The use of the present tense throughout the text indicates that Paragraph 93 describes a process of Christian life. It has been a month since I visited this stream, and in reviewing past entries I have come to appreciate a utopian ring to the Catechism in its description of the Church. The use of the word “unfailingly” in the last sentence is the goal, not the present condition. None of us unfailingly adheres to the faith, executes right judgment, nor behaves accordingly, but in the life of the Church we acknowledge failure and strive for the fullness of virtue. The Gospel of Matthew—this year’s Cycle A Sunday source—describes Jesus’ understanding of the struggle for faith [Peter’s attempt to walk on the water with him], the drive for better understanding of truth [“teacher, explain this parable”] and the open-endedness of bringing faith to conduct [“be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”]
The term “receiving the faith” needs to be understood in terms of the Giver. God is the author and creator of all; while God relates to each of us in ways we can hardly dare imagine, God is also the unchanging essence, the bedrock of reality. How an unchanging God who is “totally” other can engage with the limited and fluid human experience is the key to the mysteries of creation and incarnation. The Catholic Theologian Karl Rahner put it best some years ago when he described Jesus Christ as “the grammar of God’s utterance;” the perfection of Jesus’ human experience is the point where the divine and the human fully connect.
When para. 93 uses the term “faith,” it must be understood as a living encounter with Christ. When the People of God “receive” this faith, it is not a book or collection of documents being handed over, but a collective witness to a real life. Catholic Tradition understands the “passing on” of faith as originating with the genuine lived experiences of the Apostles with Jesus, a faith for some years passed along and received orally until put to paper in the four Gospels and later into creedal and catechetical form four centuries later in the “Christological Councils.” The dogmatic reality of Jesus and his Father remains unchanged throughout history. What does change and develop is (1) the hearer’s ability to “receive” eternal revelation and (2) the hearer’s quest to interpret this revelation into words for communication and virtues for action. [If you have time, you may want to look at a 1979 Vatican document, “Select Questions on Christology,” which addresses recent struggles to “receive” the truth of Christ through Bible studies.]
Catholic theology over the centuries has paid considerable attention to the question of how the faith is transmitted and received. While present-day religious education tools—including the Catechism itself—put considerable emphasis upon the role of the Magisterium—the teaching office of the pope and bishops—to determine the correctness and the content of what is passed along, much less official emphasis is placed upon the role of the baptized laity. This has not always been the case, for Catholic theology over the centuries has established terminology for the place of the faithful. Two related terms are reception and sensus fidelium.
First, the term sensus fidelium refers to a spiritual consensus, so to speak, of the universal Church. Rome was more comfortable with the concept and the term prior to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, when there was more consensus to start with. Christians across the board had considerable input in the formation of creed, worship, and morals. The Canon of the New Testament itself—the selection of the 27 texts we hold as the core of Christian Revelation—was honed from early liturgical usage in local churches. Belief in Mary as the Mother of God evolved from popular piety as much as logical inference. In modern times, as humans have become more independently minded, Rome has hunkered down against anything that smacks of “majority rule” or putting matters to a vote. In 2012 Benedict XVI stated that “the sensus fidei cannot be authentically developed in believers, except to the extent in which they fully participate in the life of the Church, and this demands responsible adherence to the Magisterium, to the deposit of faith.”
Pope Benedict, then, is defining sensus fidelium as a universal affirmation of a Church as it is now. In 2013 Pope Francis affirmed his predecessor a bit more to the point when he said “the sensus fidelium [sense of the faithful] cannot be confused with the sociological reality of a majority opinion.” To understand papal reservations about counting heads in the development of Church teaching, we must turn to another reality of Church theology, the technical term reception. I am providing a link to a lengthy essay on the subject by one the Church’s eminent canon law professors, James A. Corriden, to simply introduce the principle to Catholic readers, since this issue is almost never incorporated into catechetics. Father Corriden, long-time dean of my theological alma mater, would blush with shame at my homespun definition of reception, but here goes: reception is the ecclesiastical equivalent of the old question of what happens if a tree falls to the ground and no one hears it. Did the tree really fall?
In other words, what if the Church teaches a matter of morals (for here is where the problem usually lies) and the faithful as a whole do not receive it? The textbook case is Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 which declared that artificial birth control was intrinsically immoral, a prohibition against the pill and barrier methods of birth control in the sexual acts of married couples. Many Catholic moralists of the day took issue with the encyclical’s overly physical emphasis upon the integrity of the sex act as a matter of procreation at the expense of the unitive nature of conjugal love. As for the laity’s reaction, look around your church and count the two and three children families.
Official Church reaction to this “non-reception” has been to double-down, as a rule, and adherence to Humanae Vitae’s teaching turned into something of a litmus test for clerics seeking promotion. This is unfortunate on several scores. The most serious consequence has been the regrettable effect of the faithful’s taking many of the Church’s sexual teachings seriously. Along with that, an opportunity was lost to listen to the genuine experiences of Catholic couples who might have enriched the Church by their input. In his autobiography the noted moralist Father Bernard Haring, a member of the panel to advise Pope Paul on the matter prior to Humanae Vitae, discusses how his interactions with the married couples on the panel impacted his thinking on marital sexuality. In one of the rare occasions when heads were actually counted in 1966, Pope Paul overrode a 3-1 majority vote from his panel against a prohibition of artificial contraception.
The matters of reception and sensus fidelium, it goes without saying, place great responsibilities upon the Church across the board. History is witness to the fact that God has been generous in revelation and wisdom in every age and to all strata of the ecclesial society. A teaching Church must listen, and its contributors need to bring prayer, thought, and experience to the Lord’s table.