Sensus fidelium and polls

Sensus fidelium and polls February 21, 2011

There is a large number of sociological studies of Catholics over the past several decades, with some distinguished scholars building entire careers around such studies.  They have made and are making important contributions to our understanding of what’s happening on the ground among Catholics, former Catholics, and non-Catholics.  They have enhanced our recognition that there are generational differences in Catholic belief patterns, they have highlighted the different approaches of men and women in matters of faith, they have pointed to neuralgic issues in the Church and distilled different responses to those issues.  And for all that I have used and appreciated their work.


I wonder whether all the fascination with “what do people really believe?” is a symptom of a diminished sense of faith, a diminished understanding of what Newman called the consensus fidelium or “shared feeling of the faithful” in his 1859 essay “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters Pertaining to Christian Doctrine.”  The logic seems to be this: “here are issues I disagree with, like birth control or women priests.  I wonder if others share that disagreement.  Aha, they do!  It must be the Holy Spirit changing our minds as a church.”

That’s lazy logic, and it’s certainly not what Newman meant.  Revelation is not the same as democracy.  Polls give us a snapshot of what people think at a given moment in history, but what people think may be wrong, even over long periods of time.

I’m less inclined to find polls useful for theologians or any others who want to ask a basic question about how to follow the will of God.  In the Christian spiritual tradition, there are many tools for discernment, but taking a vote is not one of them.  Listening to the deep desires of others is certainly important, but the real reformers in the Church–like Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Francis, Dominic, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Therese of Lisieux, and so on were fantastically unconcerned with what the majority thought.  They learned the difficult yet profound lessons of discernment within the context of tradition.  Ignatius called that sentire cum ecclesia, to “feel with the Church.”  I read that as not unlike learning to feel with one’s family.  It takes time.

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