A Protestant friend of mine considered entering the Catholic Church a couple of years ago. She had a very good grasp of Catholic teaching, and tried to connect this with praxis by attending Mass at several parishes in her part of the country. Sadly, after making the rounds of the local parishes, she became truly confused concerning what the Church teaches in the area of morals, specifically concerning reproduction. A priest told her that she and her husband should continue using contraception. A member of a marriage tribunal told her the same thing, advising her that she needed to make her own decision on the issue of contraception; as long as she did not trespass against the dictates of her own conscience, she was okay. In desperation, she looked online for guidance, and found a supremely unhelpful article by Catholic theologian Daniel C. Maguire, a man with a profound misunderstanding of Catholic teaching as it pertains to reproductive issues, who presented the Catholic understanding of “conscience” in a very misleading way, elevating dissenting Catholics to the position of role models:
The birth rates in so-called “Catholic” nations in Europe and in Latin America are close to or below replacement levels and, as Gudorf wryly puts it, “it is difficult to believe that fertility was cut in half through voluntary abstinence from sex.” Such dissent from hierarchical teaching by Catholic laity is actually well provided for in Church teaching. The sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, is one of the sources of truth in Catholic theology. This means that the consciences and experiences of good people are a guidepost to truth that even the hierarchy must consult.
The sensus fidelium is “the sense of the faithful” (also referred to as sensus fidei or “the sense of faith”); Dr. Maguire is right about that at least. Pope Benedict XVI described the sensus fidei as “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 People of God is the ‘teacher that goes first’ and must then be more deeply examined and intellectually accepted by theology.” Maguire’s claims, however, that “dissent from hierarchical teaching by Catholic laity is actually well provided for in Church teaching, ” and “the consciences and experiences of good people are a guidepost to truth” are based on a seriously flawed assumption. Sadly, it is his definition to which multitudes of Catholics cling in their search for a Catholicism that will wholeheartedly endorse the lifestyle they have chosen.
The doctrinal reality of the sensus fidelium was addressed by the Second Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Note how the Council’s definition differs from Dr. Maguire’s:
The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, 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.
To put it succinctly, Catholics believe that the Church – that is, “the entire body of the faithful…from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” – cannot err in matters of belief. This is the concept of infallibility upon which Catholics insist: God will not allow His Church to authoritatively teach error; if His Church were to teach error as truth, the gates of hell would have prevailed. But we must pay careful attention to the qualifying statement: the ENTIRE BODY of the faithful. This is what keeps the concept of sensus fidelium from becoming a Barna poll with results which uproot Tradition and rewrite Catholic dogma, something which theologians like Dr. Maguire are betting is going to happen. The Church’s understanding of the sensus fidelium serves to affirm the calling of the laity to full participation in the life of the Church, but does not somehow make the claim that it is disaffected laity (or dissenting clergy, for that matter) who from here on out will be steering the Barque.
Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of the sensus fidelium in 2012 in an address to the International Theological Commission:
The Second Vatican Council, while confirming the specific and irreplaceable role of Magisterium, stressed, however, that the whole People of God participates in Christ’s prophetic office, thus fulfilling the inspired desire expressed by Moses, “If only all the people of the LORD were prophets! If only the LORD would bestow his spirit on them!” (Num 11:29).
This gift, the sensus fidei, constitutes in the believer a kind of supernatural instinct that has a connatural life with the same object of faith. It is a criterion for discerning whether or not a truth belongs to the deposit of the living apostolic tradition. It also has a propositional value because the Holy Spirit does not cease to speak to the Churches and lead them to the whole truth.
To give a concrete example of sensus fidei in action, this “criterion for discerning whether or not a truth belongs to the deposit of the living apostolic tradition” came into play in a big way in Venerable Pope Pius XII’s decision to “pronounce, declare and define” the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, body and soul, into heavenly glory – the basis for the solemnity which we celebrate today. The pope knew that the belief in Mary’s Assumption was ancient; in the 5th century the Feast of the Assumption of Mary was already being celebrated in Syria. According to the writings of St. John Damascene, “St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.” The pope knew that many Church Fathers had professed a belief in the Assumption, including St. John Damascene, St. Germanus of Constantinople, St. Andrew of Crete, St. Modestus of Jerusalem and St. Gregory of Tours. Great Catholic theologians and saints had championed the doctrine, among them St. Anthony of Padua, St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, St. Bernadine of Siena, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Francis de Sales, St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Peter Canisius. Venerable Pius was aware of the absence of any definitive statement in Scripture concerning the completion of Mary’s life here on earth (although no passage in Scripture serves to rule out the dogma of the Assumption); he also was familiar with an important correlated doctrine, the traditional Christian understanding of Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant:
At that time, the Savior coming from the Virgin, the Ark, brought forth His own Body into the world from that Ark, which was gilded with pure gold within by the Word, and without by the Holy Ghost; so that the truth was shown forth, and the Ark was manifested. St. Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 236 A.D.)
As Christ our priest was not chosen by hand of man, so neither was His tabernacle framed by men, but was established by the Holy Ghost; and by the power of God is that tabernacle protected, to be had in everlasting remembrance, Mary, God’s Virgin Mother. St. Dionysius of Alexandria († 264 A.D.)
The ark is verily the holy Virgin, gilded within and without, who received the treasure of universal sanctification. Arise, O Lord, from the Father’s bosom, to raise up again the ruined race of our first parent. St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213-c. 270)
O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all O (Ark of the) Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which Divinity resides. St. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296- 373 A.D.)
The Ark would be the type and image of Christ : for if we look back to the way of the Incarnation of the Only-begotten, we shall see that it is in the temple of the Virgin, as in an ark that the Word of God took up His abode. For in Him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, as the Scripture saith. But the testimonies in the ark were the word of God, and the wood of it was imperishable, and with pure and choicest gold was it beautified within and without. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313-386 A.D.)
The prophet David danced before the Ark. Now what else should we say the Ark was but holy Mary? The Ark bore within it the tables of the Testament, but Mary bore the Heir of the same Testament itself. The former contained in it the Law, the latter the Gospel. The one had the voice of God, the other His Word. The Ark, indeed, was radiant within and without with the glitter of gold, but holy Mary shone within and without with the splendor of virginity. The one was adorned with earthly gold, the other with heavenly. St. Ambrose (c. 339-397 A.D.)
Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant wasn’t just the theological rhapsody of a few early Church Fathers – the early Christians arrived at the concept by comparing the narrative of the Visitation in Luke 1: 39-45 with the story of the journey of the Ark to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6:11-19. The events were separated by centuries, but the geographic locations were quite close; both took place in the “hill country of Judah.” Among the parallels:
- Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah.
- And David arose and went with all the people who were with him to Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God.
- And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me?
How can the ark of the LORD come to me?
- When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb.
Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD.
- And Mary stayed with her about three months.
- Thus the ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months.
The glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle in the Old Testament. The archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” The early Christians couldn’t help but see the twin “overshadowings” as evidence for Mary as the New Ark. This concept has a direct bearing on the dogma of the Assumption, for the book of Revelation tells us:
And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened; and the ark of His covenant appeared in His temple, and there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm. A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth.
The early Christians understood this Ark and this Woman to be one and the same. Since Mary was the New Ark, and the Ark had appeared in the temple of God in Heaven, then it seemed clear that Mary had been assumed into Heaven.
And there was strong earthly corroboration of this miracle which should not be overlooked. The early Christians were very, very keen on relics; the “Martyrdom of Polycarp” from the mid 2nd century makes this clear. Christians risked their lives to secure relics of holy men and women. By the time Christianity was legalized, churches in far-flung areas of Christendom were advertising the relics they possessed, relics of the apostles and other martyrs, relics of the Cross and the manger. Of course, no one ever ventured to claim that they were in possession of a first-class relic (a piece of bone, for example) from the body of Jesus, since it was a non-negotiable tenet of the Faith that Christ was risen and had ascended into Heaven. The apostles, the martyrs, St. Joseph, St. Mary Magdalene – they were all fair game. Yet in all of relic-collecting Christendom, no one EVER claimed to possess a first-class relic (except of her hair) of the Blessed Virgin. There is only one explanation for that – everyone KNEW that she had been assumed bodily into Heaven. Even those tempted to fakery knew that claiming possession of the bones of the Blessed Virgin would never fly.
Add to that the fact that Mary was seen as a “type” of the Church. Did Jesus not promise that each member of His body would be resurrected and caught up to meet Him in the clouds at His return? And was this Assumption not a “down-payment” on that promise? When confronted with the absence of earthly remains, and with the knowledge that this woman had been hailed as “full of grace” and “blessed among women,” remembering that the Old Testament figures Enoch and Elijah had themselves been taken up to be with God, why would the notion that Mary had been assumed into Heaven strike you as implausible?
The belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into Heaven had been held all over Christendom from antiquity to the 20th century. According to Venerable Pius, “for a long time past, numerous petitions (those received from 1849 to 1940 have been gathered in two volumes which, accompanied with suitable comments, have been recently printed), from cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, priests, religious of both sexes, associations, universities and innumerable private persons have reached the Holy See, all begging that the bodily Assumption into heaven of the Blessed Virgin should be defined and proclaimed as a dogma of faith. And certainly no one is unaware of the fact that this was fervently requested by almost two hundred fathers in the Vatican Council.” This is truly a case in which “the whole People of God,” not just the laity, nor solely the members of the hierarchy, not just contemporary Catholics, nor merely a handful of Church Fathers hundreds of years ago, but all the faithful concurred in their belief. This was the sensus fidelium upon which Pius XII relied when defining the dogma of the Assumption.
Great! So now that we know that the Vatican takes the sensus fidelium seriously, so seriously that it was a major factor in the 20th-century promulgation of a dogma, all that Catholics have to do is agitate, dissent, protest, whine, flaunt and rebel, and the next thing you know Pope Francis will do a 180 on contraception! It’s inevitable! So goes modern-day dissenters’ logic.
What’s seldom mentioned about the process that Venerable Pius XII went through before defining the doctrine of the Assumption is that he wrote to his bishops, asking them for input. In his request he wrote the following:
…we earnestly beg you to inform us about the devotion of your clergy and people (taking into account their faith and piety) toward the Assumption of the most Blessed Virgin Mary.
The phrase in red is the key to understanding the slippery concept of sensus fidelium. In other words, Venerable Pius was a just a little bit picky about who had a say in this. According to Servant of God John Hardon, S.J.:
…whether they realize it or not, all who agree on the revealed truth, under the guidance of the sacred magisterium, belong to the faithful.
What are the requirements for a genuine sensus fidelium? To begin with, you have to be one of the faithful. Father Hardon continues:
Their agreement on the truth and allegiance to the magisterium gives them universality, i.e., spiritual unity. The truth interiorly possessed gives them consensus, and not the other way around, as though their consensus on some doctrine made it true.
So, Professor Maguire’s concept of “the consciences and experiences of good people” being a “guidepost to truth” runs into a major roadblock – define “good people!” As he would define them, good people are Catholics who realize that the Church forbids the use of artificial contraception, yet don’t give a fig. In other words, the truth doesn’t really interest them. And that’s the crux of the whole issue. It’s not “truth by majority vote” – it’s Truth, eternal, unchanging Truth that we submit to. It forms us – not the other way around! That’s the secret that people like Professor Maguire don’t get….
Pope Benedict warned:
It is particularly important to clarify the criteria used to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeits. In fact, it is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, this because the sensus fidei can not grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her Magisterium.
So, no, the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin isn’t just some goofy “assumption” by biblically ignorant Catholics. Yes, the sensus fidelium did play a part in the definition of the dogma. But, no – the sensus fidelium isn’t going to somehow be instrumental in overturning Church teaching on women priests, homosexuality, abortion or contraception, no matter how many liberal Catholic theologians tell you that it is. Because the sensus fidelium – the REAL sensus fidelium – owes its allegiance to the Magisterium of the Church. So don’t fret – Truth will prevail.
He promised that He would.
On the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Deo omnis gloria!