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. Read the rest of this entry »