Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Seattle Battle and Sensus Fidei

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain’s problems in the Archdiocese of Seattle continue; apparently, more parishes are refusing to collect signatures in support of a referendum that would overturn the legalization of homosexual “marriage” in the state of Washington. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported (my emphases throughout):

The congregation at Seattle’s Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church gave the Rev. Tim Clark a standing ovation Sunday when he announced that the parish would not gather signatures for a referendum to repeal same-sex marriage.

Hmm. I think Fr. Clark has failed to adequately catechize his parishioners on the sinfulness of homosexual activity.

The parish became the sixth in Seattle to opt out of the petition drive for Referendum 74 that has been endorsed and foisted on parishes by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain. [The others are St. James Cathedral, St. Joseph Church, St. Mary’s Church, St. Patrick Church and Christ Our Hope Catholic Church.]

“I am happy to report that Our Lady of the Lake parishioners have been overwhelmingly and, thus far, unanimously supportive of the decision I made NOT to gather signatures in support of this Referendum,” Clark wrote in response to an e-mail.

“The standing ovation experienced during one of the Masses says less about me and much more about the health of this parish.  I only wished the archbishop could have experienced the sustained applause — the ‘sensus fidelium’ — of the people.  He needs to listen to this ‘voice.’ That is my prayer.”

Okay, hold it right there. The “standing ovation” did say something about the health of the parish: the lack of it! And, dear Father, sustained applause does not indicate “sensus fidelium”.

Here’s what I wrote about “sensus fidei”[1] in my paper “Conscience and the Obedience of Faith” (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, February 2008):

Sensus Fidei and Dissent
Some have used the notion of “sensus fidei” as a justification for dissent: “The whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy one (cf. 1 Jn. 2:20 and 27) cannot err in matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium, §12). The argument is, basically, that the “sense of the faith” expressed by a majority of Catholics should dictate Church doctrine. But the concept of the infallibility of the believing Church doesn’t mean that each individual believer is “infallible” and is enabled to create his own “truth.” The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed this concern in Donum Veritatis (1990; emphases added):

Dissent sometimes also appeals to a kind of sociological argumentation which holds that the opinion of a large number of Christians would be a direct and adequate expression of the “supernatural sense of the faith.”

Actually, the opinions of the faithful cannot be purely and simply identified with the “sensus fidei.” The sense of the faith is a property of theological faith; and, as God’s gift which enables one to adhere personally to the Truth, it cannot err. This personal faith is also the faith of the Church since God has given guardianship of the Word to the Church.  Consequently, what the believer believes is what the Church believes. The “sensus fidei” implies then by its nature a profound spirit of agreement of spirit and heart with the Church, “sentire cum Ecclesia.”

 Although theological faith as such then cannot err, 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. (§35)

Also, since there exists a unity between Christ and his Body, the Church, the believing Church is not autonomous in its faith; there is a hierarchical relationship between the believing Church and the teaching Church, with the teaching Church assuming ministerial leadership. Donum Veritatis continues:

Not without reason did the Second Vatican Council emphasize the indissoluble bond between the “sensus fidei” and the guidance of God’s People by the magisterium of the Pastors. These two realities cannot be separated. Magisterial interventions serve to guarantee the Church’s unity in the truth of the Lord. They aid her to “abide in the truth” in face of the arbitrary character of changeable opinions and are an expression of obedience to the Word of God. Even when it might seem that they limit the freedom of theologians, these actions, by their fidelity to the faith which has been handed on, establish a deeper freedom which can only come from unity in truth. (§35)

This said, however, we must consider a common misconception: that is, that the faithful are under no obligation to accept or assent to a doctrine that is not taught infallibly. In 1998, Pope John Paul II’s motu proprio Ad Tuendam Fidem made a formal correction of this error by inserting clarifying verbiage into the Code of Canon Law. The following paragraph was added to Canon 750:

Furthermore, each and everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely, those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church. (Canon 750, §2; emphasis added)

It’s clear that the Church expects Her teaching to be taken seriously by the faithful. Perhaps it is a characteristically American mindset that leads us to seek a legalistic definition of infallibility so that we may know whether or not we “really” have to accept a particular teaching. Some criticize the Church or particular pastors or bishops for being “legalistic” in their interpretation and application of some of these principles, and then use precisely the same tactic themselves in order to absolve themselves of their duty of the obedience of faith. 

We could have skipped most of the explanation above and gone straight to the Nicene Creed to reinforce the idea that we owe our allegiance and obedience to the Church. When we profess our faith in the Nicene Creed each Sunday, we claim that we “believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” All of the points made above from the Catechism and Canon Law and other Church documents stem from that belief, although it appears that there has been a great deal of confusion about whether the issues of birth control, homosexuality, and abortion are actually subsumed under that statement in the Creed. However, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to argue that the Church has not made definitive statements on each of those issues; therefore, those statements are, indeed, included in our profession of faith each week.

What does it mean to give assent to Catholic teaching? Some clarification can be obtained from Donum Veritatis, which defines three levels of assent:

1)      When the Magisterium of the Church makes an infallible pronouncement and solemnly declares that a teaching is found in Revelation, the assent called for is that of theological faith. This kind of adherence is to be given even to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium when it proposes for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed.

2)      When the Magisterium proposes “in a definitive way” truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held.

3)      When the Magisterium, not intending to act “definitively”, teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect. This kind of response cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith. (DV, §23, emphasis added)

Canon law reinforces the requirement for a religious submission of intellect and will in these instances, noting that “Christ’s faithful are therefore to ensure that they avoid whatever does not accord with that doctrine” (Canon 752). And there are canonical definitions for the degree of dissent an individual might manifest:

Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with members of the Church subject to him. (Canon 751)

There is no escaping it: no matter what source we examine, whether Canon Law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or various Church documents, we will find that the faithful are bound to accept and obey the teachings of the Church. No matter which current issue is being examined, we are under an obligation to have faith in our Tradition and in the Magisterium of the Church as well as in Scripture, and to exercise the obedience of faith.

[1] Sensus fidelium translates as “sense of the faithful”; sensus fidei means “sense of the faith”. They seem often to be used interchangeably; Wikipedia notes that sensus fidelium is also referred to as sensus fidei fidelium, and is related to sensus fidei fidelis, which is also called sensus fidei or sensum fidei. Take it for what it’s worth. 

1 comment:

  1. Hum..looks like some parishes and some Priests in the Archdiocese of Seattle ought to just align themselves with like minded folks in the Episcopal Church. Not to worry. There are plenty of orthodox Episcopalians coming into the Roman Catholic Church. Those in Seattle who leave would hardly be missed,.


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