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The limits of papal authority and what exactly is the sensus fidei fidelium (sense of the faith of the faithful) when it comes to matters of doctrine were the focus of part of the discussion at a Rome conference Saturday afternoon aimed at analysing a crisis of confusion in the contemporary Church.  

The conference, titled Catholic Church: Where are you heading? Only a blind man can deny that there is great confusion in the Church, was organized by Friends of Cardinal Carlo Caffarra.

The event was one of the last wishes of the cardinal, the archbishop emeritus of Bologna, who died last September. Along with increasing numbers of lay faithful and clergy, he had become deeply dismayed by confusion over doctrine and discipline in recent years, causing what some believe is one of the greatest crises in the Church’s history.

 

Bishop Schneider

In a talk rich with quotations from authoritative Church sources, Bishop Athansius Schneider underlined the importance of the Petrine Office, drawing on dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus of the First Vatican Council which underlined how the Roman Pontiff is to exercise his exalted office “for the salvation of all.”

The Successor of Peter is to ensure the “entire flock of Christ, taken from the poisonous pastures of error, might be nourished with the food of heavenly doctrine and that, after having eliminated what leads to schism, the entire Church might remain one and, supported on its foundation, might stand firm against the gates of hell.”

The auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan, who in the face of prevailing confusion led an initiative professing the truth of sacramental marriage in January, stressed that the “charism of truth is entrusted by God first to St. Peter and to his successors,” and that because of this, popes “must continually be aware that they are not the owners of the cathedra of truth, but its servants and vicars.”

He recalled the oath that popes made for more than a millennium, which stated “I vow to change nothing of the received Tradition,” to keep “whatever has been revealed through Christ and His Successors,” and will keep the “discipline and the rite of the Church” — taken from the Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum that was used until the 11th century.

In modern times, Bishop Schneider referred to the duty of popes to “defend the truth and to protect the Church from errors and heresies” and highlighted the problems of remaining silent. Quoting from the encyclical Sapientiae Christianae, Pope Leo XIII said that to “recoil before an enemy, or to keep silence when from all sides such clamors are raised against truth, is the part of a man either devoid of character or who entertains doubt as to the truth of what he professes to believe.”

He added: “Nothing emboldens the wicked so greatly as the lack of courage on the part of the good” and that “want of vigor” is “so much more blameworthy” as often little is needed to “bring to naught false charges” and to “refute erroneous opinions.” Christians, Leo said, are “born for combat” and to overcome the world with the Lord’s help, what is needed is to profess “openly and unflinchingly the Catholic doctrine, and in propagating it to the utmost of our power.”

Bishop Schneider also quoted St. John XXIII, who said all evils which poison men and nations come from “ignorance of the truth” and at times a “contempt for truth and a reckless rejection of it.” He also said anyone who wantonly attacks known truth “engages in an altogether despicable business.” Those who do not do so willfully, he added, “act as though God has given us intellects for some purpose other than the pursuit and attainment of truth.”

Such an attitude, John XXIII continued, leads to syncretism between religions, something Pope Leo said is “directed to the destruction of all religions, but particularly the Catholic faith.”  

Bishop Schneider said that throughout history, Satan has continually attacked the Church, and “especially the cathedra of truth, which is the Chair of Peter.” In rare cases, he said in an allusion to the current crisis, this has led to a “temporary and limited eclipse of the Papal Magisterium, when some Roman Pontiffs have made ambiguous doctrinal statements, thereby causing a temporary situation of doctrinal confusion in the life of the Church.”

He said such a possibility was prophesied by Pope Leo in 1884 when he had a famous vision of Satan appearing before God, asking him for permission to destroy the Church in a hundred years — permission that was granted. Immediately afterwards, Pope Leo XIII composed the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. 

 

Cardinal Brandmüller

In his intervention, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, emphasized the laity’s role in matters of doctrine, and sought to distinguish what is a true sensus fidei (sense of the faith) of believers and what is not.

Drawing on Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman’s famous 1859 essay On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, Cardinal Brandmüller said he wished to analyze this question “amid the crisis of faith that today is shaking the Church to its depths.”

The Church historian drew on several examples from history when the laity gave important witness to the faith. During the Arian crisis of the fourth century, when the divinity of Jesus was debated, “the bishops failed in abundance,” Cardinal Brandmüller said, and the “divine tradition” was maintained “far more by the faithful than by the episcopate.”

Moving to more recent times, he said the laity’s witness can be found in the context of the Marian dogmas of 1954 and 1950. “It is therefore the sensus, the consensus fidei, by virtue of which the witness of the faithful has its own weight in the preservation, deepening and proclamation of the truth of revealed faith,” he said.

The German cardinal reminded those present that when Newman spoke of “consulting” the faithful, it did not mean the Church is democratic. As the faithful are united in one body, forming a supernatural organism, the laws are different and what emerges is “the reality of grace.”

Cardinal Brandmüller added that theological virtue of faith becomes efficacious partly through the sensus fidei of the faithful, and that it can act as a “sort of spiritual immune system” that can “instinctively” “recognize and reject any error.” The certainty that the Church in her totality can never slip into heresy “also rests therefore on this sensus fidei,” he said.

He gave some examples including the Pataria movement in Northern Italy which rose up against the simony and priestly concubinage in the 12th century, and the faithful who had Pope Boniface VIII establish the Holy Year to articulate the doctrine on indulgences in the 1300s. 

But he also noted, giving examples, that the “truth is not necessarily found with the majority.”

“Therefore, when Catholics en masse consider it legitimate to remarry after divorce, to use contraception or other similar things, this is not a mass witness to the faith, but a mass departure from it,” he said. Quoting from the International Theological Commission in 2014, he said “It is clear that there can be no simple identification between the sensus fidei and public or majority opinion. These are by no means the same thing.”

It added: “In the history of the people of God, it has often been not the majority but rather a minority which has truly lived and witnessed to the faith...It is therefore particularly important to discern and listen to the voices of the ‘little ones who believe.’”

Cardinal Brandmüller added that what follows “is extraordinary”: “The experience of the Church shows that sometimes the truth of the faith has been conserved not by the efforts of theologians or the teaching of the majority of bishops but in the hearts of believers.”

As well as during the Arian crisis, the cardinal said the same could be seen today in dioceses, parishes and other councils of the post-conciliar period. But he stressed that discernment becomes “even more essential” and a list of criteria is required to distinguish organic development of doctrine from error.

“Here it suffices to recall the indispensable lack of contradiction with regard to authentic tradition,” the cardinal said — obliquely referencing seemingly contradictory teachings during this pontificate.   

Drawing on the theological commission document, he stressed that “authentic participation in the sensus fidei requires holiness” and to be holy “fundamentally means” to be “baptized and to live the faith in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

“This defines a very high requirement then,” Cardinal Brandmüller added.

Consequently, he expressed doubts about how much questionnaires used in recent synods give a true sense of the sensus fidei as they are generally influenced by “individual associations” and the formulation of the questions has “made it easy to manipulate the results.”

The sensus fidei fidelium (sense of the faith of the faithful) is expressed “much more authentically through spontaneous declarations,” Cardinal Brandmüller said, and gave as an example the recent Manif pour tous pro-life marches in France, or the one million Catholics who petitioned the Holy Father for clarity on Church doctrine.

“These are the forms in which the sensus fidei, the instinct of faith of believing people, is manifested today,” Cardinal Brandmüller said. “It is time that the Magisterium paid due attention to this witness of faith.”

And as an aside at the end of his talk, he added that Newman writes in his 1859 essay that he did not expect “such times as the Arian will ever come again.”

In view of some who believe today’s crisis bears close similarities with the Arian crisis, Cardinal Brandmüller said: “Today we would all be better off if he were right.”

See complete English translations of Bishop Schneider's speech on LifeSite News here, and Cardinal Brandmüller's here.  

At the end of the conference, participants and lay faithful signed a declaration of faith upholding key areas of Church teaching.