What would Jesus do? This question, emblazoned as an acronym on the wristbands of countless Christians across America (a veritable phylactery of sorts), sums up neatly the desire of believers to live out the Gospel authentically and put their faith into practice. What is it precisely that the Christian of faith can tap into that distinguishes the Christian from any other random reader of the Christian Scriptures? How does the Christian, reading « the signs of the times », as St. Ignatius of Antioch first exhorted us to do, determine what is or is not consistent with the Gospel revealed in the person of Jesus Christ?
In their latest document addressing a well-seasoned discussion—‘Sensus Fidei : In the Life of the Church’--the International Theological Commission has reflected anew upon the phenomenon of the sensus fidei fidelis : the appreciation or sense of the faith held by the individual faithful Christian.
The sensus fidei fidelis is a sort of supernatural spiritual instinct that enables the believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith. (n. 49) In fact, « the sensus fidei fidelis flows from the theological virtue of faith. » (n. 56) As a theological virtue, faith « enables the believer to participate in the knowledge that God has of himself and of all things. » (n. 53) There are two key themes here : God’s knowledge and virtue. Since the content of the Gospel and the apostolic faith are divinely revealed, the Christian requires God’s grace both to have and to exercise this theological virtue. Like any other virtue, the sensus fidei fidelis is not inherent in the Christian without exception or parameter. We have to be well-disposed to make use of it (n. 87) and this means :
1) Participation in the Life of the Church
The sensus fidei fidelis belongs to the faithful Christian (hence fidelis). Remember the Marine Corps motto, « Semper Fidelis »--Always Faithful. The faithful Christian makes regular use of the sacraments drawing upon the graces of the Eucharist and confession as cornerstone of her life. (n.89) In fact, it is only by participation in the larger sensus fidei fidelium which is borne the Church as a whole that the individual Christian is able to think or feel with the Church (sentir cum ecclesia). (n.90) The two are inseparable.
2) Listening to the Word of God
Any faithful understanding of the Gospel must be coherent with the Christian Scriptures. This is because both the Scriptures and such an understanding flow from the same divine source. We ought to be steeped in the Scriptures, reading them daily. As St. Jerome commented, « ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. »
3) Openness to Reason
The God of the Gospel is also the God of Truth and reason and so to be open to reason is to be open to all that this God reveals. To hold a faithful understanding of God’s revelation requires an openness to the rationality with which God has created the universe and both his and its intelligibility. Faith and reason are not opposed despite the claims of Dawkins et al.
4) Adherence to the Magisterium
« The subjects of the sensus fidei are members of the Church who heed the words of Jesus to the envoys he sends: ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me’ (Lk 10:16). » (n.98) A willing attentiveness to the Church’s pastors and by her pastors is only possible in an environment of freedom. Accusations of « blind obedience » against faithful Catholics are mere ad hominems which refuse to acknowledge that every human being is endowed with reason and cannot but try to live in accord with that reason.
5) Holiness – Humility, Freedom and Joy
Here’s a challenging requirement : « Authentic participation in the sensus fidei requires holiness. » (n.99) However, we ought not be surprised that the criterion which verifies the presence of holiness is participation in the Trinitarian life of the Godhead. In other words, since by definition only God is holy, our ‘holiness’ « fundamentally means to belong to God in Jesus Christ and in his Church, to be baptized and to live the faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. » Make no mistake though; one cannot presume to believe with the Church while contradicting what she teaches. As Chesterton has quipped : « The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried. »
6) Seeking the Edification of the Church
Last but not least, a Christian participating in the sensus fidei will participate also in the missionary spirit of the Church seeking to build up the Church both by affirming and confirming the gifts which the Holy Spirit confers on each member of the faithful for « the common good » (1 Cor 12 :7) and by serving as an instrument of the Holy Spirit to incorporate new members into the body of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit which is in fact this same missionary spirit guiding the Church.
Ultimately to know what Jesus would do, we are not left guessing in the dark. In establishing the Church and providing the sacraments, Christ has provided the means for us to know with surety what we must do. We know where to go for both knowledge and strength: guided by the Scriptures, Tradition, and the Magisterium and strengthened to act in charity and truth by God’s graces imparted in the sacraments. Never alone in seeking the truth, we are able with the help of the sensus fidei to recognize the way ahead on our pilgrim journey back to the Trinity.