On Contraception: What is the Sense of the Faithful?

What is the sense of the faithful regarding the morality of contraception?  For that matter, what is meant by the expression “the sense of the faithful”?

These questions came up for me earlier today, when I came across a blog post by Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, which had been linked from RealClearReligion.


The bishop’s blog post summarized the responses he had gotten from Catholics in his diocese to questions sent by the Vatican regarding “marriage and family life in our day.”  Some of what Bishop Lynch reported was troubling, since it showed a rather uncertain understanding of and commitment to Catholic teaching on the part of Catholics who regularly attend mass.  Of course, I don’t blame Bishop Lynch for that, since he was just reporting what was found, not endorsing it.  Indeed, he ended his report by pointedly not endorsing what he had found, noting that it indicated a need for the Church to do a better job serving not only the materially but also the “spiritually impoverished.”

Still, there was one formulation that I thought was confused and confusing, and I thought it worthwhile to point it out.  Here is the eighth point of the bishop’s summary:

8. Finally, on the matter of artificial contraception the responses might be characterized by the saying, “that train left the station long ago.”  Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium suggests the rejection of Church teaching on this subject.

When I read that and thought about it, it seemed self-contradictory.  Sensus fidelium means “the sense of the faithful.”  But how is it “the sense of the faithful” if it is in opposition to “Church teaching”?  If the integrity of the faith is to be preserved over time, doesn’t “the sense of the faithful” have to mean not just what a majority of Catholics happen to think now, but instead what is believed by the whole Church, in submission to the Church’s teaching?  Or, to put it more pointedly, Catholics who think that artificial contraception is morally OK are not, even if there are a lot of them, expressing the sense of the faithful.

The Church and her shepherds have been at pains in the past and more recently to make this clear.  For example, Lumen Gentium says the following (in section 12: I have italicized the portions I think are important for the point I am making):

The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life.

More recently, Pope Francis made this very point: the sensus fidelium is not the same thing as “majority opinion.”

It is worth keeping this clear, because if the Catholic faith were just whatever a majority of people calling themselves Catholics happened to believe at a given moment in history, then it would be all over the map and consequently not something serious people could take seriously.  Fortunately, this is not the case.


Categories:Church News Family Marriage Pro-Life

  • Desmond

    If a majority of “the faithful” deny that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, can they be Catholic? Would it not be best to refer to them as Lutherans or some other Protestant denomination?

  • Kevin

    While some areas of Catholic teaching are open for discussion, the sanctity of human life is not one such area.

  • Kevin

    Eric, the Church must teach the truth. If a majority of people do not accept the truth, then, despite how they refer to themselves, they are not Catholic. While some areas of Catholic teaching are open for discussion, the sanctity of human life is not one such area. Human life is not rendered unimportant because a majority think it. Your logic entails the denial of any truth because a given position can be undone simply by stating that a majority of people disagree with it.

  • John Fox

    Someone correct me where I’m wrong. But it was my understanding that if one felt that they had a belief in opposition to the Church that it could be okay if one had a “well formed conscious”. That WFC doesn’t just come from “eh, I’ll do this instead”, but from careful prayer, study, talk, etc. Not lightheartedly made. So if one looked at NFP, prayed, studied, talked to priests, and with one’s spouse determined that for them birth control was the right choice, then they could do that. But you cannot just say, “I’ll use birth control” and go about your business. Am I wrong?

    • Carson Holloway

      John, I don’t think that is correct. I believe the Church teaches that every person has an obligation to obey his own conscience. But it also defines a well-formed conscience as one that conforms to the Church’s moral teaching. Having given the matter some thought would make a person more responsible than somebody who just carelessly rejected the Church’s teaching, but that still wouldn’t mean that the conscience was in fact well formed. A person who rejected the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception might be less blameworthy (maybe even not to blame at all) if he or she was sincerely misled and not able to correct the mistakes in his or her thinking. But the actions would still be wrong, and there would still be bad consequences to them.

      • Vincent


        There is a tension here in Church teaching. Everything you say is correct, but we also must remember that Church history has more than a few examples where the Church has been saved from error by Catholics who followed their conscience rather than Church teaching. A clear recent example of this is John Courtney Murray. He wrote and spoke in favor of the Church fully endorsing the concept of religious freedom even though the Church at the time formally rejected that idea. He was being silenced by the Holy Office for holding this position when Vatican II happened. And of course the council fathers ended up endorsing the development of Church doctrine on this topic, and Fr Murray played a key role in drafting the council document on the subject. So, it seems that we can’t safely assume that anytime someone’s conscience contradicts Church teaching that his or her conscience is in error.

      • Eric Johnson

        What if the moral teaching of the Church is wrong? Why is that possibility not discussed? Why is that possibility denied? If a person’s conscience is telling them that the Church’s teaching is wrong, would it not be a breach of one’s own conscience to follow the teachings of the Church? A majority of Catholics already use birth control and are, in effect, saying that the Church is wrong. Pope Francis has, at the very least, implied that flexibility must be brought into Catholic concepts. Let’s hope he is successful.

  • Eric Johnson

    Clearly, the Church must adopt to the vast majority of its members or there is no Church. A church doesn’t exist without followers. God didn’t create religion regardless of whatever some religions may say. We. as humans, created religion as a way to form groups of like minded individuals and in some cases, to gain control over other human beings.

    • John Fox

      You sound non-Catholic and atheist, so I think it’s safe to ignore you.

    • faithandfamilyfirst

      No, you’ve got it backwards. A church that adopts the views of the vast majority of its believers is no church. Very simply, either the Catholic Church is the very Word of God or it is not. If it is, then what the Church teaches is, in fact, what God teaches. Therefore, there can be no adopting to suit the views of anyone. If the Church is not the creation of God, then, to take Flannery O’Connor slightly out of context, to hell with it.

    • Antonio A. Badilla

      I don’t know what your concept of the Catholic Church is, but by your standard, the Church would admit artificial means of birth control as a virtue, abortion as a woman’s right, fornication and adultery as the norm, euthanasia as compassion, gay marriage as a Sacrament, since that is what the culture wants. How is the Church to be a “sign of contradiction” like her Master, if it were to adapt to the sinfulness of the world?

    • Monica J.

      So if a majority of followers believe contrception is OK then the church should follow suit? No! I think not!

      I think you’re missing a very important point here…human beings NEED the Church, not the other way around.

  • Caro

    As a woman and girl who grew in a catholic home (cradle catholic), growingg up I was never taught that artificial contraception is morally wrong. I really feel that itnis the lack of education that as catholics we fail to investigate and truly know and understand what it means to be catholic.

    • John Fox

      Agreed, lack of NFP education *is* a problem. Priests should require NFP as part of the marriage prep and it should be properly taught in Catholic High Schools, and/or Life Teen.



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