Home > Archives > 08/09 - 2010 > “... You have hidden these things from the wise and the learned and revealed them to the little ones” (Mt 11, 25)
REFLECTIONS ON THE MYSTERY AND LIFE OF THE CHURCH
“... You have hidden these things from the wise and the learned and revealed them to the little ones” (Mt 11, 25)
by Cardinal Georges Cottier, OP
Some recent interventions of Benedict XVI have offered interesting and original insights into a matter well recognized by the traditional doctrine of the Church: that of the sensus fidei of the People of God. I was struck, in particular, by the reference in the catechism of 7 July devoted to Blessed John Duns Scotus. On that occasion, speaking about faith in the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Pope stated clearly that that belief “was already present in the People of God, while theology had not yet found the key to interpreting it in the totality of the doctrine of the faith. The People of God therefore precede theologians and this is all thanks to that supernatural sensus fidei, namely, that capacity infused by the Holy Spirit that qualifies us to embrace the reality of the faith with humility of heart and mind. In this sense”, the Pope pointed out, “the People of God is the ‘magisterium that goes before’ and must then be more deeply examined and intellectually accepted by theology”.
Cardinal Georges Cottier
The image of the “magisterium that goes before”, referring to the sensus fidei of the People of God, seems to me to suggest an effective criterion for a clear grasp of the relationship it has with the Church’s magisterium and theology.
The Council Constitution Lumen gentium at no. 12, thus defines the sensus fidei: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, (cf. 1 Jn 2, 20 and 27) 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”.
Faith as such does not err. It is a theological virtue, hence it is a supernatural gift from God, and those who receive it participate in their own way in the prophetic gift of Christ. The source of that infallibility is the same Holy Spirit who inspires and moves that intuitive approach to the mysteries whereby the People of God consents to revealed truth and can also discern the true from the false. This dynamic was described in suggestive words by Cardinal Charles Journet in his book Le message révélé of 1963, starting with a quotation from St Thomas, “‘The light of faith’, says St Thomas, ‘shows the things that are believed...; the habitus of faith inclines, in fact, the human spirit to assent to the things of the true faith, not to others’. There is a proportion, a secret adaptation, a connaturality between the virtue of faith that dwells in the souls of the Christian and the data to be believed that are presented by revelation: on the one and the other hand, in fact, it is the same Spirit that acts: here through the prophetic light, there through the sanctifying light. Hence the spontaneous inclination of the believer to consent to the revealed truth. This inclination is intensified when the faith is loving, when it is made penetrating and intuitive and as if prophetic thanks to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It then goes into the deeps, it feels beforehand, it suggests with a sure instinct what being still implicit and hidden is ready to blossom and make itself known”.
Obviously, the sensus fidei is not to be identified with the consensus of the majority, it is not defined on the basis of the statistics of polls. In the history of the Church it has happened that in certain contexts the sensus fidei has been manifested by isolated individuals, single saints, while general opinion hung on to doctrines not conforming to the apostolic faith. This happened when under the influence of Jansenism there was insistence on the severity of God’s justice, to the detriment of His mercy.
In the same essay, Journet also describes the relationship between the sensus fidei and the magisterium of the Church. The two matters – Journet explains – must be distinguished: the first “is neither a teaching nor a magisterium, but only the felt conviction of a truth”. And if on the one hand faith, as gift of the Spirit, cannot err, on the other hand “the believer, albeit in a state of grace, although fervent, can err, can mix into his faith data or feelings foreign to it. Unless enlightened as the apostles were, he needs to be helped, directed, judged by the divinely assisted magisterium”. In this perspective, the magisterium of the bishops gathered around the Successor of Peter has the task of discerning and confirming what is pre-felt, indicated and anticipated by the sensus fidei. When exercising this function, the pope and the bishops only certify that a truth perceived and received by the sensus fidelium can actually be recognized and accepted as the development of a datum already contained in the depositum fidei, the deposit of faith. This dynamic, as mentioned by Benedict XVI in his catachesis on Duns Scotus, found an exemplary manifestation in the definition of the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary. Those articles of the Apostolic Faith were defined predominantly on the basis of the sensus fidelium. Popular devotion to the Immaculate Conception of Mary already recognized the apostolic nature of the doctrine well before it was dogmatically defined. With such dogmatic definitions the popes certainly did not intend to invent or add some new theological theory, but merely to recognize what was already in the heart of the Church.
In this regard, still of great interest are many of the pages written by Blessed John Henry Newman in his famous article published in The Rambler in July 1859 on the consultation of the faithful in matters of doctrine.
Newman wrote that essay in response to attacks by “certain candid souls” shocked by an article that had appeared earlier in the same journal, which mentioned that for the preparation of the definition of the dogma on the Immaculate Conception the faithful had been consulted. The arguments set out by Newman in that time are still a highly relevant concentrate of historical and doctrinal arguments aimed at documenting the nature of the sensus fidelium as instrumentum traditionis.
“‘The light of faith’, says St Thomas, ‘shows the things that are believed...; the habitus of faith inclines, in fact, the human spirit to assent to the things of the true faith, not to others’. There is a proportion, a secret adaptation, a connaturality between the virtue of faith that dwells in the souls of the Christian and the data to be believed that are presented by revelation: on the one and the other hand, in fact, it is the same Spirit that acts: here through the prophetic light, there through the sanctifying lightAccording to Newman, “the tradition of the Apostles, committed to the whole Church in its various constituents and functions per modum unius, manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgies, rites, ceremonies, and customs, by events, disputes, movements, and all those other phenomena which are comprised under the name of history. It follows that none of these channels of tradition may be treated with disrespect; granting at the same time fully, that the gift of discerning, discriminating, defining, promulgating, and enforcing any portion of that tradition resides solely in the Ecclesia docens”. As evidence of the decisive role played by the sensus fidelium in the life and history of the Church, Newman goes over the emblematic history of the Arian crisis: “It is not a little remarkable, that, though, historically speaking, the fourth century is the age of doctors, illustrated, as it was, by the saints Athanasius, Hilary, the two Gregories, Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine, and all of these saints bishops also, except one, nevertheless in that very day the divine tradition committed to the infallible Church was proclaimed and maintained far more by the faithful than by the Episcopate… In that time of immense confusion the divine dogma of our Lord’s divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved, far more by the Ecclesia discens than by the Ecclesia docens; that the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism... It was the Christian people who, under Providence, were the ecclesiastical strength of Athanasius, Hilary, Eusebius of Vercellæ, and other great solitary confessors, who would have failed without them”. In the matter of Arianism Newman sees “a palmary example of a state of the Church, during which, in order to know the tradition of the Apostles, we must have recourse to the faithful”, concluding that “the voice of tradition may in certain cases express itself, not by Councils, nor Fathers, nor Bishops, but the communis fidelium sensus”.
Of course, this also calls into question theology. If theological research wants to develop in the Church, to the benefit of the whole community of the faithful, it has as the inevitable point of reference the sensus fidei, which manifests itself in eminent fashion in holiness. That is why I was struck by the fact that in his last address to the Pontifical Theological Commission, the Pope re-proposed the figures of the “little saints”, citing Bernadette and Therese of Lisieux as those who “have known the mystery” and entered “into the heart of Sacred Scripture”, while often the essential remains hidden to a theology which even boasts scholarly claims. In the past, the then Cardinal Ratzinger had taken over the criterion set out by St Thomas Aquinas that the foundation of authentic theology is the “science of the saints”. For St Thomas – as Ratzinger explained in his book To look on Christ – theology is subalternate science, because “it is not it that sees and shows its ultimate foundations. It is, so to speak, dependent on the ‘knowledge of the saints’ and on their vision. … The work of theologians is in this sense always ‘secondary’ to the actual experience of the saints. Without that point of reference, without that inner anchorage in similar experience it loses its character of reality. This is the humility required of theologians... Theology becomes a mere intellectual game and also loses its character as science without the realism of the saints, without their contact with the reality that is at issue here”.
Sometimes it becomes quite clear that in the life and work of some of the saints there is a kind of prophetic anticipation, an early warning of what in time the Church will need to be safeguarded in the faith of the apostles. Saints, while they are still on earth, do not have the beatific vision, they are in the faith, but the great insights of faith inspired by charity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit enable them to foresee, in the darkness, the great truths that we shall see with full clarity in heaven. In fact, for Thomas Aquinas the saints are first and foremost the blessed. I am thinking, for example, of some modern or contemporary saints like St Margaret Mary Alacoque, St Therese of the Child Jesus, St Faustina or Mother Teresa: with their insight into the infinite divine mercy they suggest what we should be looking at in this dramatic time also for the Church.