Let’s consult the faithful

According to church teachings, all of the people of God have a unique spiritual instinct.

They also have the right—duty, even—to share their opinion on matters that concern the good of the church. So when was the last time you shared? Or were asked to share?

Richard R. Gaillardetz

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN WAS ONE OF THE MOST DISTINGUISHED CATHOLIC INTELLECTUALS OF THE 19TH CENTURY. Already an accomplished theologian within the Church of England, Newman became a figure of national controversy when he decided to become Roman Catholic in 1845. Soon after, Newman made what he thought was a modest proposal well grounded in Catholic tradition. He suggested to English Catholic bishops that they consider consulting all the faithful on matters of both practical and doctrinal concern. He noted that this was a practice common to the early church and that even Pope Pius IX, before defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, first queried the bishops regarding whether the faithful already believed in the dogma.

Needless to say, Newman’s proposal was not well received. His view was met with derision by one of the leading members of the Roman curia, Msgr. George Talbot, who contended that Newman’s provocative views made him “the most dangerous man in England.” Talbot wrote in a letter: “What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, and to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all.” His reaction to Newman was fairly representative of most church leaders at the time.

The proposal to consult the faithful is often met with the same disdain today, usually with the dismissive rejoinder: “The church is not a democracy!” This is certainly true, at least if what one means by democracy is that community beliefs are determined by polling the preferences and opinions of each church member, with the majority view ruling.

Christians believe that the church is not its own lord; we cannot simply reinvent ourselves as we wish. In short, we don’t get to vote on our faith! We are bound by the gift of divine revelation offered to us in Christ and testified to in scripture and tradition. But that gift of revelation must be received in the life of the church, and this does not happen all at once. This is where the importance of consulting the faithful comes in.

In spite of the controversy Newman’s proposal caused, the Second Vatican Council, which convened more than 70 years after Newman’s death, largely vindicated him when it taught in Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) that every baptized Christian possesses a supernatural instinct for the faith (sensus fidei) such that the whole people of God “receives not the word of human beings but truly the Word of God…The people unfailingly adhere to this faith, penetrate it more deeply through right judgment, and apply it more fully in daily life.”

Each of us has a Spirit-given capacity to recognize God’s Word and explore its significance more deeply. Because Christians possess this spiritual instinct for the faith, the council taught that all the baptized, not just clergy, are participants in the ongoing development of church tradition.

It follows that if all the baptized possess this gift, given to them by the Holy Spirit, to discern the Word of God, then church leaders ought to consider what the baptized have to say.

Again Vatican II recognized this. It asserted in Lumen Gentium that “to the extent of their knowledge, competence, or authority, the laity are entitled, and indeed sometimes duty-bound, to express their opinion on matters which concern the good of the church.”

Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this important teaching in his pastoral letter, “At the Beginning of the New Millennium,” quoting St. Paulinus of Nola: “Let us listen to what all the faithful say, because in every one of them the Spirit of God breathes.” On another occasion, while addressing the U.S. bishops in September 2004, he said: “A commitment to creating better structures of participation, consultation, and shared responsibility, should not be misunderstood as a concession to a secular democratic model of governance, but as an intrinsic requirement of the exercise of episcopal authority and a necessary means of strengthening that authority.”

It is difficult to ignore the strong language: consultation is an “intrinsic requirement” of the exercise of church authority.

So how successful have we been in fulfilling the council’s teaching on the sensus fidei and Pope John Paul II’s injunction to create structures for consulting the whole Christian faithful? One of the first places we should look is in the Code of Canon Law. There we find provisions for several structures oriented toward input from the Christian faithful. For example the code encourages the creation of diocesan pastoral councils and the convocation of diocesan synods; in both instances lay participation is envisioned. These councils and synods can provide significant opportunities for church leaders to listen to the wisdom of the Spirit as it speaks through the testimony of all the faithful.

Another structure mandated by the code could, in principle, offer an important venue for consultation: the parish visitation. Canon law requires that the bishop or a proxy visit all parishes in his diocese over a five-year period.

But both diocesan pastoral councils and diocesan synods are only recommended, not required. Moreover, there is often no guarantee that participants will be allowed to speak freely or engage in genuine communal discernment at either these events or the parish visitation. There is also no guarantee that church leaders will take seriously the insight that might emerge from them.

There are some dangers associated with consulting the faithful. First, in a liberal democratic society, many could confuse the Christian process of consulting the faithful with the familiar practice of polling. The differences are crucial. Polling tries to ascertain the beliefs and opinions of a select group of individuals. Consulting the faithful in a process of genuine communal discernment entails calling people to go beyond their own opinions and genuinely listen to the Spirit. This includes listening to what might be learned from those with whom we disagree.

In a society that is losing its ability to engage in civic discourse and too often resorts to caricaturing or dismissing the views of those with whom we disagree, this process of genuine communal discernment will not come easy.

Second, the sensus fidei must be cultivated and formed through authentic Christian discipleship and a respectful attentiveness to the gospel and the received teaching of the church. Although all the baptized possess this spiritual instinct, I am sure we can agree that it is likely to be more fully developed in those who have been practicing the faith than in those whose shadow has not crossed the doors of a church in 20 years!

How might the consultation of the faithful work today? Here are some proposals:

1) We must renew our commitment to adult Christian formation. Members of a mature and well formed Christian community are better equipped to engage their spiritual instinct in processes of communal discernment.

2) Church leaders must see consultation as vital to their own ministry of leadership. This means having the courage to consult people who are likely to disagree. One of the perennial temptations of consultation is to only consult with people already inclined to agree with you. This is not authentic consultation. Church leaders must be willing to make greater use of councils, synods, and visitations with a humility that assumes they have something to learn from the people. Here they might do well to heed the counsel of that great third-century bishop and martyr, St. Cyprian of Carthage: “It is thus a bishop’s duty not only to teach but also to learn. For he becomes a better teacher if he makes daily progress and advancement in learning what is better.”

3) One of the most important areas in which consulting the faithful might be applied is in the appointment of church leaders. The process of papal appointment of bishops is a modern development. The early church believed that the people should have a role in selecting or at least determining whether to accept an episcopal candidate being proposed to them. This did not mean that they thought the bishop was their delegate or representative, as would be the case in a liberal democracy; rather the early church believed that the will of God in the selection of a bishop could be discovered in the Spirit-guided discernment and insight of the people.

4) We must be willing to differentiate between what is essential in the life of the church and what is still open to change and development. The church cannot invent itself, it’s true. But we should remember the ancient axiom quoted in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World): “Let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is doubtful, and charity in everything.”

The Christian community must remain faithful to that revelation that comes to us in Christ in the form of scripture and church teaching, but it must not forget the need to listen to the Spirit of Christ who continues to speak today in the hearts and minds of the whole Christian community.

Richard R. Gaillardetz is a professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo in Ohio and author of By What Authority? (Liturgical Press, 2003)

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