At Arms Length
Harmony and Conflict Between the Magisterium and the Sensus Fidei
The Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium teaches: "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." The role of the Magisterium, as the "sacred teaching authority", is to guide the People of God in their reception or "traditioning" of the Deposit of Faith. However, if the role of the Magisterium is emphasized at the expense of the sensus fidei, with the clergy keeping, as St. John Henry Newman wrote, "the laity at arms length... the laity [will] become disgusted and become infidel, and only two parties [will] exist, both ultras in opposite directions." Because the Magisterium, headed by the Pope, is infallible in its authoritative teaching, and the whole of the Faithful is infallible in its consent to and reception of this teaching, a clear grasp of the relationship between the Magisterium and the sensus fidei is necessary to properly understand the Tradition and authority of the Church in order to avoid the discrepancies between the episcopacy and the laity described by St. John Henry Newman.
To explain the interplay between the Magisterium and the sensus fidei, it is important to first define the sensus fidei and its related terms, most importantly the sensus fidelium, intellectus fidei, consensus fidelium and sensus fidei fidelis. The Catholic Church consists of all those who participate in its sacramental communion, in union with the pope and the bishops, sharing the same credal faith, as well as those Christians who are “not yet in full communion” with the Catholic Church but who nevertheless are “incorporated into Christ”. (CCC 818) However, the Church is also described as including both the teaching Church (ecclesia docens) and learning Church (ecclesia discerns); these are not in a “strict separation,” as the laity, the clergy and the hierarchical Magisterium cooperate in the prophetic teaching office of Christ, according to their unique vocations.
The role of the Magisterium in guiding the faithful, interpreting Scripture and transmitting Tradition “in the name of Jesus Christ” (CCC 85) occurs within a process which involves the reception and living out of this teaching by the faithful; the baptismal “anointing of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 91) whereby the faithful are able to discern what constitutes authentic Tradition and to then grow in holiness through its adherence is described by the Church as the sensus fidei, “an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them to recognise and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false. That supernatural instinct, intrinsically linked to the gift of faith received in the communion of the Church, is called the sensus fidei, and it enables Christians to fulfil their prophetic calling.” This supernatural instinct is clarified further by its application to the individual believer (the sensus fidei fidelis), and to the entirety of the Church (sensus fidelium or consensus fidelium, the latter being a “convergence” of the two). An essential faculty by which the sensus fidei is exercised, after the kerygmatic assent to revelation by faith (what may be called the auditus fidei), is the intellectus fidei, the intellectual exploration and understanding of the contents of revelation which, according to St. Pope John Paul II, “enjoys an innate intelligibility, so logically consistent that it stands as an authentic body of knowledge. The intellectus fidei expounds this truth, not only in grasping the logical and conceptual structure of the propositions in which the Church's teaching is framed, but also, indeed primarily, in bringing to light the salvific meaning of these propositions for the individual and for humanity.” As preparation and training for these faculties, Christian philosophy plays an essential role.
Throughout the history of the revelation of God to his people, both the personal and communal or ecclesial dimensions of faith as the acclimation of revelation have been central within the economy of salvation. The process of God revealing himself to individuals, such as Abraham and Moses, or to small groups, like the Apostles, who then handed on revelation through authentic and authoritative teaching to those who opened themselves to God in faith, themselves becoming fitting receptors of revelation and evangelical witnesses to others, is called Tradition. The cooperative roles of the Magisterium and the sensus fidei are especially clear in the Council of Jerusalem from the Acts of the Apostles, which the magisterial document Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church describes as including “the whole community” summoned by the apostles, whose authoritative decision “pleased the whole community”. Although the Council was called by the apostles, and particularly St. Peter, the entirety of the Church was involved, and the magisterial teaching of the apostles and elders was promulgated “with the consent of the whole church” and received “with the joy of faith”. This exegesis highlights three points which are key to understanding the relationship between the Magisterium and the sensus fidei: the apostolic authority of the Magisterium, the contribution of the sensus fidei to the development of doctrine and the faithful acceptance of magisterial teaching.
Tradition, as the handing on of God’s revelation through history, is not left to the arbitrary interpretation of each Christian disciple, but rather is performed with the authority of the apostles, an authority derived from Christ, exercised in his name and given to the episcopacy – the bishops of the Church – who succeeded the apostles. (CCC 85) Just as the authoritative teaching of the apostles was accepted by the whole of the Church and made in conjunction with both the elders and the entire community, so the apostolic doctrine of the Magisterium is a Rule of Faith, a standard and guide for the faithful to exercise the sensus fidei in the determination of that which is in accordance with God’s revelation. The faithful, through their supernatural instinct derived from the prophetic anointing of Baptism, thus do not determine doctrine by “private interpretation” but rather use the guidance of the Magisterium to measure what they should accept or reject. While theologians exercise an essential role in the Church, helping the faithful to grow in understanding of the sources of theology (loci theologici), particularly Scripture and Tradition, and thus perfecting the intellectus fidei and informing the Magisterium in its decisions, they do not possess apostolic magisterial authority, and so the sensus fidei should and eventually will reject the ideas of theologians which are not in accordance with the Deposit of Faith.
As the faithful consent to the doctrine of the Magisterium according to its apostolic authority as a Rule of Faith, the sensus fidei can also bring out or highlight elements of revelation. This activity, expressed especially through the work of theologians, exegetes, homilists and catechists, as well as in popular devotions, pious traditions and sacred art, acts as another Rule of Faith for the Church, that of the sensus fidei which, alongside its work of realizing doctrine through faithful reception, can offer insights which the Magisterium may then discern, judge and even recognize as part of the Deposit of Faith and thus promulgate as official doctrine. This has occurred multiple times in Church history, most clearly in the faithful’s upholding of the divinity of Christ against the infidelity of the bishops during the Arian crisis, as explicated by St. John Henry Newman, and the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Pope Pius XI. In this way, when the faithful give their universal consent to a teaching which is taught with apostolic authority by the Magisterium to be held in faith, the sensus fidei acts infallibly through the Holy Spirit; this is demonstrated especially by the Councils of the Church which, as the full consensus of the faithful (consensus fidelium), could not err, as St. Robert Bellarmine explained.
Similarly, the sensus fidei contributes to the development of doctrine, particularly explicated by St. John Henry Newman and recognized by Vatican II. As the faithful reflect upon revelation, making insights into it and living it out in time, the Church’s understanding of doctrine becomes clearer and more applicable to the circumstances of each period and region; in this way, doctrine does not change per se, nor can ideas be officially accepted by the judgment of the Magisterium if they contradict the dogmas of the Church. Nevertheless, as taught by St. John Henry Newman, these insights, which in the intellectus fidei may even incorporate non-Christian concepts such as ideas from philosophy, constitute a real development of doctrine, and the laity, particularly theologians and catechists, as well as the clergy and the whole of the faithful participate in this work, which cannot be accomplished without the validation of the Magisterium. Newman further distinguished his theory from earlier models, which emphasized the need to draw logical inferences between the Deposit of Faith and magisterial doctrine, and instead “attributed greater causal influence to the historical and theological conflicts and pressures which have forced the Church to reflect or to react at times in a way more instinctive than deliberate.”
Within the doctrinal work of the Church, including the interpretation and validation of the Magisterium, the sensus fidei as a Rule of Faith does not indicate that all the faithful will be in perfect consensus or will have no conflicts with the Magisterium itself. As St. John Henry Newman observed, when the Magisterium treats itself as the sole doctrinal authority in the Church which merely dictates to the faithful what they are to believe and practice, ignoring their insights or consent, this can create disruptions which inhibit the consensus fidelium and the development of doctrine, requiring further deliberation by the Magisterium and the faithful as a whole and often leading to heresy, schism and a general lack of joyous assimilation of Church teaching in faith by the community. However, in diagnosing these conflicts, it is important to note that “the faithful” who constitute the sensus fidelium and exercise the sensus fidei include those who are truly “faithful,” who give the submission of faith and adherence of the intellectus fidei to the teachings of the Magisterium with the proper dispositions, including the use of right reason and a life of holiness nourished by prayer, the sacraments and Scripture, as well as intending “the edification of the Church.” Those who willfully and perniciously dissent, particularly heretics and schismatics, whether they claim to be faithful Catholics or not, sever their “authentic participation” in the sensus fidei by their rebelliousness and thus should be fittingly answered and disciplined by the Magisterium to prevent their misleading of the faithful through scandal and false doctrine. Only the faithful who freely submit to Tradition and the Magisterium can give the universal consent necessary to infallibly exercise the sensus fidei and constitute an authentic sensus fidelium. As the Church teaches, “The subjects of the sensus fidei are members of the Church who hear and respond to the urging of St Paul: ‘make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind’,” and as Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin writes, “[A] true sense of the Faith is displayed by those who are authentically faithful, not simply those who are baptized.” Nevertheless, even those Christians who do not participate in the sensus fidei still constitute the Church, and so their errors effectively disrupt the consensus fidelium and demand correction over time; for this reason, the exercise of the sensus fidei is called “the process of reception”. As St. John Henry Newman reminded, it is not so much that “infallibility is in the ‘consensus fidelium,’ but that that ‘consensus’ is an indicium or instrumentum to us of the judgment of that Church which is infallible.”
In today’s world, an exemplary doctrinal issue highlighting the conflict which may arise between the Magisterium and the sensus fidei is the form of the Mass. After the Mass of Paul VI was introduced following the Second Vatican Council, effectively replacing the Tridentine Mass (though not abrogating it), those of the faithful who retained a love for the old liturgical form and who were subsequently scandalized or distressed by the countless abuses that cropped up in the promulgation of what these “traditionalists” would come to call the Novus Ordo Mass, desired to continue practicing the Tridentine liturgy. Many traditionalists did so, sometimes in rebellion against the discipline of the Church, while others waited years for official permission from the Magisterium. Over the succeeding decades, the allowance and popularity of the Tridentine liturgy, what Pope Benedict XVI would come to call the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite Mass, one of two “forms” of the Latin rite alongside the Ordinary Form of the Mass of Paul VI, in his motu proprio Summorum pontificum, fluctuated, but the conflict in the Church became more pronounced, as faithful from the bishops to the laity were divided on the issue and allegiance to one form of the Mass or the other came to indicate, for many, corresponding divergences on doctrinal adherence and political positions. As the popular rejection of Church doctrine among the faithful, especially the Real Presence of the Eucharist, the Church’s sexual and bioethical teachings and even in “almost unbearable distortions” in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, has increased exponentially, often with seemingly little correction by the Magisterium, many of the faithful who truly hold the Faith of the Church have felt led to the Extraordinary Form and the fidelity to Tradition which it represents for them, while others have come to disbelieve in the reliability of the Magisterium to the extent that they become “radical traditionalists” who reject the validity of the current papacy (sedevacantism) and the Second Vatican Council, or even join the Eastern Orthodox or another Christian community.
On the other hand, after Vatican II, many Catholics on all levels of the Church fell into the error which Pope Benedict XVI called “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” or what is popularly called the “Spirit of Vatican II;” this generally entailed the view that the Council corrected persistent “errors” in the Church, including what they saw as elitism or superstition in the liturgy, such as prolonged prayers and rituals, the use of Latin and celebrating ad orientem, as well as moral teachings, especially sexual prohibitions, and that more doctrinal “corrections” should be made. This viewpoint, contradicting the conciliar and post-conciliar teaching of the Magisterium and thus cut off from the sensus fidelium, has essentially become an extreme opposite of those ultra-traditionalists who reject Vatican II and the subsequent Magisterium. Today, for many of the faithful, especially those without convenient access to more traditional liturgies, the infidelity they frequently witness in the Ordinary Form and its attendants is a continual source of anxiety, confusion and disappointment. This, rather than the erroneous extremes, represents a true conflict between the Magisterium and the sensus fidei, disrupting the consensus fidelium and necessitating greater catechesis of the intellectus fidei, stricter discipline and clearer teaching from the Magisterium.
A more precise understanding of the relationship between the Magisterium and the sensus fidei, as well as the nature of the sensus fidei and its manifold forms and expressions, is essential to a full grasp of the Tradition of the Church and the ways by which it is preserved, explored and lived out in the lives of the faithful. Doing so also gleans insights into disruptions which can occur in the Church, on all levels, and can give means for correcting them, in order that Catholics may lead themselves and others closer to Christ and thus fulfill his command to “make disciples of all nations”. (Mt 28:19)
 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium (21 November 1964), §12.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2020), 93. Kindle.
 Aidan Nichols, The Shape of Catholic Theology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 225.
 Wilfrid Ward, The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, vol. 2 (London: 1912), 397-398, quoted in Aidan Nichols, The Shape of Catholic Theology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 224.
 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church (29 June 2007), second question.
 International Theological Commission, Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church (2014), §4; see CCC 904.
 Sensus fidei, §2.
 Sensus fidei, §3.
 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio (14 September 1998), §65.
 Fides et ratio, §66.
 CCC glossary entry “Tradition”.
 Sensus fidei, §17.
 Chad Ripperger, The Binding Force of Tradition (Sensus Traditionis Press, 2013), 21-23.
 2 Peter 9:20-21, The Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Catholic Edition (Washington, DC: The Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1965-1966), at BibleGateway, www.biblegateway.com; see CCC 93.
 Nichols, Shape of Theology, 178; cf. SF 31.
 Sensus fidei, §82.
 Ripperger, Binding Force, 23-24.
 Nichols, Shape of Theology, 225; see CCC 250.
 Sensus fidei, §30, §38.
 Sensus fidei, §32.
 Sensus fidei, §46.
 Fides et ratio, §77.
 Andrew Meszaros, “Some Neo-Scholastic receptions of Newman on doctrinal development,” Gregorianum 97, no. 1 (2016), 126.
 Nichols, Shape of Theology, 224.
 Jimmy Akin, Teaching with Authority (El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers, 2018), §599; see Sensus fidei, §88-105.
 Sensus fidei, §88.
 Sensus fidei, §103.
 Akin, Teaching with Authority, §600.
 Akin, Teaching with Authority, §597; see Sensus fidei, §80.
 John Henry Newman, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, §2, 2, at Newman Reader, www.newmanreader.org.
 Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter motu proprio On the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970 Summorum pontificum (7 July 2007), 1.
 Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of the Apostolic Letter motu proprio Summorum pontificum.
 Benedict XVI, Summorum pontificum, 1.
 Brendan Hodge, “Special Report: The Catholic hot buttons,” at The Pillar (12 November 2021), www.pillarcatholic.com.
 Kathleen Kirk, The Sensus Fidelium with Special Reference to the Thought of Blessed John Henry Newman (Leominster, UK: Gracewing, 2010), 2.
 Francis, Letter to the Bishops of the Whole World, that Accompanies the Apostolic Letter motu proprio Traditiones custodes (16 July 2021).
 Benedict XVI, introduction to Vatican II: The Essential Texts (New York: Image, 2012), 4.