Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Recovering Our Sensus

Twenty Third Ordinary Sunday Year B

You don’t have to be blind or deaf to be cut off from the world. Illiteracy is quite capable of bringing on the same results. In general terms, illiteracy is an inability to use language -- an inability to read, write, listen and speak. But taken in its wider sense, illiteracy can refer to any area or aspect of our lives where we experience ignorance. For example, it is no secret that Americans are notorious for their geographical illiteracy. Most Americans can’t find New York on their own map, what more ‘Malaysia.’ They may well think it’s part of the African continent, whilst pointing to a spot on the Australian continent.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgment on them and fail to recognise that we are equally guilty of another kind of illiteracy, perhaps, one that is far more severe. Today, many members of the Catholic Church suffer from ‘religious illiteracy’, or the scandal of religious ignorance. The deafness and blindness referred to in today’s reading speak less of a physical defect than of a spiritual one. The spiritually blind were prevented from seeing and recognising God’s works whereas the deaf were unable to hear and respond to His Word. When asked questions about the basic tenets of our faith, many Catholics would not be able to provide the correct answers. Few Catholics really know or understand their faith. The faith knowledge of many Catholics can best be described as abysmal.

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI in recent times has repeatedly highlighted the phenomenon and danger of religious illiteracy in the Church. He describes this phenomenon by stating that many adult Catholics have not grown beyond their first catechism. They still remain perpetually stunted in the faith of their childhood.

If the condition of deafness and blindness is the result of a flaw or defect in one or more of our sensory organs, then religious illiteracy is being cut off from the sensus fidelium. What is ‘sensus fidelium’? The term literally means "sense of the faithful." It refers to unerring truth sensed or recognized by the entire body of the faithful-“from the Magisterium to the last of the laity”, according to St. Augustine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this as “the supernatural appreciation of faith (senses fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”  In other words, through the Holy Spirit of Truth, Christ our Lord has given the whole body of believers a supernatural and infallible instinct of orthodoxy. Now this is a doctrine that is frequently misinterpreted.

Foundational to understanding the sensus fidelium is to understand who do we mean by ‘the faithful.’ There are never differing or opposing voices among the faithful when it comes to the sensus fidelium. In other words, there can never be some, like the lay faithful, expressing one sense and the hierarchy another. If one does not share the same sensus fidei as that propounded by the Magisterium, the Teaching Authority of the Church who has been assigned to preserve and protect the integrity of Christ’s revelation and continue to communicate the same one faith to all generations and to all places, then he is not part of the sensus fidelium. The individual believer participates in the Church's sensus fidei only insofar as he is guided by and faithfully obedient to the Magisterium. It is an oxymoron to describe the ‘unfaithful’ as ‘faithful’. The Pope and the College of Bishops cannot be separated from the ‘symphony’ of the whole People of God.

Critics of the Magisterium’s authority to guide and to teach have often deliberately chosen to separate the ministry of the Pope and the Bishops from the other faithful and consequently accused the hierarchy of being ‘out of touch’ with the sensus fidelium, and by this they do not mean the traditional theological definition of the term but rather the felt sense of the popular masses, namely the laity. They see the sensus fidelium as some form of consensus-taking through the lived experiences of the common people. In other words, if the majority of people do not practice the Church’s ban on contraceptives, then the Church’s laws must be amended. Popular practice becomes the litmus test for doctrines.

This thinking is seriously flawed because the doctrines of the Church are based upon divinely revealed truths, not opinions or subjective feelings. The sense of faith cannot be determined statistically or sociologically. It is not 'public opinion', current tendencies, the latest fashion in theology. The opinion and vote of the majority is not infallible. See how the popular vote in pre-World War II Germany raised a monster like Hitler as their Fuhrer. This is what our Holy Father calls the politicisation of the “People of God”, a term that was used during Vatican II to describe the Church. He reminds us that the scriptural concept of People of God is hierarchical rather than just another socialist egalitarian polity. At the end of the day, it is these critics and those who choose dissent from the magisterium’s authority who are really out of touch with the sensus fidelium. At the end of the day, their blindness has deluded them into substituting the mystery of the divinely instituted Church with a human social construct.

Since, religious illiteracy is the result of a lack of knowledge in what the Church actually teaches and why, the solution is obvious. We must recover this knowledge of our faith through renewed catecheses. Pope Benedict reminds us that what the Church needs most urgently in our present times is catecheses. Our Holy Father tells us that these catecheses should not be presented merely as “a package of dogmas and commandments, but as a unique reality that reveals itself through its depth and beauty." He is convinced that "we will renew the church only if we renew people's knowledge of the faith".

Is mere knowledge of our catechism sufficient? When the Holy Scriptures talk about knowledge - especially knowledge between people - it means something much deeper than our how we use the verb in everyday language. This biblical ‘knowledge’ isn't limited to the external or superficial information that we can know about another person.  Instead, it refers to an intimate communion. To really ‘know’ someone would mean uniting ourselves with that person. Knowing Christ cannot be reduced to a simple acquaintance with what is found in the Gospels, or to some creedal formula or even to what the Church teaches.  Although these things are necessarily urgent especially in our age that is so marked by religious illiteracy, knowledge of our faith should ultimately lead us into an intimate communion with Christ. It is a communion which transforms us and lifts us up to the reality of being the children of God, a dignity we had already received at baptism.   

We are the deaf and the blind of whom Isaiah speaks. If sin has blinded us and caused us to turn a deaf ear to God, faith and obedience now opens the way for humanity’s emancipation from the powers of the tomb. Today, more than ever, all Catholics need to recover, heal and restore our place in the sensus fidelium. We need to hear the liberating and illuminating words of Jesus, ‘Ephphatha! Be opened!’ As our Holy Father had exhorted us, “we must do everything possible for catechetical renewal (and evangelization) in order for the faith to be known, God to be known, Christ to be known, the truth to be known, and for unity in the truth to grow.” Without an authentic sensus fidei, we will remain deaf to voice of Christ speaking through his Beloved Bride, the Church. Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The Truth of Christ will bridge the broadening gap between faith and the culture of unbelief, between the Gospel and everyday life, and between the proclamation of the Message and the indifference and practical atheism of many men and women of our time. In this way, faith will heal our spiritual blindness and deafness, the cause of the rift that cuts us off from the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, that supernatural instinct and intuition that binds us to orthodoxy. By faith, God gives us the ears to hear His Word, the heart to believe it, the eyes to see what is unseen, and the hope to grasp His promises. He gives it in word, and in bread and wine, and in water. So that we may once again with confidence and firm conviction exclaim now and forever, “"He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."

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