Understanding Pope Francis – ‘The instinct for the truth of the Gospel’


By Michael M. Canaris

The International Theological Commission is a gathering of theologians personally chosen by the pope from around the world to advise him, the magisterium, and the entire body of the faithful on questions regarding doctrine and the interpretation of theological issues. My former mentor Cardinal Avery Dulles was a member for a term in the 1990s and often spoke with affection of working closely with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who was ex-officio president of the ITC during those years.

Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, recently authorized the publication of a document by the ITC entitled “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church.” It is a reflection on the “Sense of the Faith,” defined by the Commission as the “instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables [the faithful] to recognise and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false. ”

Today, the “sensus fidelium” is a much-discussed topic in theology. (The annual Catholic Theological Society of America has chosen it for the theme of its annual conference in June. I’ve been invited to Milwaukee to speak there on the particular text at hand). Often, Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium §12 is cited positively in arguing for an increased appreciation for the life and insights of the laity, obviously a much more integral part of the church than simply the remainder concept of the non-ordained who are there to “pay, pray and obey.”

The indispensability of the laity to the church is not a new concept. Blessed John Henry Newman was once reportedly asked what he as a priest and cardinal thought of the laity, to which he replied “Well, we’d look rather silly without them.”

The ITC text builds on this intellectual heritage, asserting clearly, “The whole church, laity and hierarchy together, bears responsibility for and mediates in history the revelation which is contained in the holy Scriptures and in the living apostolic tradition. The Second Vatican Council stated that the latter form ‘a single sacred deposit of the word of God’ which is ‘entrusted to the church,’ that is, ‘the entire holy people, united to its pastors’ (§67).”

In earlier times, a distinction was often drawn between the ecclesia docens (teaching church) and the ecclesia discens (learning church). Recognizing the continuing distinct roles and mandates of the magisterium, theologians, and the faithful, and with full understanding that an individual person may very well be a part of more than one of these groups, the ITC cites Yves Congar as influential in recognizing that they all constitute an organic unity.

It is the entire church, not a particular subset of people in it, that receives the Gospel, the ongoing call to conversion, and the deposit of faith (though the text maintains that it is the magisterium’s unique role “to nurture, discern, and judge the “sensus fidelium”).

But, as was made clear in the case of the bishops working with the theological experts at Vatican II, those in the hierarchy can in fact simultaneously be both learners and teachers. So too with the faithful. No Christian is somehow seen as a sheerly passive recipient or as exempt from the demands to appropriate the Good News into their lives and share it with others.

Much of this conversation centers on the notion of “reception.” Academic theology has given increased study to this area of thought in recent years, often building upon parallel conversations taking place in literary studies and philosophy. The ITC text calls the process of active reception “fundamental for the life and health of the church as a pilgrim people journeying in history towards the fullness of God’s Kingdom” (§67).

Of course, this reception builds up and does not tear down: “an authentic manifestation of the sensus fidei contributes to the edification of the church as one body, and does not foster division and particularism within her” (§107).

The recent ITC text, easily found for free on the Vatican website, is an important one and worth reading carefully and reflecting upon, especially if trying to understand better the more dialogical church Francis seems to be envisioning.

 Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.