On the Place of the Sensus Fidelium
by Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP
At the DSPT we try to foster the dialogue between faith and reason, between theology and philosophy. To avoid confusion it might be pertinent to say that the question of the sensus fidelium is not about this distinction. Rather, it is a distinction within the field of theology and faith itself.
So, then, within the field of theology, what is the sensus fidelium? Let me begin by saying what it is not: it is not a democratic vote on Church doctrine. It is not about questionnaires being sent out to Catholics (and non-Catholics) about what the Church should be teaching. This suggestion would have problems: for one, this would exclude the vast majority of the faithful whose sense this is supposed to be: namely, the dead Catholics. The Church is a democracy that excludes none, not even the dead. Their sense, which is enshrined in the tradition and past teachings of the Church, is part of what the faithful sense. How, then, do we get at this sense, if not by questionnaires? Since all of these elements are never completely present in person, the magisterium might therefore have to articulate this sense vicariously. And this might be understood perhaps in analogy to the third mode of infallible teaching listed in Lumen Gentium , the mode in which the pope speaks for the universal consensus of the bishops when they are “dispersed around the world,” rather than assembled at an ecumenical council. 
Nevertheless, even though it is tied to the magisterium in this manner, the sensus fidelium so understood is itself infallible and even fundamental, more fundamental than the magisterium itself, which is at its service.
In the words of Theology Today by the International Theological Commision :
From this quote we can now also begin to look at a few positive articulations of where the sensus fidelium can be seen at work; the decisive words in this quotation are these; it says: “…nor is it only a secondary affirmation of what is first taught by the magisterium.
A simple example for this fact are canonization processes: here the Church will make a declaration on the merits of the case only after the sensus fideliumhas expressed itself in an existing local cult and in the veneration of the faithful. The evaluation of such a veneration is first made at the “periphery” of the Church – to use Congar’s terminology – namely by diocesan authorities. But even this peripheral investigation is based on the preexisting fact of a popular veneration – not to mention the fact of the miracles wrought by the saint. Canonizations are not a procedure beginning from the center, they are not a top-down process. The magisterial declaration only puts the final seal on it; it is the necessary capstone of the whole process.
Similar things can be said about the approval of visions and apparitions, such as those of Fatima, Lourdes and Medjugorje. While nobody is obliged to believe in these particular phenomena, the Church recognizes their role in the sensus fidelium in general and therefore needs to pay attention to them and supervise their propagation. This begins with the spiritual director of visionaries, as a presence of the center to the periphery, as Fr. Congar points out.
Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Philosophy Department Chair at DSPT. The classes that he teaches include Modern Philosophy, Philosophical Aesthetics, What Is a Person?, Does God Exist?, Contemporary Philosophy. More information about his classes, research interests and publications can be found on his faculty page.
 "Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly. This is so, even when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter’s successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith or morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively. This authority is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church. Their definitions must then be adhered to with the submission of faith." (Lumen Gentium 25). back to text
 One can only wonder how the newly planned Congregation for the Laity will fit into this scenario. Will it produce “5 year plans” for the laity, or will it institutionalize secular style lobbying groups of the laity against the clergy? back to text
 “In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognize dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.” Pope Benedict XVI. back to text