Are Vatican Officials ‘Feeling with the Church’?

Do you disagree with the hierarchy’s explication of a certain Church teaching? If so, then it is likely you misunderstand the teaching due to a lack of proper education, according to the Vatican-appointed International Theological Commission.  This thought was expressed in the Commission’s recent document, Sensus fidei’ in the Life of the Church.

The Commission is composed of theologians appointed by Pope Benedict XVI tasked with further understanding the concepts sensus fidei and sensus fidelium, defined in a  Catholic News Service article as “the capacity of individual of individual believers and of the church as a whole to discern the truth of faith.” Cindy Wooden explores the document further, quoting it at length:

“When a significant portion of the Catholic faithful ignore or reject a church teaching, it is often — but not always — a sign that social and cultural pressures are weakening their faith or that church leaders simply have not found a way to explain the teaching, said members of the International Theological Commission…

“Particularly drawing on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, members of the theological commission rejected the idea that Catholic laity are to blindly obey everything the pope and bishops tell them. However, the document emphasized the importance of assuming church leaders are correct, trying to understand the basis for their teaching…before claiming to be able to discern that a church teaching needs adjustment…

” ‘The sensus fidei also is essential in helping the church respond to modern problems and challenges because it gives “an intuition as to the right way forward amid the uncertainties and ambiguities of history, and a capacity to listen discerningly to what human culture and the progress of the sciences are saying,’ the document said.”

The document is respectful of lay people in its words, saying they have a “right to be heard.” Yet, it also urges scrutiny when the laity do voice their beliefs as those who dissent are, at times, responsible for “promoting deviations from the Christian faith, particularly on moral issues.” The hierarchy is only criticized for failing at explaining teachings which Catholics reject.

Several bloggers rightly criticized the document, released around the same time as the Instrumentum laboris for this fall’s Synod. Kelly Stewart, a former staff member of New Ways Ministry, blogged at the National Catholic Reporter:

“But defenders of sexual and reproductive orthodoxy seem to assume, again and again, that feminists, LGBT people, progressives, and many mainstream Catholics disagree with official teaching because they don’t know what they’re talking about. This assumption grounds the central argument of “Sensus Fidei”…

“So if most laypeople reject official teaching on a given issue, it must be because they don’t understand it. If they don’t understand it, it must be because of weak faith, cultural brainwashing, or poor catechesis…

” ‘Consideration’ and ‘consultation,’ it seems, are useful insofar as they help institutional church leaders more effectively explain our lives to us. Listening to laypeople isn’t about learning anything substantively new, then. It’s about learning how to talk differently about the same teachings. A way for church leaders to repackage widely rejected ideas and go on explaining gender to women, homosexuality to gays and lesbians, and marriage to married couples — whether or not they know what they’re talking about.”

Fellow blogger Ken Briggs writes in a similar vein:

“If you’re a Catholic who disagrees with something your church teaches, you’re invited by the hierarchy to examine what’s wrong with you…The idea that intelligent, well schooled Catholics maturely and soundly examine the church’s logic and find it to be mistaken and/or contrary to their faith experience never enters the picture…

“What cripples this attempt to rationalize dissent from the outset is the prior assumption that officially declared teaching is virtually infallible. It must be protected like a mother grizzly her cubs. The ‘faithful’ may have lots of ‘sense’ but it’s not welcome if it clashes with unalterable Truth. It’s a show of supreme confidence, of course, but reveals a cavernous insecurity about the ability of doctrine explained even correctly to hold its own. If the judgment against women priests were so convincing, for example, why did Pope John Paul II forbid Catholics from even discussing it? Such matters give witness to the simple question that threatens the shaky thinking: ‘what if the dissenters are right?’ “

One criticism often leveled at more progressive Catholics is that they fail to “feel with the Church” or sentire cum ecclesia, an ambiguous term never clearly defined in such criticisms. Pope Francis recently included dissenting Catholics among three groups he considers “half-Catholics,” alongside rigid traditionalists, and those who use the Church for personal gain.To flip the question, I wonder whether the unnamed theologians behind this document, and Cardinal Gerard Mueller of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who signed off on the document, are themselves now “feeling with the Church.”The Church, as is often repeated, is the People of God, the vast majority of whom are lay people living in the larger world rather than in an ecclesiastical institution. More than ever, these lay people are educated and engaged in the life of the Church, and they are challenging traditional understandings of sexuality, marriage, family life from their positions of faith and experience. To ‘feel with the Church’ today should mean to take the sensus fidelium seriously and respect the laity’s rightful place in the teaching ministry of the Church.

The Commission’s document makes clear that some Vatican officials are not ready to listen and learn from the laity, seriously engaging our perspectives and even our disagreements in the common cause to understand and enact the Gospels. There is much good in the era of Pope Francis, but this document reveals just how much change is still needed.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

5 thoughts on “Are Vatican Officials ‘Feeling with the Church’?

  1. healthroks July 8, 2014 / 2:01 am

    Do they really believe that the majority of Catholics are ignorant in teachings and beliefs? I am not liking these “shut out” responses and am hoping God reaches the hierarchy to understand lay Catholics are NOT siding with the world or secular side because it’s easy or because of whatever they believe.

  2. pjnugent July 8, 2014 / 5:49 am

    Appointed by Benedict XVI? Their conclusion should be no surprise!

  3. James Robert Green July 8, 2014 / 9:19 am

    This explains how cultlike the institutional church has become. Less and less relevant in the eyes of the people it supposedly governs. jim

    From: “Bondings 2.0” Reply-To: “Bondings 2.0” Date: Tuesday, July 8, 2014 12:01 AM To: Jim Green Subject: [New post] Are Vatican Officials ŒFeeling with the Church¹?

    WordPress.com Bob Shine posted: “Do you disagree with the hierarchy’s explication of a certain Church teaching? If so, then it is likely you misunderstand the teaching due to a lack of proper education, according to the Vatican-appointed International Theological Commission. This though”

  4. Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM July 8, 2014 / 5:27 pm

    Sensus Fidei displays a complete lack of humility on the part of the hierarchy. Half Catholics, indeed!

  5. Larry July 9, 2014 / 2:45 pm

    If one, here the Church hierarchy, is not open to an honest dialogue then there is no sense in having a discussion with them. For the hierarchy to start out saying that any person who disagrees with the Church’s teaching is wrong and the only issue is how to show them they are wrong shows what a bubble they all live in.

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