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.