sense of Christ’s presence on the altar after the words of consecration were spoken.

It is time to recognize that Catholic teachings about the sacraments are historically relative and not eternal truths. They have become so dysfunctional that they are no longer believable. Only a complete rethinking that goes far beyond the modest changes allowed after Vatican II can save the sacraments from total irrelevance.

Joseph Martos,
Louisville KY

10. Listening “with” rather than listening “to”

Listening is the first act of discourse between myself and another, between myself and the world/universe, between myself and an often silent God who sometimes speaks. Such listening is not always easy. In order for me to listen I need to be clear within myself, so that I hear what is spoken rather than what I want to hear. In my first full time pastoral assignment over thirty years ago I found that I had to unlearn all the philosophy and theology I had learned simply because it did not serve the folks I served as a chaplain. I had to unlearn a theoretical way in order to be open to a relational way. The conversations I had with others as we drank coffee in the soup kitchen, road the elevator, worked together taught me so much more that all the books I’d read. What began to emerge, as I found my pastoral feet, was a way of listening that encouraged people to speak from and about their experience of life. Listening was not so much ‘to’ as ‘with’. My listening amplified beyond the distancing ‘to’ towards an inclusive ‘with’. I found myself listening with others, to the world, to stories, through all these for faith and meaning.

So, who is listening to the faithful? Is it bishops and priests listening to lay folks or vice-versa? Is there not a presumptive condescension in such an understanding? Such an understanding undermines our listening for the Spirit and our seeking the guidance of the Spirit. No, I would rather the listening be a communal ‘we’ listening ‘with’ the community of disciples who continue to gather around the Word and the Sacraments as we continue to be broken open in our universe today.

Michael Dallaire,
Educator/Writer, Vancouver, BC

11. Oscar Romero’s witness to sentire con la iglesia

To understand the sensus fidelium, I have found it helpful to turn to the faithful witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero and his explicit appropriation of the Ignatian principle, sentir con la iglesia, to “feel” with the church. Romero embodied this theological and pastoral paradigm in a radically Christological way: the phrase sentir con la iglesia summoned his fidelity not only to the institutional church but to the suffering and crucified Christ, whom he came to encounter most vividly in the violated poor of El Salvador. For Romero, to feel with the church meant being moved, deep in the heart of his being, with love and compassion for those who suffer. It meant entering into risky relationships of solidarity with those who suffer, and standing as one with them in their communal struggles to both heal their wounds and overcome the social evils of injustice and violence. In solidarity with the suffering of his people, and with their struggles for personal and social transformation, Romero experienced his own transformative encounter of faith with the church of Jesus Christ in the church of the poor.

I would like to suggest that we reinterpret the sensus fidelium in a similarly Christological fashion, re-centering the meaning of “faith” on loving encounter with Christ in ourselves and all peoples, on compassion for the suffering of Christ in ourselves and others, and on experiencing the resurrection of Christ in our personal and communal struggles to overcome suffering and injustice with peaceful and courageous protest. This reimagining has several implications for theological reflection on the sensus fidelium, four of which I briefly highlight here:

First, it means that we can and should speak of “faith” as an affective, visceral, even existential reality—namely, as a felt experience and cultivated disposition of compassion. Here the emphasis is not on orthodoxy or even orthopraxis, but on the basic orientation of one’s being towards loving kindness.

Second, while I have used Christological language to describe this orientation of faith above, from a Christian theological perspective, as a Christian theologian, I think that it is possible (or rather, imperative) to talk about faith as a pluriform, interreligious reality. Might a reimagined understanding of faith in terms of compassion help to broaden the meaning of “the faithful”? The faithful members of other religious traditions are not the only ones of relevance here though – I think of my agnostic and atheist friends, the “nones” – who simply astound and humble me with their compassion for and solidarity with humanity and creation.

Third, a reimagining of the sensus fidelium in this direction might reframe the discussion over several contentious issues in contemporary Catholicism, such as gay marriage, women priests, artificial contraception, and divorce and remarriage. I wonder how the debates over these issues might change if we were to view the sensus fidelium neither as an occasion for an opinion poll nor as a call to universal agreement with the magisterium, but rather as a shared “feeling” and practice of loving solidarity with those who suffer due to official church teachings on these matters.

Finally, a Christological, compassion-based interpretation of the sensus fidelium presents theologians (and pastoral workers) with the methodological challenge raised earlier in this discussion thread. Empirical studies (demography, ethnography, etc) can be immensely helpful for “getting at” the heart of the faith for people, for understanding suffering and its causes, for uncovering agency when it appears to be hidden, etc. Other methods, (e.g., found in the humanities), are also legitimate avenues for describing and understanding experiences of suffering and faith. Whatever the method, engagement in some form of personal encounter and communal praxis is essential to theological reflection on the sensus fidelium. The form that this takes will vary, and may change over time, but I concur that the “armchair” method referenced earlier is not an option.

Elizabeth Gandolfo,
Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC

12.The sensus fidelium of Korean stories of sacrifice, witness, and hope

Generally speaking, the concept of Sensus Fidelium can be traced back to the very origin of Christianity. The Church fathers’ awareness of the collective belief of the faithful helped to preserve the orthodoxy of the Christian faith (e.g. the Arian controversy). I do think that it took a setback in the time period roughly between Trent and Vatican I when the anti-protestant polemic, manualistic preoccupation with questions of papal authority, and the top-down approaches dominated the Church. Vatican II brought the concept back: by paying attention to the plentitude of the fullness of truth in local manifestations of the universal sensus fidelium, then, the whole body of the Church can understand their own sense of faith better.

In part, this is what I will try to do at CTSA this year. One can listen and pay attention to specifically local experiences (stories of Korean Catholic Martyrs and a very small Korean American Catholic community in Kentucky) for enriching and faith-full manifestation of the truth revealed in Christ. I will share stories of perseverance of faith (especially of women) in the face of persecution in the late 18th C and early 19th C Korea. I will also share an unlikely story of survival of a small community of Korean Catholics in Kentucky. My aim is to demonstrate the sense of faith of the early church and of the early Catholics in Korea surviving against all odds in Levant, Korea, and Kentucky. These local stories of sacrifice, witness, and hope will certainly contribute to the better understanding of the universal sense of faith, which ultimately and admittedly is incomprehensible. With the assistance of the Holy Spirit, these stories can help all faith-full people to evoke and reignite their faith. They also allow the wider Church to look to these stories to grow and progress toward the fullness of truth.

Hoon Choi,
Bellarmine University, Louisville, KY