In deciding to embark on a ‘synodal pathway’ for the Irish Catholic Church the Bishops have been inspired by the teaching and practice of Pope Francis. Francis, for his part, has developed the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on collegiality (between the Pope and Bishops) to embrace the wider and deeper notion of synodality, which involves not just the Bishops but all the faithful.
In his most concentrated treatment of synodality (50th Anniversary Address of the Synod of Bishops, 2015) Francis refers back to the Council (Lumen gentium, 12) and its observation that:
The whole body of the faithful, who have an anointing that comes from the holy one (cf. I Jn 2: 20, 27), cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural sense of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people of God, when “from the bishops to the last of the faithful” it manifests a universal consensus in matters of faith and morals.
These, Francis, adds, ‘are the famous words infallible “in credendo’ (infallible in believing)’. In this same address he also refers back to his own 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (see EG, 119-126) and his contention that ‘all the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization’ so that ‘the sensus fidei prevents a rigid separation between an Ecclesia docens (a teaching Church) and an Ecclesia discens (a learning Church), since the flock likewise has an instinctive ability to discern the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church’.
Australian theologian Ormond Rush argues that in effect Francis is making moves towards a synthesis between two notions which are in dramatic tension – the infallibility of the magisterium (Pope and bishops) in teaching, and the infallibility of the People of God in believing. The linchpin linking the two infallibilities, according to Rush, is listening to the sensus fidelium, the people of God’s intuition in matters of faith and morals. And so, Rush argues, ‘the sensus fidelium, and listening to the sensus fidelium, lie at the heart of Francis’s dynamic notion of a synodal church’.1
It seems to me that this emphasis on the ‘sense of faith’, always in dialogue with theology and with the authoritative magisterium, has great potential to unlock some contested issues in the Irish and wider church which are real obstacles to evangelization. First, then, I will explain in more detail the nature and scope of the ‘sense of faith’, and then explore its relevance to our contemporary mission.
Nature and scope of the ‘sense of faith’.
The 2014 document, ‘Sensus Fidei’ in the Life of the Church’ (SF), by the International Theological Commission provides an accessible account of current mainline thinking on the topic. The authors note (1-4) that the sensus fidei, as participation of all the baptised in the prophetic office of Jesus Christ, refers to two realities which are distinct though closely connected: the personal capacity of the believer to discern the truth of faith (sensus fidei fidelis), and the communal and ecclesial reality through which the baptized converge in recognizing and endorsing authentic Christian doctrine and practice in the lived reality of today (sensus fidei fidelium and consensus fidelium).
Furthermore, the sensus fidei fidelis is ‘a sort of spiritual instinct that enables the believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith’ (49). This ‘instinct’ – also described as knowledge of the heart (as between friends), a ‘second nature’, a ‘sixth sense’, a ‘flair’ or ‘intuition’ – is connatural, immediate and spontaneous, and of a different order than objective knowledge, which proceeds by way of conceptualisation and reasoning and is a result of rational deliberation (49-55, 70). The deeper one’s faith and holiness, the more reliable this ‘sense of faith’ is (56-59). At the communal level (sensus fidei fidelium) the sense of faith enables believers to discern the ‘signs of the times’ in a way that is both prospective and retrospective (reception): it ‘gives an intuition as to the right way forward amid the uncertainties and ambiguities of history, and a capacity to listen discerningly to what human culture and the progress of the sciences are saying’ (70). Its scope includes moral as well as doctrinal developments (72-73). Because the sense of faith can also be accompanied by elements of erroneous human opinion, there is often need for considerable time, patience and respect until a conclusive discernment is arrived at, with the faithful at large, bishops and theologians all having their respective roles to play (71), the magisterium having the ultimate authoritative voice (77). It is the same Holy Spirit who is present to all the baptised, in that pastorum et fidelium conspiratio (the breathing together of the pastors and faithful) of which Newman spoke (39).
Liturgy is a particularly rich source of the sense of faith (75), as are popular religion and the poor (82-3, 107-112; EG, 122f, 198). The validity of the contribution does not depend on education or theological background, although theology provides a valuable service in explaining the sense of faith with greater clarity and precision (84). Correct dispositions for a more authentic participation in the sensus fidei include openness to reason and inner freedom and humility (88-105). And, it is noted, ‘vast multitudes of Christian believers (and indeed of people beyond the visible bounds of the Church) have privileged access, at least potentially, to the deep truths of God’ (109). Thus, as is clear from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, the Church learns from as well as teaches the ‘world’ (GS, 40-44), and the ‘sense of faith’ is formed not just by inner-church realities but also by a discerning integration of secular history and culture.
Finally, and crucially for our purposes, the document notes that the ‘sense of faith’ is not simply identical with majority public opinion, sociological data, opinion polls or the ‘spirit of the age’ (47, 83,87,113-126, especially 118). Nonetheless, SF also notes that ‘public exchange of opinion is a prime means by which, in a normal way, the sensus fidelium can be gauged’ (125). Therefore, since the ‘sense of faith’ is so important, since ‘it must be recalled that the experience of the Church shows that sometimes the truth of the faith has been conserved not by the efforts of theologians or the teaching of the majority of bishops but in the heart of believers’ (119), the faithful need to be consulted appropriately.
Contested Issues in Ireland Today
SF, as we have seen, does not shirk from describing controversial contexts in which the ‘sense of the faith’ clashes in one way or another with official Church teaching. We have experiences of this in the Ireland of today, most obviously with respect to Church teaching on sexuality and gender. The Irish Bishops reported that the findings of their questionnaire to Irish Catholics in preparation for the Roman Synod on the Family revealed that many found the teaching in this area was ‘disconnected from real-life experience’, and that ‘many … expressed particular difficulties with the teachings on extra-marital sex and cohabitation by unmarried couples, divorce and remarriage, family planning, assisted reproduction, homosexuality. The church’s teaching in these sensitive areas is often not experienced as realist, compassionate or life-enhancing’ (Statement of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, 13 March, 2014).
The Bishops, for their part, pledged in response to the questionnaire findings to ‘present faithfully the church’s teaching on marriage and the family in a positive and engaging way, whilst showing compassion and mercy towards those who are finding difficulty in accepting or living it’. This assumes that the teaching itself is correct and more effective communication and merciful application will solve the problem. However, as we have seen in SF, there is also the possibility that indifference or resistance to the teaching is grounded in a ‘sense of the faith’ which may indicate that the teaching has been adopted without sufficient consultation and needs to be not just clarified but reformulated.
The stakes are high here – the Catholic Church does not lightly go down the path of doctrinal revision, and there is danger of division, and even a version of the ‘culture wars’ we see so prevalent in the United States. And yet most would admit that when teaching in such intimate areas as sex and gender are disregarded, coupled with an already damaged moral credibility of the clerical Church due to the abuse issue, there occurs a significant obstacle to faith and to the mission of the Church. Pope Francis wants to make the Church ‘attractive’ – for many young people and women in Ireland today it is not attractive. These are ‘signs of the time’ which need to be addressed.
It remains the case, however, that the Catholic Church is cautious, almost to the point of denial, about developments which seem at variance with previous teaching. And so, in the Synod on the Family, we had a chorus of voices affirming that what was involved in the possible admission of divorced and remarried to Eucharistic reception that was pastoral/disciplinary in nature, not doctrinal. Pope Francis himself can sometimes seem to suggest this position himself – and so, for example, he says: ‘Speaking of synodality, it’s important not to confuse Catholic doctrine and tradition with the Church’s norms and practices. What is under discussion at synodal gatherings are not traditional truths of Christian doctrine. The Synod is concerned mainly with how teaching can be lived and applied in the changing contexts of our times’ (Let Us Dream, 84-5).2 No doubt it was words like these, coupled with the instinct to be reticent about doctrinal development of a seemingly disruptive nature, which persuaded the Irish Catholic Bishops to state on their synodal website that according to Pope Francis, ‘Synods are not instruments to change Church teaching but rather help to apply it more pastorally’.
However, Francis is not quite so absolute on this issue as it might seem at first glance: he is referring only to ‘traditional’ truths of Christian doctrine (what counts as ‘traditional’?) and says the Synod is concerned ‘mainly’ (not exclusively) with how teaching can be lived. After all, this is the same Francis who has also stated in his Motu Proprio Spiritus Domini (15 January 2021) that the change in Canon Law permitting women to be lectors and acolytes represents a ‘doctrinal development … arrived at in these last years that has brought light to how certain ministries instituted by the Church have as their basis the common condition of being baptised and the royal priesthood received in the Sacrament of Baptism’. In an accompanying letter he notes that this development occurred due to a number of Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops and cites in particular the Final Document of the Amazon Synod. This case in point, of course fits in well with Hannenberg’s thesis of anomalies and exceptions leading to doctrinal development, and historically many other examples could be cited. Francis is too astute theologically not to know this – doctrine develops, teaching changes, and often due to synodal assemblies and councils through which the ‘sense of faith’ of the faithful is formally and authoritatively discerned – and so Francis can also say: ‘Tradition is not a museum, teaching changes, and doctrine is not static but grows and develops’ (Let Us Dream, 57).
The Bishops, with Francis, are right to be wary of division, of an exclusively ‘parliamentary procedure’ which does not rise to the level of discernment, of the ‘isolated conscience’ and single-issue reform mentality which can easily sow a partisan and sectarian spirit. But it’s also true that discernment can be ‘noisy’,3 can integrate and purify vigorous debate and conflict, lobbying and gossip – we are human beings, not angels! Interestingly, Francis himself noted of the Amazon Synod that while it could not in the end rise to the level of discernment on the contested issues of married priests and female deacons (a sign of which was that, unlike in the Synod on the Family, the different sides remained as fixed in their views at the end of the process as they had been at the beginning), nonetheless what occurred was a ‘rich, productive and even necessary parliament’.4 And so, he is saying, let the debate continue, let us ask God’s grace to raise it to the level of true communal discernment, so that the urgent questions it addresses may soon be resolved.
Boldness of Speech
Meanwhile, however, we cannot ask Catholics in Ireland to enter a lengthy consultative process, investing themselves in this synodal pathway, and, at the same time, tell them that they can’t speak their minds, can’t exercise that parrhesia (boldness of speech) which Pope Francis so constantly recommends. This would be counter-productive. We are looking to discern the ‘sense of faith’, confident that it is there we find the leadings of the Holy Spirit, and we need to take all means to ensure that this happens. It is certainly true that on contested issues like the ones mentioned, we all need to be patient as well as engaged: these issues affect not just the Irish but the universal Church, and must await an authoritative final judgement from the universal church. Nonetheless what happens in Ireland can be of enormous significance in bringing about the kind of judgement and teaching which can be received in peace by the faithful, when the conclusions of the Irish discernment are fed into the wider Church.
Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit priest and theologian.
Dr O’Hanlon lectured for several years at the Milltown Institute, Dublin. He has written extensively on Church reform and on the role of the Church in the public square. His latest book is The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis – A Synodal Catholic Church in Ireland? (Dublin: Messenger, 2019, revised edition). This is an edited version of the full article which is published in The Synodal Pathway: Where Rhetoric meets Reality, published by Columba Books and reproduced here with kind permission.