Questions Answered

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman, by Harold Copping (1863-1932).

Question: Can you define the sensus fidelium, and explain why it can’t be used to dissent from Catholic teaching?

Answer: The term sensus fidelium (understanding of the faithful) has led to a great many difficulties in the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council. The People of God are generally infallible in believing, in the same way as the bishops and pope are infallible in teaching. “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole people’s supernatural discernment in matters of faith when, “from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful,” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accept that which is, not just the word of men, but, truly, the word of God” (Lumen Gentium, 12, also quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 92-93). The manner in which this doctrine has been interpreted since Vatican II has given rise to two very troubling opinions in the Church.

First, the sensus fidelium (understanding of the faithful or infallibility in believing) has been considered by some to mean that the faith is based on a consensus attained by a majority of the believers in the Church, and that this depends on the spirit of the age. This occurs in such a way that what was a truth 500 years ago may not be true today, and, in fact, even its opposite may be true. This creates an idea that all truth is relative.

The second troubling opinion is that the infallibility of the believing Church is identified with the laity, and is the foundation of a Magisterium, or teaching authority, enjoyed by the laity which may be in opposition to what is taught by the bishops. This idea demands that the bishops take an opinion poll, and base their teaching on majority rule. This makes authority in the Church parliamentary, and has led many to interpret the celebrated idea taught in Vatican II that the “college of bishops” is like a parliament which represents the people, and may loyally oppose the pope, who is another authority figure in the Church, but one who serves at the sufferance of the bishops, much as a constitutional monarch does.

The Vatican has made a number of attempts to clarify this matter. First, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, quoting Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 12: “By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium), … receives … the faith, once for all delivered to the saints. … The People unfailingly adhere to this faith, penetrate it more deeply with right judgment, and apply it more fully in daily life” (CCC, 93). Obviously, both the Catechism and Vatican II are clear that the infallibility of the faithful in believing includes the hierarchy, and is not a rival teaching authority, but must be founded on the teaching authority of the bishops and the pope.

The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith also taught that this is not based on a consensus of a democratically determined opinion. “The believer can still have erroneous opinions since all his thoughts do not spring from faith. Not all the ideas which circulate among the People of God are compatible with the faith. This is all the more so, given that people can be swayed by a public opinion influenced by modern communications media. Not without reason did the Second Vatican Council emphasize the indissoluble bond between the sensus fidelium and the guidance of God’s People by the Magisterium of the Pastors. These two realities cannot be separated” (Donum Veritatis, May 24, 1990, 35).

There are thus two important points to keep clear about this doctrine so dear to the Church. The first is that the sensus fidelium is not a matter of a sort of parliamentary sense which causes the truth to exist. The truth already exists. The Church, as a whole, does have a teaching charism, but as to the definition of doctrine, this is entrusted to the Magisterium—which would be the bishops in communion with the pope—expressed either by solemn declaration, as is the case in a papal definition, or a general council, or the ordinary teaching of the Church in which the bishops, in communion with the pope, seek to clarify a doctrine. The sense of the faithful, as a whole, then, can be a powerful witness to the fact of the truth as taught. Of course, even the Magisterium does not cause the truth to exist, but is merely its servant. The prime revealer and revelation is always Christ, and the two equal sources of this revelation of the truth are Sacred Scripture and Tradition. The Magisterium serves the truth.

The second point is that, as a result of this doctrine, as the teaching Church must include both the bishops together with the pope, and is, thus, not a parliament competing for authority with the pope, so the learning or believing Church includes everyone: to wit, pope, bishops, priests, religious, and laity, and even all those Catholics who may have died in all the centuries of the existence of the Church but who, nevertheless, believed in the true faith. The attempt to set up a competing Magisterium,based on the charism of the lay faithful from baptism, is erroneous, since the “faithful” in question would include all believers, even those in the hierarchy and the pope. One must remember that the Church is a supernatural society whose culmination only occurs in the communion of saints, and includes the souls in Purgatory. The “faithful,” in this case, then, would include all those to whose worship we unite ours in the sacraments and, especially, the Mass. As a result, consensus caused by the spirit of a particular age cannot change doctrinal truth. Periodically, the Church does indeed develop a deeper understanding of a previous definition, but it does not contradict something always believed. This would violate the sensus fidelium.


Question: I am a deacon and have been in a group of older, practicing Catholics who believe and/or feel that divorced, remarried Catholics who have not had their marriages annulled, should be able to receive the holy Eucharist. They cite Pope Francis’s comments in support of their feelings. I referred to Scripture to explain why they cannot receive Communion, and they became angry. Can a synod or the pope change these teachings; if so, on what basis? I would appreciate it if you could provide the documentation and rationale in a concise manner which I can articulate in future conversations to explain why they cannot be changed.

Answer: Church teaching is very clear on the nature and doctrinal authority of general synods of bishops. In the spirit of Vatican II, in which the Fathers were intent on emphasizing the collegiality of the bishops, synods have been especially powerful tools to clear the air in the Church, so to speak, concerning common Church matters—from doctrine to discipline. These vehicles of discussion and communication are highly praised. However, they have, in themselves, no munus (mission) to teach or define doctrine since they are not instituted by Christ.

There has been an unpleasant tendency since Vatican II to change the manner in which Catholic teaching authority is implemented in favor of a parliamentary monarchy. There has been much written of late concerning the power of rulings made by the bishops. There was some speculation that, after the death of Pope John Paul II, there would be a new “democratization of the Roman Church.” One source has actually proposed a draft on the “Constitution of the Catholic Church” which is posted on the Internet. It says, in part:

(d) Pope

1. The Pope of the universal Church shall be elected for a single ten-year term by Delegates selected by the National Councils.

(a) The number of Delegates from National Councils to the Papal election shall be proportional to the number of registered Catholics in a nation, to be determined by an appropriate international committee

(b) The Delegates shall be chosen as representatively as possible, one-third being bishops. (“Battle for the Keys,” Inside the Vatican, June-July, (2002): 26)

An “Italian Vatican expert” proposed to create a “collegial papacy.” The new style of the papacy would have the following characteristics: the reform of the synod of bishops; the reform of the nominating process for bishops; direct participation of the laity; autonomy of bishops’ conferences; reform of the Roman curia. Each of these “reforms” has the democratization of the Church as its avowed purpose. The reform of the synod of bishops would be carried out by making them a kind of senate or congress. The choice of bishops would not take place in Rome, but the local Church would choose the bishops, as was the case in the early Church. The laity would be as involved as possible in the decisions of the Church. This view would reverse a tendency in the recent Roman documents which state that the episcopal conferences have no munus docendi (authority to teach) in themselves, and all bishops in local conferences would make decisions by majority rule.

While it is true that a number of these changes are not, in themselves, compromising the papacy, it is clear that the general thrust of all these reforms, taken together, is to promote a different interpretation of the Church from that which has been the traditional Catholic perspective. Journalist Giancarlo Zizola stated it boldly, “In this perspective, the pontificate of John Paul II may be interpreted as the terminal phase of the absolute pontifical monarchy.”

Ideas like Zizola’s have been very prevalent in the Church since Vatican II, invoking its authority as their justification. Sadly, they fly right in the face of the whole tradition of the Church concerning who has jurisdiction in teaching and governing. Lumen Gentium directly addresses the problem of jurisdiction of the bishops in regard to ruling, or munus regendi, and this, in turn, will be applied to the bishops’ responsibility for teaching, or for the munus docendi.

Lumen Gentium is very clear in the application of the ideas already developed as first principles for the Church as a society, when it comes to the nature of how the bishops exercise jurisdiction in the Church. First, the principles developed here presume those explained in the previous paragraphs about the nature of the college of bishops, and the manner of exercising collegiality in the Church. The bishops receive their authority to govern from the sacrament of Holy Orders, i.e., directly from Christ. They are, therefore, truly “vicars” of Christ in the local Churches. They are not “vicars of the Roman Pontiff” or some sort of papal legates, who receive their jurisdiction from the pope. Their jurisdiction over the local Church in the name of Christ is, therefore, “proper, ordinary, and immediate.” The authority of the bishop over the liturgy was explained in the last section; now this authority is generally expanded to include every aspect of Church life. The power of governing is an implementation of the bishop’s pastoral role, and has traditionally included “proposing laws, pronouncing judgment, and administering in various ways.”

Though the bishops have a “sacred right and duty” to exercise authority in all these ways, since they are part of a college, with the pope as its head, in exercising this authority, they are “ultimately controlled by the supreme authority of the Church” and, therefore, if they were to act irresponsibly against the college in using the authority they receive from Christ, their acts would not be episcopal acts. In other words, as to the fact of their power to govern, they receive this from Christ, not from the Church, laity, other clergy, or the pope. The Church is a supernatural institution, and only Christ can be the author of such power. But as this power is received in a society which is Christ’s mystical body, they are accountable to this society in its use, either the college as a whole, or the pope as representing the college. If a bishop teaches a doctrine, or implements a practice, which is contrary to the practice or teaching of the universal Church, this act is not a collegial act, and, therefore, it is not binding on the faithful.

The Pope called the synod, and asked it to have an open discussion on all aspects of marriage. In consonance with the idea of collegiality, which encourages discussion and dialogue, the bishops should feel free from constraint in discussing the various difficulties presented by the culture in implementing the Catholic view of marriage, which includes Communion to the divorced and remarried. Some of the bishops may wish a change in this teaching for various reasons, and it would be good for them to be heard. But the Church cannot change fundamental teaching on marriage, as it is not just a question of human law or discipline, but would unseat the whole nature of the sacrament. The Pope and bishops cannot change the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, as this is both a result of Scripture and Tradition, and comes directly from Christ. It is problematic that the Pope is not clearer in stating this, and the press always runs with controversial opinions and, perhaps, seeks to influence doctrine. Nonetheless, synods are merely advisory, and whatever is decided cannot change Church teaching in this regard.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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  1. Avatar Martin Drew says:

    the faithful understand but do not change dogmas or doctrine infallibly taught by the Church. The extraordinary episcopal magisterium and papal magisterium and the authority of the Apostles are the teachers. But dissent from any dogma or doctrine would create doubt and disturb a person in his mind. I suggest reading the Summa contra gentiles of St Thomas Aquinas on the Sacraments wich system is permanent. Matrimony is also permanent. yet the man and woman might seek divorce not done by the Church and either remarrying .Communion can be received. Both must respond to an annulment If adultery is present then communion cannot be received. Any grave sin that the person is told by his conscience, communion cannot be received.