What is the Sensus Fidei?

The Cover for Sensus Fidei

The latest document from thec was published last week and is about the Sensus Fidei and what it has meant, and means for the Church today. To help explain what it is about, we asked Mgr Paul McPartlan, president of the subcommission that prepared Sensus Fidei, to tell us about the document and how it was put together.

“The sensus fidei is the instinct that all the faithful have for the truth of the Gospel, an instinct, given by the Holy Spirit, that also prompts their Christian witness and proclamation in daily life. It’s a great resource for the new evangelisation, and a key to the mature and effective collaboration of all the Church’s members, which is so much needed and wanted. However, like all spiritual gifts it needs to be carefully nurtured and discerned. It isn’t at all necessarily the same thing as popular opinion or the majority view. So how should it be understood and applied? This document tries to respond to those questions.

The International Theological Commission (ITC) was founded in 1969 and it consists of thirty theologians from around the world, members being appointed every five years by the pope. So the ITC works in five-year cycles, and normally has three projects underway at any given time.

For that purpose, the membership is divided into three subcommissions, each of which concentrates on one of the projects, studying that particular issue closely and developing a document on it. There are subcommission meetings during the course of the year, but at the annual plenary meeting of the ITC in Rome all of the projects are discussed by the full commission. Documents which are finally approved by the commission as a whole are then passed to the President of the ITC, namely the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who decides whether they should be published. Projects are not always completed in one cycle of work; sometimes they are passed on to the next one.

During the 2009-2014 cycle, three ITC documents were completed and published: one on the nature and proper characteristics of Catholic theology itself, Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria (work on this topic began in the previous cycle and was completed in 2011, and the document has been widely translated and well received); one on God the Trinity and the Unity of Humanity: Christian monotheism and its opposition to violence (2014), a most timely document showing how violence is completely incompatible with faith in the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and finally the present document on the Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church (2014).

Work on the latter topic actually began only in 2011, picking up a theme from the document on theology, which mentioned the sensus fidei a few times, and particularly stated that ‘attention to the sensus fidelium’ was indeed a criterion for Catholic theology (Theology Today, nn.33-36). The two terms, sensus fidei (sense of the faith) and sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful, i.e. the sense that the faithful have of the faith) are very similar, so much so that people sometimes use a compound term, sensus fidei fidelium.

The idea that the Christian faith lives in the people of God as a whole, and that even the humblest believer can have profound insights into the truth of God, has been strongly emphasised by Pope Francis. The ITC document recalls his first Angelus address in which he praised the wisdom of an elderly woman who once said to him: ‘If the Lord did not forgive everything, the world would not exist’ (Sensus Fidei, n.2). So, although the ITC began its work on the sensus fidei before the election of Pope Francis, the pope’s own frequent reference to this topic has made this document, too, very timely, perhaps especially in view of the forthcoming synods on ‘Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelisation.”

Mgr Paul McPartlan

Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church is available now from CTS, priced £4.95.

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