Instinct of Faith in a situation of expectation

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

Left to themselves, today some Catholics try to resist the acceleration of a situation inherited from the Council: for that, they rely on the instinct of faith, an instinct which is not a sort of traditional examination of free will, rejecting the argument of authority, but to the contrary is a pressing call to a complete restoration of the teaching of the faith in the name of Christ.

Until Francis’ pontificate, amid the disarray of the post-Council era, two stronghold subsisted:

  • One was Moral teaching, symbolized by the encyclical Humanæ vitæ, and themany subsequent documents. They definitely set a certain atmosphere, almost a world of “restoration”, theoretically in power, but in reality in the minority. A minority which saw its climax and its limits in the pontificate of Benedict XVI.
  • The other was the existence of an other world close to the one we just described, more in minority even, but very enduring, represented by the supporters of the pre-Vatican II liturgy. In term of  preservation, the motu proprio Summorum pontificum had given it all legitimacy, after a long and parsimonious movement of recognition.

But, all this was swept away by Amoris Lætitia and Traditionis custodes, together with other “progressive” documents such as the catechetical condemnation of Death Penalty, or very recently, even if it came through the voice of a lower body such as the Pontifical Academy for Life, the green light given to the Italian episcopate to encourage “imperfect legislation” (assisted suicide) to prevent worst legislations (pure and simple euthanasia).

As a result, the isolation the faithful who refuse these “progress” endure, increases. Nothing really new, shall we say, in this post-Council situation. Let us point out, for example, how the “old” catechism is still being taught, amid the many pitfalls, instead of the new catechisms which has invaded parishes and schools since the end of the Sixties. If we consider that the Catechism of the Catholic Church has resolved all the difficulties, which is arguable, it was only published in 1992: the vacatio catechismi stilllasted thirty years. That is if we can be let to believe it is indeed over.

The sensus fidelium or “passive infallibility

The notion, in itself very classic, of sensus fidei/fidelium has been used as a mean to bring democracy in the Magisterium and adopt progressive ideas. The International Theological Commission, at the time when Fr. Serge Bonino was still its Secretary, tried to respond actively by putting the sensus fidelium back on the side of orthodoxy: “It is clear we can’t identify purely and solely the sensus fidelium to the public opinion or the one of the majority. They are not at all the same thing. […] In the history of the People of God, often it was not the majority, but to the contrary the minority which truly lived the faith and gave it testimony.”[1]

An explanation is necessary. Even if the two terms are often used indifferently, we can make a distinction between sensus fidei as individual and sensus fidelium as collective. The sensus fidei of each and every believer being as a matter of fact the consequence of the sensus fidelium of the whole Church, in the same way that the good of each individual comes from the common good.

  1. The sensus fidelium can be practically assimilated to what theologians call “passive infallibility, or also infallibility in credendo, in what should be believed.[2] The Church as a whole has a native capacity to receive the words of those who teach Her in the name of Christ. She cannot fall into error while believing, otherwise she would no longer be the sole and necessary way to salvation and she would cease being the true Church of Christ. This passive infallibility is the reverse, in a way, of active infallibility whose purpose is to keep the society of faithful in the immutable doctrine on faith and moral. “Being manifested, that you are the epistle of Christ, ministered by us, and written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in the fleshly tables of the heart.” (2 Co 3:3) And saint Vincent of Lerins in the Commonitorium (2, 6): “We shall follow the Catholic faith [the universality], if we profess that this is the sole true faith which the whole Church confesses in the whole world.”
  2. In every believer, the sensus fidei is an instinct, an intuition which goes along the virtu of faith. All virtues give a sort of co-natural instinct (for example an instinct for reserve and modesty which goes along with chastity). Likewise faith produces a sort of instinct which inclines the believer to put down marks of adherence to the revealed truth[3].

We can also say that the use of the sensus fidei depends on the increase of faith in the one who received it: it brings the faithful to believe, through the development of what he has been taught, even beyond what he has expressively received. Of course, the Magisterium alone can ultimately determine if it is then sensus fidei or human calculation. In the IIa IIæ of the Summa Theologica, saint Thomas explains for example that, before the birth of Christ, some were mistaken about the time when Christ was to be born: therefore for them it was a simple “human conjuncture”. But the other way round, it is definitely the sense of faith which made many Catholics believe in the Immaculate Conception before it was ratified by the dogma of 1854.

The instinct of faith in a situation of expectation

We could say therefore that those who remain faithful to the traditional liturgy and to some points of doctrine criticized today find themselves in the situation of the inhabitants of Lyon who used to light up their homes on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, at a time when the immaculate conception of the Virgin was still the subject of polemics.

Yet, as always in this type of reasoning where one seeks in history elements which can explain present difficulties (three or four popes have taught a particular heresy or have slipped into a particular ambiguity; a decree of the Council of Constance, Frequens, ended up being considered heterodox), the quest in the end provides only a rather poor collection of doctrinal crisis situations which never reached the extent, or at least the duration[4] of the current one, not even the 40 year Great Schism with two and then three popes. The current situation of expectation is truly exceptional.

It remains that, in all hypothesis of time and extent, the sensus fidei/fidelium plays, in regards to obedience to faith, the same role as the instinct which comes with the virtue of obedience. The sensus fidei/fidelium disposes the mind and the will to adhere to all teaching of the Church like the instinct of obedience encourages in advance to submit to the law or to the orders a legitimate superior would give. And, when the subject finds himself in a situation not yet addressed by the Law or by given orders, or facing unjust laws or orders, if he does not have the moral means to recourse to the Superior (and for good reason, if it is the Superior that orders a sinful act), he must presume, in accordance with his instinct of obedience, of what the Superior would really order.

In a similar way, the instinct of faith is going to help Christ’s faithful every time that teachings of the Magisterium don’t make clear to him/her still what he must believe and what he must do. But, it is also going to help him when inadequate teachings tell him, for example, that people in a state of public adultery and with full knowledge of the moral norm, do not perpetrate grave sin because of concrete circumstances (Amoris lætitia, n.301), or also that the liturgical books promulgated before those of Paul VI are not the expression of the lex orandi (as it results from Traditionis custodes, art.1). Faithful obedience requires we do not submit to unjust prescription. And this apparent disobedience, which in reality is a deeper obedience, forces the Magisterium to intervene to indicate in the name of the authority of Christ what we must believe and what we must do.

For a restoration of magisterial authority

By resisting an unjust order, in accordance with the sensus obedientiæ, we over-obey, in a way. And sooner or later, this provokes the intervention of the Superior to confirm the legitimacy of just and virtuous actions. Likewise, the sensus fidei/fidelium as it is deployed within a magisterial void presses identically the Magisterium to intervene. For, if the instinct of faith can compensate for the act of teaching authority, in the manner of an act of self-defense, in the end, it forces the teaching authority out of its silence. In this way, and even if here again the historic example is much more cir conscript in time than what we are experiencing now, when in 1790 French parish priests were faced with the dilemma of the Civil Oath, the ones who refused did it of their own determination, in accordance with the sensus fidei, since the Pope had not spoken about it. But, by doing so, they were soliciting the intervention of Pius VI who ended up condemning the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in the papal brief Quod aliquantum, of 10 March 1791.

The intervention, though timid, of Summorum Pontificum [5], represented still for the many catholics who, based on their instinct of faith, had supported the old liturgy between 1969 and 2007, the legitimization of its use. We could consider Summorum pontificum as a magisterial præparatio, a sign of what will be the confirmation, with full magisterial authority, of the fact that the pre-Vatican II liturgy is truly the expression of faith of the Roman Church. And even more so, a sign of definitive interventions in the area of marriage law, and more generally in the relations of the Church with the world of today.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1]« Le sensus fidei dans la vie de l’Église » (The sensu fidei in the life of the Church), CTI, 10 June 2014, n.118.
[2] Cf. for example : Jean-Marie Hervé, Manuale theologiæ dogmaticæ, Berche, Paris, 1957, vol. 1, n. 465.
[3] Saint Thomas, Summa theologica, IIa IIæ q 2 a 3 ad 2.
[4] We know the famous words of saint Jerome saying that at the time of the Council of Rimini, “ the whole world groaned and marveled at finding itself Arian.” But loud voices orthodox continued to make themselves heard, and the eclipse resulting from the weakness of pope Liberius was only but temporary.
[5] With a simple past-participate modified by an adverb of negation it stated that the old rite had not been suppressed: “It is therefore permitted to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass following the typical edition of the Roman Missal, which was promulgated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962 and never abrogated.”