The Real “Sensus Fidelium”

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You might come across an article or a news report about the need for the Catholic Church to get with the times, to change her teachings, citing the “sensus fidelium” or the sense of the people who, by and large, disagree with Church teaching on this and that. “If the Church is to stay relevant, it had better get in touch with the realities of how people are living their lives today.” That kind of thing. It’s all so very democratic and appealing to our modern sensibilities.

But is sensus fidelium the same as majority rules? Hardly. Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI offered this insightful observation on how the term is to be correctly understood.

“It is particularly important today to clarify the criteria used to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeits. In fact, it is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, this is because the sensus fidei cannot grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her Magisterium.” ~Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the International Theological Commission

And Pope Francis, speaking to the International Theological Commission, echoed this understanding, stating that the sensus fidelium,  “must not be confused with the sociological reality of majority opinion. That is something else. It is therefore important, and it is your task, to elaborate the criteria that permit discernment of authentic expressions of the ‘sense of the faithful.’”

Regardless of how numerous are the voices clamoring for change to Church teaching, it is impossible to assert Catholic legitimacy so long as those voices are cut off from the Magisterium of the Church.

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