In June, the International Theological Commission released a groundbreaking document, ” ‘Sensus Fidei’ in the Life of the Church.” The statement surprised many because it acknowledges the role played by ordinary Catholics in the growth and development (aka change) in church teaching throughout history and still today.
Amazingly, the document also validates the not-infrequent experience of Catholics who find themselves unable to accept certain teachings “if they do not recognize in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd.” And it suggests actions to be taken on the part of both laity and clergy to resolve this potential impasse.
While necessarily naming the magisterium as having the final say, the document also publicly acknowledges the reality of dissent (through denial of assent — see No. 6 below) in the church. Even more surprising, it says the magisterium itself may have had a part to play: “In some cases [dissent] 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.”
Current church teachings on women’s roles; human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; and birth control are, to my mind, obvious examples of decisions made without sufficient consultation with the faithful. While carefully distinguishing between public opinion and the “sense of the faithful,” the statement nevertheless values the role of public opinion and lists helpful criteria for Catholics to evaluate the important dispositions needed to participate in the sensus fidei.
Putting this statement into practice seems to me a huge challenge for laity and clergy alike. But we must try. We must try because doing so can help us discover new structures that integrate the sensus fidei into church decision-making, hitherto the exclusive domain of male clergy. Newly inclusive structures have potential to birth a new ecclesial community, one that respects the human dignity of all of God’s people, from the greatest to the least...