The Catholic Church’s teaching on the sensus fidei (sense of the faith) has been given attention recently, due to appeals to the concept by Jesuit Father James Martin, author of Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity.

The teaching is a time-honored one, but it is often misunderstood. So it was helpful that, in 2014, the International Theological Commission promulgated a document titled simply, Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church.” Though it does not aim to be the “exhaustive account of the sensus fidei,” the document is a great gift, as it sheds the proper light on this teaching.

The International Theological Commission (ITC) is a body of theologians from around the world appointed by the pope to advise the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The theologians of the 2009-2014 ITC wrote that the sensus fidei is “a supernatural instinct, intrinsically linked to the gift of faith received in the communion of the Church.” It is a “knowledge of the heart” not of rational deliberation.

It is born of the virtue of faith, which can become a kind of “second nature,” so that when the faithful Christian is presented with a proposition that touches on the faith, he or she immediately receives it as either true to the apostolic teaching or a corruption. It is an “intuition” that is honed or improved according to the degree to which one lives the virtue of faith.

What does this look like? A remarkable example can be found in the autobiographical book A Memory for Wonders by Mother Veronica Namoyo Le Goulard.

Though raised by atheist parents, she was surreptitiously baptized thanks to her grandparents. Those baptismal graces worked on her early so that, at the age of 3, through a mystical experience, she understood that there was a God and that he knew her and loved her. This began in her a habit of faith. At about the age of 6, she encountered a crucifix for the first time. She immediately intuited that the image was of God who had suffered and died for her.

The truth of Christ, of the Blessed Virgin and of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist were all realities that over time she instinctively received and accepted as true, without any formal instruction and despite a preliminary distaste for some of the rational explanations of the Church.

This is possible because, as the Catechism teaches, while faith is a personal act, it is not “an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone” (166). The Church talks not just about the sensus fidei fidelis (the sense of the faith according to one’s personal faith), but also of the sensus fidei fidelium (the sense of the faith of the whole Church).

Thus the faith of the Church militant, suffering and triumphant, the faith of today and yesterday, was all available to Mother Veronica by virtue of her baptism. And so, when presented with the truth, she instinctively recognized and endorsed the teachings as authentic Gospel truths.

All the faithful have access to this same sort of sense, though it does not typically manifest itself in quite as extraordinary of a way as Mother Veronica’s did.

The ITC states that “the magisterium has to be attentive to the sensus fidelium,” as it “can be an important factor in the development of doctrine.” This is so as to banish “the caricature of an active hierarchy and a passive laity.”

The laity are baptized priest, prophet and king, and the sensus fidei is a means by which the laity can fulfill their prophetic role. However, some theologians arguing for the democratization of magisterial teaching have posited that the sensus fidei is discernible by counting how many Catholics today accept or “receive” a teaching. The conclusion is that in order to be able to teach authoritatively, the magisterium must consult today’s laity about controvertible teachings.

So it is that in a July 2017 piece for America magazine, Father Martin argued that he avoided writing about the Church’s teaching on same-sex relationships in his recent book because, “theologically speaking, you could say that these teachings have not been ‘received’ by the LGBT community, to whom they were directed.” In an interview shortly thereafter, he went on to say that for the Church’s “teaching to be complete it must be appreciated, accepted and understood by the faithful.” This, he said, is what is meant by the “sensus fidei or sensus fidelium.” Later in August, Father Martin stated that “for a teaching to be really authoritative, it is expected that it will be received by the People of God, by the faithful.” For example, he said, “the Assumption is declared, and people accept that. People, they go to the feast of the Assumption — they believe in the Assumption; it’s received.”

However, in the case of the Assumption, the People of God “received” the truth about Mary and integrated it into their life and worship for centuries before Pope Pius XII’s promulgation in 1950, not after. The dogma of the Assumption is actually the perfect example of how a teaching already intuited and accepted by the People of God was finally ratified or confirmed by the magisterium, not the other way around.

This is why the ITC wrote that “reception” should be understood as “a process by which … the People of God recognizes intuitions or insights and integrates them into the patterns and structures of its life and worship … because it perceives them to be in accord with the apostolic Tradition.” This is precisely what happened with the dogma of the Assumption. The laity recognized the truth of the teaching and integrated it into their Catholic life.

Most importantly, according to the ITC, in the mind of the believer, the “correct intuitions of the sensus fidei can be mixed up with various purely human opinions, or even with errors linked to the narrow confines of a particular cultural context.”

How are such mix-ups resolved? Quoting the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, the ITC points out that it is the magisterium that has received “the sure charism of truth.” The magisterium is the organ by which the sensus fidei can be distinguished from the errors that may arise among Catholics, even many Catholics in a particular period of time and in a particular cultural context.

The elevation and articulation of teaching on the sensus fidei has been an authentic fruit of the Second Vatican Council. It has revived the notion that each baptized person is a participant in the Ecclesia docens (teaching Church), not just a passive observer of the Ecclesia discens (learning Church). Yet, toward the end of the document, the ITC notes that, “in the history of the People of God, it has often been not the majority, but, rather the minority, which has truly lived and witnessed to the faith.”

This recalls the ancient principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi (the law of praying is the law of believing is the law of living). For theologians interested in the sensus fidei on one controversial doctrine, the best thing to do is seek out the hearts of the “little ones who believe” (Mark 9:42) — those who pray, believe and live as joy-filled Catholics in all they do, and so witness to how we might all “receive” difficult teachings in the spirit of Gospel truth.

Omar Gutierrez is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska. He is an instructor with Holy Family School of Faith in Omaha.