Sensus Fidelium: The Age of the Laity Now Arises

The time might be soon approaching when the schism in the Catholic Church will become more open and apparent. We must pray earnestly that we can avoid this fate.  We must pray to God that the bishops of the Church wake up and realize the great threat that stands before us.  If they don’t, it will be the laity and the “sensus fidelium” which will take up the challenge again as it did during the Arian crisis. 

Servant of God, John Henry Cardinal Newman, who is soon to be beatified by Pope Benedict XVI later on this year, said this exact thing in his famous “Historical tracts”.  In those tracts, Newman describes the situation in the fourth Century during the Arian crisis which had engulfed the Eastern Church and much of the Western Church.  The two bishops standing against Arianism were the Pope and Saint Athanasius  – the latter was the source of the famous phrase Athanasius contra mundum  (“Athanasius Against the World”) for his trenchant defense of the Trinity against the subordinationist heretics. The “sensus fidelium” of the laity ended up saving the Church because they would not follow the heretical bishops who subscribed to the Arian or Semi-Arian heresy.  In fact,today, we have widespread moral and theological heresy going on in the Church.  Some of it has even reached the top.

The Rambler was a Catholic periodical which, from 1848, tried to show that English Catholics were intellectually serious and capable of rational discussion. For decades, until well after World War II, English Catholicism faced the constant challenged that it was both Unenglish and intellectually and morally deficient…  The argument made by Newman in fact went beyond insisting that the laity have abilities in their own sphere, to insist,  essentially, that the consensus of the faithful may preserve important doctrines even when the bishops fail – pointing especially to the history of the Arian controversy. This elevated view of the position of the laity did not become important in the wider Church until the Second Vatican Council.

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It is not a little remarkable, that, though, historically speaking, the fourth century is the age of doctors, illustrated, as it was, by the saints Athanasius, Hilary, the two Gregories, Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine, and all of these saints bishops also, except one, nevertheless in that very day the divine tradition committed to the infallible Church was proclaimed and maintained far more by the faithful than by the Episcopate.

Here, of course, I must explain: in saying this, then, undoubtedly I am not denying that the great body of the Bishops were in their internal belief orthodox; nor that there were numbers of clergy who stood by the laity, and acted as their centres and guides; nor that the laity actually received their faith, in the first instance, from the Bishops and clergy; nor that some portions of the laity were ignorant, and other portions at length corrupted by the Arian teachers, who got possession of the sees and ordained an heretical clergy;-but I mean still, that in that time of immense confusion the divine dogma of our Lord’s divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved, far more by the “Ecclesia docta” than by the “Ecclesia docens;” that the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism; that at one time the Pope, at other times the patriarchal, metropolitan, and other great sees, at other times general councils, said what they should not have said, or did what obscured and compromised revealed truth; while, on the other hand, it was the Christian people who, under Providence, were the ecclesiastical strength of Athanasius, Hilary, Eusebius of Vercellae, and other great solitary confessors, who would have failed without them.

I see, then, in the Arian history a palmary example of a state of the Church, during which, in order to know the tradition of the Apostles, we must have recourse to the faithful; for I fairly own, that if I go to writers, since I must adjust the letter of Justin, Clement, and Hippolytus with the Nicene Doctors, I get confused; and what revives and reinstates me, as far as history goes, is the faith of the people. For I argue that, unless they had been catechised, as St. Hilary says, in the orthodox faith from the time of their baptism, they never could have had that horror, which they show, of the heterodox Arian doctrine. Their voice, then, is the voice of tradition; and the instance comes to us with still greater emphasis, when we consider -1. that it occurs in the very beginning of the history of the “Ecclesia docens,” for there can scarcely be said to be any history of her teaching till the age of martyrs was over; 2. that the doctrine in controversy was so momentous, being the very foundation-of the Christian system; 3. that the state of controversy and disorder lasted over the long space of sixty years; and 4. that it involved serious persecutions, in life, limb, and property, to the faithful whose loyal perseverance decided it.

It seems, then, as striking an instance as I could take in fulfilment of Father Perrone’s statement, that the voice of tradition may in certain cases express itself, not by Councils, nor Fathers, nor Bishops, but the “communis fidelium sensus.”

I shall set down some authorities for the two points successively, which I have to enforce, viz. that the Nicene dogma was maintained during the greater part of the 4th century,

    1. not by the unswerving firmness of the Holy See, Councils, or Bishops, but

    2. by the “consensus fidelium.”

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In this work, Newman provided examples from Church history — most notably the Arian crisis — in which the main body of the laity upheld the orthodox catholic faith while bishops and councils lapsed into negligence, error, and even apostasy. He further supported his argument with patristic testimony appealing to the consensus fidelium, or the popular consensus of the faithful, in matters of doctrine. The essay was controversial because it was misunderstood. In the first place, the word “consult” was problematic from the start. Newman was compelled to explain that his use of the word “consult” was “expressive of trust and deference, but not of submission.” This is an important point for those who might think in terms of “mutual submission” between the laity and hierarchy. A father who wishes to arrange his daughter’s education may consult with her, but only for the purpose of informing his own decisions: he does not “submit” to her. Likewise, the hierarchy consults the laity, but only for the purpose of making better judgments: the hierarchy does not “submit” to the laity.

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2 thoughts on “Sensus Fidelium: The Age of the Laity Now Arises

  1. If one studies Saint Peter 1 chapter 2 in context, one has no choice but to heed his call. If the call is taken good action always comes forth, even in a hostile world that teaches love without meaning and abortion without guilt.

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