Revelation, Discovery, and the Sensus Fidei

Cardinal Kasper continues to make provocative statements ahead of the coming Synod. His public discourse with Cardinal Burke has, either by its own accord or with significant encouragement by the media, become almost embarrassing to behold. But, as with every disagreement, there emerges an opportunity for us to grow in our faith. Cardinal Kasper offers one such opportunity when he justifies his position with the concept of the sensum fidelium. Here is the quote in context:

But, first, we live in an open and pluralistic society and it is good for the Church to have an open discussion, like the one we had at the Second Vatican Council. It is also good for the image of the Church, because a closed up Church is not a healthy Church. Secondly, when we debate about marriage and family, we have to listen to the people that live this reality. There is a sensum fidelium. It cannot be decided only from the top, from the hierarchy of the Church, especially you cannot quote old texts from the past century, we have to observe today’s situation, make a discernment of the Spirit, and reach concrete results. I believe this is the Pope’s approach, while many others depart from the doctrine and use then a more deductive method.”

Also known as the sensus fidei, this “instinct” of the Church and Her members is oft misunderstood. To be sure, it is not the most straightforward of concepts. It is important to understand rightly, though, to ensure that lay empowerment is encouraged in a healthy way.

Let’s look at it in terms of revelation versus discovery. By virtue of the sacrament of baptism we are called to be prophets and evangelizers of Christ. The sensus fidei is the “instinct” of the faithful to discern the truths of faith in order for us to fulfill our prophetic mission. This discernment is not discovery; it is recognition of what already exists in revelation. Catholics do not profess the existence of revelation after the death of the Apostles. That means that everything there is to know about the faith has already been presented to us. All of it. Both the Magisterium and the lay faithful, through the same baptism, are able to recognize truth in faith when presented with it; likewise with error. The task of the Magisterium and the sensus fidei is to understand what we know in better detail, by the grace afforded to each.

The belief that the Blessed Virgin Mary was immaculately conceived is the best known example of the sensus fidei at work, and helps us understand the basic components at work in the concept. Despite no overt reference in Scripture (and when I say “overt”, I mean a statement like “MARY WAS CONCEIVED WITHOUT SIN” or something equally blatant) , the instinct of the faithful encouraged Catholics down through the centuries to venerate Mary in this special way. The lack of a precise theological justification for this belief was not a deterrent, because theology degrees are not a prerequisite for religious intelligence.

The sensus fidei works precisely because it is a faithful response by the baptized to the grace of faith given by the Holy Spirit. Nowhere is this made more obvious than in  Luke 24:44-49 and Acts 2:1-18. Before Christ’s ascension, He gives the Apostles the exact knowledge they struggled to grasp before the crucifixion. Despite having the inside scoop, they are not allowed to go forth into the world until the Holy Spirit is sent to them. What does the Holy Spirit do? He enables the Apostles to preach the same message in the form that each hearer will understand best. Same message, different delivery. Emphasis on same message.

Cardinal Kasper’s use of the sensus fidei turns the concept from a recognition of what already exists (though not always readily apparent) into one of discovery, of creation and innovation. It is no longer about effectively delivering the same message as Aquinas, Bonaventure, Augustine, Jerome, Paul, and Peter. It encourages looking beyond the old message and seeking a new one. The sensus fidei implied by Cardinal Kasper is set up as a competing voice with the Magisterium, where both carry equal weight without necessarily having the same message.

This sets up a paradox that will domino from serious to heretical very quickly. Pitting the faithful against the Magisterium in this way implies an equality of charisms which does not exist in the Church. Professing that the Magisterium has a teaching authority that the average layperson does not isn’t about superiority or power; it is the simple acknowledgement of the basic aspects of the Nicene Creed: that we are one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. And in all honesty, when one begins to mess with apostolic succession, the invalidity of the Catholic Church as a whole is the inevitable conclusion.

I’m not suggesting that Cardinal Kasper is intending this direction; I’m sure he’d be horrified at the thought. Here’s the thing, though. If a sizable portion of the world claimed the authority of the sensus fidei to demand that 2+2 now must equal 5, mathematicians will not acquiesce. Not because they don’t feel like it, but because they are literally incapable of changing the reality that 2+2=4. That is the essence of what Cardinal Kasper is suggesting here by invoking the sensum fidelium as justification for considering pastoral changes that could come into conflict with Catholic doctrine.

2 thoughts on “Revelation, Discovery, and the Sensus Fidei

  1. I’ve got some great stuff from the early Church on divorce and remarriage. The Eastern Church actually mandated divorce in some cases, but were cagey on remarriage, except with pagans. (Marriages to pagans didn’t count.) But my all time favorite has to be John Calvin, who justified remarriage because, by all accounts, the unfaithful spouse should be stoned to death. And it isn’t the innocent spouse’s fault that civil magistrates aren’t doing their jobs! 😉


    1. I love Calvin’s enthusiasm. 😉
      That being said, divorce has never been the issue with the Church. I’m not sure where people get the idea that Catholics believe divorce is a sin, but anyway. I’ve been trying to get my hands on more Eastern documentation about second marriages and the theology behind it. All I have is some background on John Chrysostom which brings up interesting points. From what little I know, however, I think that there are places of doctrinal thin ice in the Eastern practice that are good enough to be acceptable for that Rite, but leave too many “ifs” and instances of rose-glasses cases for our Western linear/legal mentality.


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