In 2014 there were two events which at first did not seem to be connected. The first was the preparation for and the taking place of the first session of the Synod on family life and the second was the publication of the document “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church” by the International Theological Commission. However, after studying the document it became clear to me that in fact the two are intimately linked.


There is much to be applauded in this document, where the Commission has made a serious attempt to express, in not quite plain language but certainly an improvement on other official documents, the theological basis for a better understanding of the much disputed concept of “the sense of the faith” which is commonly used in its Latin form of the “sensus fidei”. However, my attention was drawn to those sections which consider the proactive nature of this “sense”, and I saw that it was talking my language and making sense of the controversy regarding consultation, or the lack of it, in not only the preparation of the Synod but also in the actual event.
To get a better grasp of the notion that one of the consequences of the very existence of such a “sense of the faith” obliges those in the various offices of the Church to respond to it by creating spaces for its expression, I needed to re-visit, by using this document, my own understanding of this unique “sense”. It is not much good calling for new structures in the Church to accommodate this need for hearing its voice if the arguments for the existence of such a “sense” are unconvincing.
A Christian instinct?
Is there such a reality as a “sense of the faith”, that is, an innate sense of the Christian faith in a follower of Jesus Christ or are we simply passive receivers of doctrine as though we are lifeless data receivers ? In its introduction, the Commission defines this “sense” where “the faithful have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them to recognise and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false.” (2)
This is what, in catechetical courses, I have called “our Christian instinct”. It is very closely aligned with Thomas Aquinas’ idea of the build-up of those virtues which become habitual, where the constant practice of Christian virtues become ‘natural’ to us. This means we judge and act almost instinctively with Christian wisdom when we are required to react to any given situation or idea.
It seems that because of our free appropriation and practice of the teachings and values of the Gospel, with the help of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we can act and judge wisely in their application: “…the sensus fidei, which, as well as enabling a certain discernment with regards to the things of faith, fosters true wisdom and gives rise to proclamation of the truth.” (2) This is not a sudden received gift at the rite of baptism but grows in relation to living-out the Gospel values.
This idea of such an individual “sense” has generally been received by the laity but ordained pastors and office holders have displayed a certain wariness and ambivalence to encouraging its expression. The notion of a “sense of the faithful” (sensus fidelium), as the individual “sense” being held in common with others, as in the concept in the Commission’s document of a “consensus of the faithful” (consensus fidelium), is even more problematic for the Church office-holders, as shown in the recent inadequate attempts at consultation for the Rome Synod.
A “Sense” or merely sensible?
It is obvious from our own experience and from any sensible appraisal of the existence of this “sense” that also there has to be a judgement as to whether a particular proclamation by a believer is of this “sense of the faith” or merely an opinion with no basis in the faith of the Gospel. There has to be a balance between the opinions expressed by a particular believer and an external judgement of that opinion, otherwise any opinion claimed as authentic “sense of the faith” may not be “of the Gospel”.
This is also true, of course, when those holding office in the Church declare that “the faith” in this “sense” is everything that has been held as “true” in the history of the Church. We know from the letters of St.Paul that keeping the faith as close as possible to the Gospel of Jesus Christ was vital for the growth of the Church. It is this “sense of the faith” which is required today to challenge those in office to do the same as Paul.
The imperative for dialogue and consultation
Are those in office obliged to seek out this “sense” particularly before discussing a topic and making decisions which affect not only every member of the Church but more importantly its mission to the world? The Commission’s document states very clearly in refreshing forthright language that there is an obligation placed on those in authority to consult the faithful: “accordingly, the faithful and specifically the lay people, should be treated by the Church’s pastors with respect and consideration, and consulted in the appropriate way for the good of the Church.” (120) It makes it clear that this is not merely an exercise in public relations but genuine consultation: “The word ‘consult’ includes the idea of seeking a judgement or advice as well as enquiring into a matter of fact.” (121)
The lack of this kind of positive consultation has often resulted in the non-reception by many of the ‘faithful’ of the doctrinal or moral decisions taken by office-holders. This may be the result of an immature “sense of the faith” or indifference of those office-holders to the views of other members of the people of God: “But in some cases it may indicate that certain decisions have been taken by those in authority without due consideration of the experience and the sensus fidei of the faithful, or without sufficient consultation of the faithful by the magisterium.” (123)
The imperative for synodality in the Church
Pope Francis has strived to put his stamp on the Synod in Rome on family life, by encouraging wider consultation and insisting that everyone, whether they be members of the synod or members of the wider Church, should be able to speak their mind on the subject. However, recent experience has shown that simply circulating the synod working document (lineamenta), with all its drawbacks of lack of clarity, conciseness and contemporary relevance in the proposed questions, has proved to the majority of the faithful that there is no permanent system or structure in place whereby their “sense of the faith” is part of the discussion and decision-making.
What kind of permanent change can be made to enable and encourage this true and effective consultation to take place? What I am proposing is not something completely new to the Church. ‘Synodality’ with its root meaning of being “together on the road or journey” or “common way” is related to the biblical teaching on communion and fellowship (koinonia) which always has been at the heart of the life of the Church. However, history has shown that the practice of synodality, as the best way for the “sense of the faith” to be heard at all levels, developed under the influence and authority of Rome into what we know to be exclusively synods of bishops. The Orthodox Church has always retained the wider expression of synodality in their local and national synods, and later in the early part of the 20th century the Anglican Church set up their present system of parish councils, deanery and diocesan synods.
When looking for models of synodality already in practice there is no need to look further than the Orthodox and Anglican structures and take from them the universal elements, except those which are peculiar to their own cultural traditions. In particular, in the Anglican structures of consultation, lay participation is essential throughout the process, from parish council to deanery and diocesan synods and finally to the General synod. These are permanent structures which allow and make room for the “sense of the faith” to be heard and taking into account in any decisions made either at local or national levels.
Of course, both the Anglican and Orthodox systems have their problems as a result of historical and cultural factors, but through interviewing past members of the synodal structures, it is clear that despite those inherent problems synodality does work in favour of lay consultation and co-responsibility in decision-making. The basic principle of the Anglican system was laid down at the 1968 Lambeth Conference: “The Conference recommends that no major issue in the life of the Church should be decided without the full participation of the laity in discussion and in decision.” (Resolution 24) In answer to the obvious question of how do we get so many people to speak their minds, to open their hearts, to express their hopes, the Anglican process of representation is based on the simple practical premise that “if all cannot meet, then representatives must.”
If such synodal structures were in existence today at all levels of the Church, the Synod in Rome on family life would be the culmination of a comprehensive expression of the “consensus of the faithful”. The International Theological Commission clearly states the need for such a form of consultation: “It is only natural that there should be a constant communication and regular dialogue on practical issues and matters of faith and morals between members of the Church. Public opinion is an important form of that communication in the Church.” (124)
The introduction of a synodal system of consultation is the key to a free and open dialogue for the people of God to express their “sense of the faith.” Pope Francis’ call for “new ways for the journey” is echoed by the Commission: “One of the reasons why bishops and priests need to be close to their people on the journey and to walk with them is precisely so as to recognise ‘new ways’ as they are sensed by the people. The discernment of such new ways, opened up and illumined by the Holy Spirit, will be vital for the new evangelization.” (127) The time is well overdue for our Bishops to set up an advisory body for the arrangement of such synodal structures to be put in place in England and Wales if they are really serious about listening and taking heed of the “sense of the faithful”.
Brian Pointer word count 1780
Chichester, January 2015

The Sensus Fidei and the Synod