On “Consulting the Faithful” in Preparation for the 2014 Family Synod

I have been pondering on the significance of the Holy Father’s recent declaration that “The Church must pay attention to the sensus fidelium, or ‘sense of the faithful’, … but never confuse that sense with popular opinion on matters of faith.” He was addressing members of the International Theological Commission, a “Vatican advisory body.” The Magisterium, said the Pope (ie, he himself), has the “duty to pay attention to what the Spirit tells the Church through authentic manifestations of the ‘sense of the faithful’.” But he insisted that this “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.’”

The point is, of course, that it is precisely that kind of confusion—of majority, in other words, secularized, opinion with what the Church ought to be teaching—in which his conservative critics have been accusing him of being mired in; and towards which his liberal admirers have been desperately hoping he is heading. One focus of their hopes has been the synod on the family planned for next October, when liberals hope that the discussions will lead to major changes in the teachings of the Church. They are particularly excited by the announcement that in preparation for this meeting, the Vatican has asked national bishops’ conferences around the world to conduct a wide-ranging consultation of Catholic opinion on church teachings on contraception, same-sex marriage and divorce. Take the following, for example, from the Queering the Church website:

This is hugely significant. Initial reports of discussions about the synod focussed on its likely concerns surrounding divorce, such as procedures for annulment, and more sensitive pastoral responses to people who have been affected by marital breakdown in their own lives. For a major two week conference though, it was obvious from the start that much more than divorce would be at stake. The consultation announcement makes this explicit, with specific reference also to contraception, and same-sex marriage. In effect, this is the start of a process which could (and should) lead to a comprehensive reassessment of Catholic teaching on sexuality and family life.

The same writer adds that “The notion of the ‘sensus fideii’ [the what?] is central to a proper understanding of Catholic teaching, but not widely known. In essence, it states that unless a particular matter of doctrine has been accepted and received by the Church as a whole, it cannot be valid. That’s a great simplification.” You bet it is. Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say on the matter:

92  The whole body of the faithful … cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.

93  By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium) … receives … the faith, once for all delivered to the saints … The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.” (My emphasis.)

Note the emphasis here on the guidance of the Magisterium. This whole discussion reminds me strongly of the way in which Newman answered suspicions that he was himself doctrinally dicey on precisely the question of “consulting the faithful.”

In those days, it was the Pope whose suspicions had been aroused; we are now in a situation in which some are preposterously suspicious of the Pope himself on precisely this question. Like Pope Francis, Newman, too, made it clear that the sensus fidelium wasn’t a matter of the Church being bound by what people happened to think: consulting the faithful was finding out what they did think. He had got into trouble for defending the following statement in a periodical called The Rambler: “in the preparation of a dogmatic definition, the faithful are consulted, as lately in the instance of the Immaculate Conception.”

“Now,” comments Newman, “two questions bearing upon doctrine have been raised on this sentence … viz, first, whether it can, with doctrinal correctness, be said that an appeal to the faithful is one of the preliminaries of a definition of doctrine; and secondly, granting that the faithful are taken into account, still, whether they can correctly be said to be consulted.” He then goes on to explain what he actually means by defending the Rambler’s statement: and in doing so, he preveniently gives a perfect explanation of what the present “consultation of the faithful,” via the world’s bishops’ conferences, is actually all about.

Doubtless, he says, “if a divine were expressing himself formally, and in Latin, he would not commonly speak of the laity being ‘consulted’ … because the technical, or even scientific, meaning of the word ‘consult’ is to ‘consult with,’ or to ‘take counsel.’ But the English word ‘consult,’ in its popular and ordinary use, is not so precise and narrow in its meaning; most considerable deference was paid to the ‘sensus fidelium;’ their opinion and advice indeed was not asked, but their testimony was taken, their feelings consulted; it 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 … 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.” He goes on to add that “the fidelium sensus and consensus is a branch of evidence which it is natural or 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.” He later gives the example of the Church’s definition of its teaching on purgatory: “most considerable deference,” he says, “was paid to the ‘sensus fidelium;’ their opinion and advice indeed was not asked, but their testimony was taken, their feelings consulted.”

That’s what’s happening in preparation for next year’s synod on the family. The opinion and advice of the faithful is not being asked, in any sense that it will form or influence the content of the Church’s teachings on the family. But the testimony of the people is being taken, its feelings consulted. So, how the Church’s teachings on matters to do with family are expressed in the future, how it will act pastorally, may well be influenced by this consultation.

But, says Pope Francis, the sensus fidelium isn’t an opinion poll. In other words, there will be no major changes in the teachings of the Church on questions to do with marriage or sexuality. None at all. OK?

Editor’s note: This column first appeared December 18, 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: AP /Alessandra Tarantino)

Dr. William Oddie


Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

  • Steven Jonathan

    Thank you Dr. Oddie for some sanity!
    The Catechism-907
    “In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, [lay people] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons.”
    The concept of grammar no longer includes the study of etymology. Ideologues make a mess of this! They stop right after the words “they have a right to make their opinion known.” However, this is a duty properly belonging to the faithful.

  • DXM

    My sense, as a faithful Catholic, is that the times are demonstrating the profound wisdom of the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. Those who would change those teachings are not being faithful to the Magisterium. Theirs is the the sense of the unfaithful.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    To gain sensus fidelium, one must first separate the faithful from the dissenters.

    • John Uebersax

      Well said!

      • TheodoreSeeber

        I have yet to see “dissent in a more constructive spirit”. Dissent, by its very nature, is postmodern deconstruction; it is deconstructive, not constructive. I find it hard to imagine a case of dissent being CONstructive. Positive yes, but constructive, no. But then again, I don’t buy into the myth of progressivism either. Technology and spirituality seem to be inversely proportional to me.

    • Diego Fernando Ramos Flor

      And we should take account on the dissenters approach, to know how to announce the Kerygma to them (shouldn’t we?)

      • TheodoreSeeber

        I’m very bad at that. autism and pastoral do not mix.

  • Don Campbell

    I fear that this synod is going to open a massive can of worms. I do not think it is going to be healthy or helpful for the bishops to have a big confab concerning all the family-related issues (mostly related to sexual morality) identified in the Pope’s survey. There will be vehement disagreement and dissention among the bishops, with every Catholic and secular constituency doing all they can to influence the outcome of the debate. It will be ugly.

    • Diego Fernando Ramos Flor

      If you’re right Don, and I’m starting to think you are, it’s time for it to be ugly, it’s time for it to shed some light on dissents, and make disagreements visible. After all, truth will set us free.
      Talking about things hidden, I’m profoundly astonished that there seems to be a “lite” edition of an Encyclical, acoording to http://www.caelumetterra.com/cet_backissues/article.cfm?ID=56 and http://vox-nova.com/2013/12/16/pope-francis-reiterates-catholic-condemnation-of-libertarianism-and-causes-heartburn-in-america/ . No matter how ugly it is, it must be faced. Let’s pray the Lord for strenght and fidelity to face it.

      • Don Campbell

        Diego – The linked documents seem to focus on economics. I am not concerned about Pope Francis’ economics. He is smart; he knows that 75% of the world’s people are poor. If they view the Church as favoring the rich and powerful at their expense, it’s a non-starter for them. What I am concerned about is the can of worms that will be opened by a free-for-all discussion of virtually every aspect of sexual morality that this synod is likely to devolve into.

    • Deacon Ed Peitler

      You’re absolutely correct. What you say is especially true when you realize that Satan is already operating within the Church. No, what the Church needs is purification and a call to acts of penance from our dear Holy Father.

  • publiusnj

    The sense of the faithful is easily manipulable if it is taken to be a poll of current sentiment on a particular moral issue. In the US, the nearest thing we have gotten to a “pre-manipulation sense of the faithful” (if one includes both Catholics and other christians) on “gay marriage” was in the passage by the US Congress of the Defense of Marriage Act after the public reacted so negatively to the Clinton Administration’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

    When the outrage was expressed, Clinton backed down and proposed DOMA and Democrats pooh-poohed the idea there could ever be “Gay Marriage.” That, though, didn’t stop the leftists from then pursuing a court route to Gay Marriage that resulted in 2003 in the Massachusetts Decision. Once again, the sense of the faithful was expressed in 32 referendums unanimously voting against “Gay Marriage” (GM). That didn’t stop several more courts from ignoring the sense of the voters and with enough state courts permitting GM (maybe 5 or 6 by 2011), the leftists in control of the NY Government then pushed through the first legislative approval of GM that could not be undone by a Referendum as California’s legislation had been. At that point, the manipulation had been achieved and polls started to show greater approval of GM. Then the floodgates burst with the USS Supreme Court’s ruling and, as a consequence, people who profess the very same traditional morality which had been the basis for law throughout the first 2 centuries and more of this country’s existence are being censored and pigeon-holed as “anti-gay” “homophobic” haters. Much of the public now goes along with such dictatorial moves. The sense of the faithful needs to be read in a calmer, more thoughtful venue in which manipulations are filtered out and deliberation on very deep questions is undertaken.

  • hombre111

    If I remember an old chapter in Church history correctly, “The Church went to bed Catholic, and woke up Arian.” The books I read credited St. Athanasius and the faith of the lay people for keeping the Church on its true Trinitarian course.

    • jacobhalo

      Read the St. Athanasius Creed. It begins with”Whoever wishes to be saved, needs above all to hold the Catholic faith; unless each one preserves this whole and inviolate, he will without a doubt perish in eternity.”
      This goes along with the infallible doctrine, “no salvation outside the church.”
      You will never hear these statements uttered by the post-Vatican clerics. I wonder if the post-Vatican popes said these words to an ecumenical meeting.

    • Deacon Ed Peitler

      If you cannot support the teaching of the Church on contraception do us all a big favor and take an early retirement from priestly ministry. Lay married people have suffered for too long at the hands of duplicitous priests like yourself. You are doing no favor to married couples by winking at contraception. You are not married and do not know firsthand the negative impact contraception has on marriages.

      • hombre111

        As a priest, I have to follow my own conscience, and I cannot pile huge burdens onto the shoulders of other people to carry. The simple fact is, the Church’s teaching on contraception has not been received by the majority of Catholics. All the arm twisting fails to convince. This is a huge blow to the authority of the Church.
        Fortunately, almost nobody brings up the “sin” of birth control in confession. They follow their adult consciences, and the Church is full of loving, prayerful Catholics who do just that. But yesterday, I was helping out with Advent confessions in a parish full of Mexican agricultural workers who barely earn more than minimum wage. A pregnant woman came in, her face full of anguish. This was her sixth child, she said. Did she have to have a seventh? As far as I know, there are no Spanish resources in my area to guide these simple people through the intricacies of NFP. So, in that moment of painful truth, what was I supposed to say? The company line? I did not want a bolt of lightning to come down out of heaven and blast me dead.

        • rcgirl_ma

          then you actually are one of the perfect people to comment on the sets of questions in the preparatory document. and i’m being serious, not flippant in saying that.
          question set #1 and #7 being particularly relevant to the case of the woman you mentioned above. please consider making her voice and your own pastoral difficulties known, so they CAN be addressed.

        • Gilbert Jacobi

          When I was interviewed by my parish priest prior to marrying, I felt I had to ask him what the church taught re birth control. My dilemma was, I sincerely wanted to be married in the Church, and wanted children, but was dead set on having a child-free period at the outset of our marriage, for a number of reasons not necessary to list here. So came the moment when I had to broach the subject to the priest, and I was one nervous would-be groom. What would he say, this man who just happened to be the priest on duty, who I was about to allow to decide on what I saw as the difference between a marriage involving immediate and irrevocable grave responsibilities and one that allowed for some fun first?

          Father K. caught my drift and sized up my dilemma right away, and here, as best as I can recall it, is what he told me: “The teaching of the church on this is guided by or falls under the control of what is known as Roman Law. Roman Law describes and desires the ideal, and also concedes and takes into consideration that humans are weak and can rarely live up to the ideal. The ideal in this is that contraception be avoided.” I forget exactly how I responded, but I left the rectory reassured that although I must at least examine my conscience God would understand if I concluded that what would be best for us was to postpone starting a family for some undetermined period. Is this similar to your understanding and presumably what you based your counsel to the pregnant woman on?

    • Guest

      The committee was formed before Paul VI became Pope. All the bishops in the world at that time cannot outweigh all the bishops that came before them. The dissenting liberals are mere relativists.

    • Anthony Zarrella

      The Pope may very well have “stacked” his committee… but he needn’t have done so. His decision alone could have been binding. So, if he could have bound the Church *without* the assent of the committee or any of the other bishops, then he had the rightful authority to do so *over their objections.* Read up on papal authority – it’s quite clear in Church doctrine that the authority of the Pope is not “at the sufferance” of the bishops, nor does it depend in any way on their consent (except in the sense that they chose the Pope in the first place).

  • poetcomic1

    But what if… the faithful are not faithful?

  • Maggie Sullivan

    Can anyone help me with this question. The German Bishops have said the Pope supports them in giving communion to divorced and remarried people who are in irregular marriages. And in fact the German Bishops are preparing to change church teaching on this issue and the Pope has not stopped them.

    As Mr. Oddie says, ” But, says Pope Francis, the sensus fidelium isn’t an opinion poll. In other words, there will be no major changes in the teachings of the Church on questions to do with marriage or sexuality. None at all. OK?”

    It seems to me the German bishops have done this already and the Pope has not stopped them?

    • jacobhalo

      The pope does not support the German bishops in giving communion to divorced and remarried people. This pope and the popes since Vatican II are weak. They don’t have the guts to spell out Church doctrine. They want to be inclusive so they don’t utter the negatives of church doctrines. They have become politically correct like the rest of society.

  • John

    Why have this consultation anyway? As someone said below, it will just add to the confusion. Just tell the world what the existing teachings are – loud and clear! It’s really not that hard, Pope Francis!

  • NE-Catholic

    This pope appears to very much enjoy playing with ‘fire’ – multi-lingual, except in English, he cares little to assure the ‘correct’ translation of his thoughts into clear, comprehensible statements.

    Instead, he prefers to allow numerous ‘authorized’ spokesmen to ‘clarify, restate, correct, adjust’ the inevitable and presumably mistranslation/statement of his thoughts. This wouldn’t matter except the result is a cacophony of opinion and confusion. If everyone is allowed, nay, encouraged to read their private thoughts into the meaning of his statements (which his cavelier attitude and own statements appear to encourage.) Repeated protestations that submission and guidance from the Magisterium is necessitated to avoid heresy, sounds like self-serving fabrication when the head honcho can’t be bothered not present his thoughts clearly and succinctly.
    Then, who needs these ‘experts’ if all they speak is babble?

    He pontificates (in the truest sense) on many of the most critical and controversial topics of Catholicism, giving apparent comfort to those who challenge and mock traditional teachings.

    Now, he wants a forum of what will be widely seen as a request to identify the most ‘popular’ changes to traditionally teachings in morality? And, he puts an episcopacy in charge while loading up the American contingent with the likes Cardinal Wuerl, whose major ‘claim to fame’ lies in his willingness to publicly, provocatively present Holy Communion (are allowed to captilize?) to ‘Catholic’ politicians no matter how loudly, aggressively they promote, support and defend killing the unborn (see: http://spectator.org/articles/57167/reaping-wuerl-wind); even as he ousts those who embrace a more conservative and traditional approach like Cardinal Burke.

    We need Pastoral guidance and instruction, not solipsism, manufactured controversy and obfuscation!

    • Deacon Ed Peitler

      You’ve called it accurately, NE Catholic.

  • Anthony Zarrella

    I note a major distortion in the quoted “Queering the Church” article, beyond the oversimplification.

    They *completely invert* sensus fidelium! The true doctrine is that *if* something is believed by all Catholics everywhere, *then* it is guaranteed to be valid. Those charlatans who wrote that article assert that *unless* something is believed by all Catholics, then it *isn’t* valid. That’s the exact opposite, and the very core of the attitude that wants to make “sensus fidelium” into “census fidelium”

  • rcgirl_ma

    The Synod on the Family – Preparatory Document, lists nine (9) sets of questions.

    While some dioceses have made these available for the laity to comment upon/answer, around the world, i would suggest that it is highly unlikely that a catholic unfamiliar with the actual documents of Vatican II or even just church teaching in general would be able to formulate an intelligent response. Hence, as much as “cafeteria” catholics might like to believe Pope Francis is open to changing doctrine, and some here fear it could ignite a firestorm of controversy, the Holy Spirit is in charge of things and Truth will prevail; esp when one can see what the inquiry is about. (i hope…)


    i have listed the questions below for those who may not have enough data use to follow the link:

    III. Questions

    The following series of questions allows the particular Churches to participate actively in the preparation of the Extraordinary Synod, whose purpose is to proclaim the Gospel in the context of the pastoral challenges facing the family today.

    1. The Diffusion of the Teachings on the Family in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Magisterium

    a) Describe how the Catholic Church’s teachings on the value of the family contained in the Bible, Gaudium et spes, Familiaris consortio and other documents of the post-conciliar Magisterium is understood by people today? What formation is given to our people on the Church’s teaching on family life?

    b) In those cases where the Church’s teaching is known, is it accepted fully or are there difficulties in putting it into practice? If so, what are they?

    c) How widespread is the Church’s teaching in pastoral programmes at the national, diocesan and parish levels? What catechesis is done on the family?

    d ) To what extent — and what aspects in particular — is this teaching actually known, accepted, rejected and/or criticized in areas outside the Church? What are the cultural factors which hinder the full reception of the Church’s teaching on the family?

    2. Marriage according to the Natural Law

    a) What place does the idea of the natural law have in the cultural areas of society: in institutions, education, academic circles and among the people at large? What anthropological ideas underlie the discussion on the natural basis of the family?

    b) Is the idea of the natural law in the union between a man and a woman commonly accepted as such by the baptized in general?

    c) How is the theory and practice of natural law in the union between man and woman challenged in light of the formation of a family? How is it proposed and developed in civil and Church institutions?

    d) In cases where non-practicing Catholics or declared non-believers request the celebration of marriage, describe how this pastoral challenge is dealt with?

    3. The Pastoral Care of the Family in Evangelization

    a) What experiences have emerged in recent decades regarding marriage preparation? What efforts are there to stimulate the task of evangelization of the couple and of the family? How can an awareness of the family as the “domestic Church” be promoted?

    b) How successful have you been in proposing a manner of praying within the family which can withstand life’s complexities and today’s culture?

    c) In the current generational crisis, how have Christian families been able to fulfill their vocation of transmitting the faith?

    d) In what way have the local Churches and movements on family spirituality been able to create ways of acting which are exemplary?

    e) What specific contribution can couples and families make to spreading a credible and holistic idea of the couple and the Christian family today?

    f) What pastoral care has the Church provided in supporting couples in formation and couples in crisis situations?

    4. Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations

    a) Is cohabitation ad experimentum a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage?

    b) Do unions which are not recognized either religiously or civilly exist? Are reliable statistics available?

    c) Are separated couples and those divorced and remarried a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage? How do you deal with this situation in appropriate pastoral programmes?

    d) In all the above cases, how do the baptized live in this irregular situation? Are they aware of it? Are they simply indifferent? Do they feel marginalized or suffer from the impossibility of receiving the sacraments?

    e) What questions do divorced and remarried people pose to the Church concerning the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation? Among those persons who find themselves in these situations, how many ask for these sacraments?

    f ) Could a simplification of canonical practice in recognizing a declaration of nullity of the marriage bond provide a positive contribution to solving the problems of the persons involved? If yes, what form would it take?

    g) Does a ministry exist to attend to these cases? Describe this pastoral ministry? Do such programmes exist on the national and diocesan levels? How is God’s mercy proclaimed to separated couples and those divorced and remarried and how does the Church put into practice her support for them in their journey of faith?

    5. On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex

    a) Is there a law in your country recognizing civil unions for people of the same-sex and equating it in some way to marriage?

    b) What is the attitude of the local and particular Churches towards both the State as the promoter of civil unions between persons of the same sex and the people involved in this type of union?

    c) What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?

    d) In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?

    6. The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages

    a) What is the estimated proportion of children and adolescents in these cases, as regards children who are born and raised in regularly constituted families?

    b) How do parents in these situations approach the Church? What do they ask? Do they request the sacraments only or do they also want catechesis and the general teaching of religion?

    c) How do the particular Churches attempt to meet the needs of the parents of these children to provide them with a Christian education?

    d) What is the sacramental practice in these cases: preparation, administration of the sacrament and the accompaniment?

    7. The Openness of the Married Couple to Life

    a) What knowledge do Christians have today of the teachings of Humanae vitae on responsible parenthood? Are they aware of how morally to evaluate the different methods of family planning? Could any insights be suggested in this regard pastorally?

    b) Is this moral teaching accepted? What aspects pose the most difficulties in a large majority of couple’s accepting this teaching?

    c) What natural methods are promoted by the particular Churches to help spouses put into practice the teachings of Humanae vitae?

    d) What is your experience on this subject in the practice of the Sacrament of Penance and participation at the Eucharist?

    e) What differences are seen in this regard between the Church’s teaching and civic education?

    f) How can a more open attitude towards having children be fostered? How can an increase in births be promoted?

    8. The Relationship Between the Family and the Person

    a) Jesus Christ reveals the mystery and vocation of the human person. How can the family be a privileged place for this to happen?

    b) What critical situations in the family today can obstruct a person’s encounter with Christ?

    c) To what extent do the many crises of faith which people can experience affect family life?

    9. Other Challenges and Proposals

    What other challenges or proposals related to the topics in the above questions do you consider urgent and useful to treat?