Newman on the Sensus Fidelium


Procession in Honor the Immaculate Conception

Nathan recently brought up the knotty subject of the role of the so-called supernatural sense of faith (or “the faithful”) in the explication of Church teaching.  Using Newman as a point of departure (since it seems to be to Newman’s intellect, cardinal’s hat, and sanctity that the concept owes much of its present authority), I thought I might throw in my two cents on the matter.  It seems that the heart of the vexed discussion about the “supernatural sense of faith” is twofold: 1) determining the proper uses of the sensus fidelium, 2) and identifying genuine fideles.  Drawing from “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” and “Note 5” to Arians of the Fourth Century, I’ll take up the first point in this post.

Beginning with the correct application, then, I would point out that Newman himself was at pains, no less than Donum Veritatis, to distinguish what he meant by “consulting the faithful” from “a kind of sociological argumentation”(DV 35).  Against the many who took Newman, when praising the practice of “consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine” to be suggesting a plebiscite or an ongoing opinion poll, Newman clarifies that

the English word “consult,” in its popular and ordinary use … is doubtless a word expressive of trust and deference, but not of submission. It includes the idea of inquiring into a matter of fact, as well as asking a judgment. Thus we talk of “consulting our barometer” about the weather:—the barometer only attests the fact of the state of the atmosphere. In like manner, we may consult a watch or a sun-dial about the time of day. A physician consults the pulse of his patient; but not in the same sense in which his patient consults him. It is but an index of the state of his health . . . .  This being considered, it was, I conceive, quite allowable for a writer, who was not teaching or treating theology, but, as it were, conversing, to say, as in the passage in question, “In the preparation of a dogmatic definition, the faithful are consulted.”

So Newman, no less than Donum Veritatis, is pretty clear that the consulting the faithful is not done by focus groups or other quantitative methods.  By likening the supernatural sense of the faithful to a barometer, a sun-dial, and a pulse (hardly the stuff of an “Occupy-the-Church”-style empowerment), Newman suggests a real but limited use for such consultation.  None of these instruments is actually consulted for its own sake.  Each of them serves as a “pointer” to another, decisive reality: the broader weather patterns, the time of day, the overall health of the patient.  For Newman, likewise, the sense of the faithful is consulted, not as an end in itself, but as a “testimony to … apostolical tradition.”  He continues:

Doubtless [the faithful’s] advice, their opinion, their judgment on the question of definition is not asked; but the matter of fact, viz. their belief, is sought for, as a testimony to that apostolical tradition, on which alone any doctrine whatsoever can be defined. In like manner, we may “consult” the liturgies or the rites of the Church; not that they speak, not that they can take any part whatever in the definition, for they are documents or customs; but they are witnesses to the antiquity or universality of the doctrines which they contain, and about which they are “consulted.” And, in like manner, I certainly understood the writer in the Rambler to mean (and I think any lay reader might so understand him) that the fidelium sensus and consensus is a branch of evidence which it is natural or it necessary for the Church to regard and consult, before she proceeds to any definition, from its intrinsic cogency; and by consequence, that it ever has been so regarded and consulted.

We can here make a further precision on the role of the sense of the faithful suggested by Newman’s guiding metaphors.  The barometer, the sundial, and pulse all serve as handy indices of more obscure and complex states of affairs: e.g., distant weather conditions, the exact time of day, the health of a human body.  Because of their vastness and complexity, a direct comprehension of any of these realities, that is, a comprehension sufficient for either prognosis or diagnosis, is practically impossible without more serviceable “evidences” (thermometers, watches, blood-pressure cuffs, etc).  Newman seems to envision the Church’s “apostolical tradition” as one of these complex realities, and the sensus fidelium as one of the “branches of evidence” that make it more accessible.  He sees apostolic faith as reposing in a totality of doctrine, sacraments, liturgy, Scripture, and popular devotions, each of which instills an “instinct” within the faithful.  When clarity is lacking in doctrinal matters, the instinct of the faithful may be used as a litmus test.

Comparing this latent “instinct” to a body’s immune system, Newman argues that a the faithful’s “immune response” can be used to vet doctrinal proposals.  Applying a passage from his second Lecture on Anglican Difficulties to the matter of “consulting,” Newman explains,

We know that it is the property of life to be impatient of any foreign substance in the body to which it belongs. It will be sovereign in its o domain, and it conflicts with what it cannot assimilate into itself, and is irritated and disordered till it has expelled it. Such expulsion, then, is emphatically a test of uncongeniality, for it shows that the substance ejected, not only is not one with the body that rejects it, but cannot be made one with it; that its introduction is not only useless or superfluous, adventitious, but that it is intolerable. . . . The religious life of a people is of a certain quality and direction, and these are tested by the mode in which it encounters the various opinions, customs, and institutions which are submitted to it. Drive a stake into a river’s bed, and you will at once ascertain which way it is running, and at what speed; throw up even a straw upon the air, and you will see which way the wind blows; submit your heretical and Catholic principle to the action of the multitude, and you will be able to pronounce at once whether it is imbued with Catholic truth or with heretical falsehood.

Such a statement might seem to support the viewpoint that widely disregarded teachings on contraceptive sex, homosexual acts, and divorce are not truly “apostolical,” since they seem to be rejected today by many—perhaps by a majority in the contemporary West.

However, the reason that I dwelled on Newman’s guiding metaphors, is that they always present recourse to the sensus fidelium as a means to clarify the obscure, as an aid to explicitating the implicit, as a tool for exposing the latent elements in the “complex whole” of apostolic faith.  But for this reason, the instinct of the faithful is dispositive only for a prospective inquiry.  The two examples that Newman uses to demonstrate the infallibility of the sensus fidelium are the support of the faithful for the Immaculate Conception and the orthodox position in the Arian controversies.  In each case, the sensus fidelium was decisive because there were few others means to verify whether certain proposed (as opposed to already-declared) doctrines belonged to the “apostolical” deposit: the Immaculate Conception lacks early written or liturgical witnesses; and precise, Scripture could be (and was) quoted to defend either side of the Arian controversy.  In default of other means, the instinct of the faithful was decisive in helping bishops feel their way to an orthodox solution.

It is worth observing, however, that Newman does not envision the retrospective use of the sensus fidelium, as if the doctrines “settled” by the whole Church in one generation could be “unsettled” by wide disregard in another generation.  This would be to allow the obscure and indirect to trump what is clear and direct.  This would be like using a barometer to inquire about the weather of the moment, instead of simply opening a window and having a look around.   At least in the case of ecumenical councils, Newman makes this clear when he affirms that, had he written that such councils “said what they should not have said” or “did what obscured and compromised revealed truth,” then he “should have spoken as no Catholic can speak.”  Were he to deny a teaching bearing this authority, in other words, he would be removing himself from the great sensus fidelium.  He was also doubtlessly aware that whole segments of the Church would have continued to poll as “Arian” or “Monophysite” long after Constantinople and Chalcedon (but he obviously did not think such non-reception destroyed the sensus fidelium).

This invites a different perspective on the application of the sensus fidelium to the Church’s “hot-button issues.”  Every one of the Church’s moral doctrines that Nathan instanced, though perhaps not being the explicit target of an ecumenical council’s anathema, claims an ancient doctrinal pedigree; it once enjoyed the nearly unanimous consent of the fideles of Christendom—bishops, priests and laity alike.  The Church’s teaching on contraception was, for instance, broadly received as recently as Casti Connubii (1930).  Many of these doctrines, I suspect (though trying to dig up statistics at this point would be a little self-defeating), are also better received outside the affluent West.  When one takes this broad and long view, the real parties to the “Occupy-the-Church” protest turn out to be not so much the laity vs. the hierarchy (as Nathan pointed out, there is ambivalence at all levels of the Western Church), as one sector of churchgoers against another (many of whom are, admittedly, now dead).  The hierarchy would not be so much arraying itself against a united faithful, as throwing its weight behind the sector of churchgoers whom it judges to be “faithful,” that is, to have the signs of supernatural fides.

The problem of identifying such faithful will have to wait for another post.


2 Responses to Newman on the Sensus Fidelium

  1. a grateful soul says:

    Wow! awesome reflection on one of the most often cited but poorly understood concepts.
    Fr. Pidel, Gesu has been my favorite parish in the Archdiocese of Miami for a long time. Primarily because I see it as a place of incredible graces; that is, because of the generous Confession schedule (4 times a day, 365 days a year) it is a place where many people are saved from their sins daily. Secondarily, because it is one of the most beautiful temples in our city and as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty all point to God.
    But the fact that it is a Jesuit parish has always caused me great ambivalence. Not because of the Jesuits in Miami, mind you, since the Antilles province which runs so many notable Jesuits apostolates here appears to be very orthodox. But because so many other Jesuit provinces in the States appear to be rather heterodox.
    Your counseling in Confession as well as your homilies and ars celebrandi in the Holy Mass have convinced me of your own orthodoxy. However, your own very evident orthodoxy has led me to wonder why you (who grew up in a Charismatic Catholic Community and attended the Franicscan University of Steubenville) became a Jesuit instead of joining a more reputably orthodox Religious community.
    I think I’m now finally beginning to understand why.
    As all Jesuits, you do have an incredible intellect but it is more than just that; you have the rare ability for both analysis and synthesis as well as for simplicity, humility, and charity. I think you must stand in the most honorable tradition of the great Jesuits of the past: St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier, St. Francis Borgia, St. Edmund Campion, St. Peter Canisius, St. Robert Bellarmine, Sts. Isaac Jogues and John de Brebeuf (among my favorites saints of all times), St. Peter Claver, and many more.
    I’ve dreaded the thought of you leaving Gesu for continued studies but I can now see that the Lord is calling you to great things far beyond our small community for His greater glory and the salvation of many souls as well as for the benefit of the Church universal and the Jesuit order.
    You truly understand things with the mind of the Church; this can only be the result of an authentic and profound spiritual life.
    Keep the Faith, Father, and pass it on.

  2. bill bannon says:

    On your unanimity on birth control at the time of Casti Connubii, Noonan (“Contraception” p.394) found coitus interruptus a widespread problem for the Church in France of the 19th century: “…the French Jesuit, John Gury, wrote in 1850: ‘ In our days, the horrid plague of onanism has flourished everywhere'”.
    On such a hidden topic ( by its very nature), unanimity may have been an delusion…our nostalgia for things being simple til 1930 may be the source of the delusion.
    If you read the first sentence of section 74 of Casti C., you’ll sense that there was unanimity on wifely obedience ( more public and observable than sex) probably throughout the laity and clergy. It is suddenly however absent in Vatican II and in the present catechism…..and unlike birth control, it is indisputably stated in the New Testament 6 times whereas birth control might be in the Onan passage and thus once and might not now that the translation says Onan did coitus interruptus numerous times not once…ie the offense could have been risking the non appearance of Christ from the house of Judah (4 men) which is far more serious than Augustine’s sexual interpretation assumed by Casti C. and more consistent with the fact that God kills individuals intimately for sacrilege not sex (Uzzah, Achan, sons of Eli, Herod in Acts 12, the couple in Acts 5). Judah and Tamar are not killed in the Onan story for fornication and incest…another missed “tell”.
    But if a six time repeated Scriptural wifely obedience vanishes just after Casti C. via the hierarchy in Vatican II and in the catechism, then the sensus fidelium and it’s misuse is only one of our problems. What the hell happened to the hierarchy as to affirming what the Holy Spirit repeated 6 times…wifely obedience ( knowing that both men and women have a relaxed amoral stake in no wifely subjection).
    Wifely obedience is far more surely in the Bible than “no birth control” and yet, it has vanished from clergy, laity, and hierarchy…in a time of many divorces no less.

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