If Enough People Reject Church Teaching, Does That Make It Wrong?

by Jimmy Akin

in Apologetics, The Church, Theology

Dissent_magazine_US_logoIt’s no secret that, today, a lot of people disagree with the Church’s teaching on various points.

That’s no surprise. The Church, like Christ, has always been “a sign that is spoken against” (Luke 2:34).

What’s more surprising—and scandalous—is that in our age many professing Catholics reject Church teaching, even teachings regarded as infallible.

The most famous example is the Church’s teaching on contraception. Opinion polls have revealed widespread dissent from this teaching, even among Catholics.

Sometimes those seeking to justify this dissent argue that the Church’s teaching on contraception has not been “received” by the faithful, and therefore is not authoritative. (More recently, Fr. James Martin, SJ has proposed a similar argument concerning homosexual behavior.)

What are they talking about?


Reception and the Sense of the Faithful

After reviewing how the Holy Spirit assists the Church when it infallibly defines a teaching, the fathers of the Second Vatican council stated:

To these definitions the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the activity of that same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith (Lumen Gentium 25).

The Council teaches that the Holy Spirit preserves the flock of Christ in the unity of faith. And so, when the Magisterium infallibly defines a teaching, the Holy Spirit guides the faithful to accept—or “receive”—that teaching.

This process of reception reflects what theologians have called the “sense of the faithful” (sensus fidelium) or the “sense of faith” (sensus fidei).

According to Vatican II:

The whole body of the faithful . . . cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus 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 (Lumen Gentium 12; CCC 92).

The Holy Spirit thus gives the Church—including the ordinary faithful—a supernatural sense of what constitutes the true faith, and when the Magisterium infallibly defines a point of faith, the Holy Spirit guides the Church’s members to accept or receive this teaching.


Clarifying the Sense of the Faithful

In the debate over contraception that followed Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, dissenters argued that so many Catholics rejected its teaching that the process of reception had not occurred and thus that the teaching was not accurate or authoritative.

They even used quotations from Vatican II—like the ones we have just seen—to argue their point.

This led defenders of the Church’s teaching to try to clarify the proper role of the sense of the faithful.

One point they made was that the process of reception is just that: a process. You can’t look at the immediate reaction to a teaching as a definitive guide. You have to give the Holy Spirit time to do his work in guiding the faithful.

Over time, a number of documents appeared that treated the subject of reception and the sense of the faithful.

One of the most thorough was produced by the International Theological Commission.

The ITC is not itself an organ of the Magisterium. Instead, it is an advisory body run by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Its documents are submitted to the pope and the CDF, and they are only published “on condition that there is not any difficulty on the part of the Apostolic See” (Statutes 12; cf. 11).

The ITC’s published documents—like its 2014 Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church, which was authorized for publication by Cardinal Muller—are thus considered theologically orthodox.


The ITC on Reception

The ITC notes that, despite the generally smooth reception of magisterial teachings:

There are occasions, however, when the reception of magisterial teaching by the faithful meets with difficulty and resistance, and appropriate action on both sides is required in such situations.

The faithful must reflect on the teaching that has been given, making every effort to understand and accept it. Resistance, as a matter of principle, to the teaching of the magisterium is incompatible with the authentic sensus fidei.

The magisterium must likewise reflect on the teaching that has been given and consider whether it needs clarification or reformulation in order to communicate more effectively the essential message (n. 80).


Conditions for the Sense of the Faithful

The ITC pointed out that just because a person is a Catholic doesn’t mean he is authentically displaying a true sense of faith. The fact Catholics disagree on various points guarantees that they can’t all be right, and it’s obvious that some Catholics are more faithful than others.

Through his work in our lives, God offers all the baptized guidance in discerning truth from falsehood, but we still have free will, and so we must cooperate with his work for this guidance to bear fruit.

The commission thus identified a set of criteria that an individual needs to authentically participate in the sense of faith:

a) Participation in the life of the Church
b) Listening to the word of God
c) Openness to reason
d) Adherence to the magisterium
e) Holiness—humility, freedom, and joy
f) Seeking the edification of the Church

All of these are common sense.

  • If a person was baptized Catholic but subsequently has never darkened a church’s door, he is so disconnected from his faith that he can’t be said to display a supernatural sense of faith.
  • The Faith is contained in the word of God, and so a willingness to listen to Scripture and Tradition is needed.
  • A person who is unreasonable, who is determined to hold his opinions regardless of the arguments brought forward, is not displaying the discernment needed to distinguish truth from falsehood.
  • Christ gave us a Magisterium, and a person who fundamentally refuses to listen to that Magisterium is not authentically faithful.
  • Holiness is a key goal of God’s work in our lives, and a person who doesn’t seek and display holiness is not cooperating with that work.
  • Finally, God guides individuals to build up or edify their fellow Christians, and someone fundamentally oriented toward creating division and disedification is not cooperating with him.


Opinion Polls and the Sense of the Faithful

In many parts of the world, America included, most Catholics don’t even go to Mass on a regular basis. They thus don’t seem to have the level of involvement in their faith needed to meet even the first criterion laid out by the ITC.

When you consider how many Catholics display the qualities listed above, it is clear that public opinion polls cannot be relied upon as a guide to the sense of the faithful. Thus the ITC comments that one can’t identify the sense of faith with public opinion:

i) First of all, the sensus fidei is obviously related to faith, and faith is a gift not necessarily possessed by all people, so the sensus fideican certainly not be likened to public opinion in society at large.

Then also, while Christian faith is, of course, the primary factor uniting members of the Church, many different influences combine to shape the views of Christians living in the modern world.

As the above discussion of dispositions implicitly shows, the sensus fidei cannot simply be identified, therefore, with public or majority opinion in the Church, either. Faith, not opinion, is the necessary focus of attention.

Opinion is often just an expression, frequently changeable and transient, of the mood or desires of a certain group or culture, whereas faith is the echo of the one Gospel which is valid for all places and times.

ii) In the history of the people of God, it has often been not the majority but rather a minority which has truly lived and witnessed to the faith. The Old Testament knew the ‘holy remnant’ of believers, sometimes very few in number, over against the kings and priests and most of the Israelites. . . .

In many countries today, Christians are under strong pressure from other religions or secular ideologies to neglect the truth of faith and weaken the boundaries of ecclesial community. It is therefore particularly important to discern and listen to the voices of the “little ones who believe” (Mk 9:42) (n. 118).

Therefore, one needs to think twice before one takes the latest opinion poll—whether about contraception or anything else—as a sign that a particular Church teaching has not been received by the faithful.

Obviously, many who dissent from Church teaching are regular churchgoers, and they may meet multiple criteria identified by the ITC. However, the fundamental point remains that the true sense of faith is displayed by those who are authentically faithful and not simply those who are baptized.

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brian kundinger October 6, 2017 at 8:15 am

looking back through history, the church is filled with corruption. Today, news is instantly available. God wrote the old testament through Moses. Jesus preached what became the New testament. So these two books are not preached in todays church because what some pope says is more Godlike ? The pews are becoming emptier because more and more Christians believe in the bible and not church doctrine.

Bill 912 October 7, 2017 at 5:50 am

The Old and New Testaments are NOT preached in the Catholic Church???!!! The Catholic Mass is immersed in the Scriptures! At every Sunday Mass we have three scripture readings, plus a psalm. The prayers of the Mass are awash in Scripture. The homily after the Gospel is ABOUT the scripture readings of that Sunday’s Mass.

Please provide evidence for both assertions in your last sentence.

R.C. October 7, 2017 at 4:43 pm

@brian kundinger:

You say, “So [the OT and NT] are not preached in todays church because what some pope says is more Godlike?”

What a strawman. No Catholic who knows his faith thinks that, or ever has.

You add, “The pews are becoming emptier because more and more Christians believe in the bible and not church doctrine.”

(a.) The Bible and the Magisterial Teaching of Christ’s Church (what you call “church doctrine”) do not contradict one another. Instead, the meaning of the Bible (when properly understood) is just one part (albeit the largest and most important part) of the Magisterial Teaching of Christ’s Church.

(b.) The canon of Scripture is, after all, a Magisterial teaching. It was Christ’s Church that preserved those books. It was Christ’s Church which discerned which 1st-century writings were both Authentic and Apostolic-In-Authority, which were Authentic but of less-than-Apostolic authority, and which were Spurious. The last group was discarded, the middle group was approved “for private devotional reading,” and the first group was canonized as “The New Testament.” All the men who did that canonizing were Catholic bishops who heard confessions, believed in the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome, and celebrated the Eucharist as an unbloody sacrifice of the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In short: The New Testament canon used by Protestants today was invented by Catholic bishops and exists as an exercise of the authority of the Magisterium.

(If you have no Magisterium, you have no New Testament. If you don’t trust the Magisterium, you have no principled excuse for trusting that your New Testament contains the right books.)

(c.) As for why the pews are empty?

That’s an easy one: Theological Liberalism Producing Confusion and Indifference. If every Catholic was as well-catechized and as orthodox as St. Thomas Aquinas by the time they graduated high school, not only would most of them be smarter and holier, but they’d show up for Mass. Instead, they’ve generally been raised on weak-tea sentimentalism. Nobody insists on them WORKING to know their faith. And the challenging call to moral holiness is watered down as well.

The result is a bunch of young Catholics being taught Episcopalianism instead of Catholicism. And as many have noted, Episcopalianism gives little reason to bother with Christianity at all, which is why it’s nearly extinct. Since the Episcopalians in Episcopal churches don’t bother showing up at church, small wonder that the Episcopalians in Catholic churches don’t either!

Doug October 8, 2017 at 2:56 pm

If CCC has anything to do with this discussion, then CCC#86 can be considered: ‘Magisterium is the servant of scripture.’ Many of us prefer to follow a master in that case. It has the virtue of consistency.
Many Catholics will say that they are equal in the eyes of the Church, while the Church often puts Magisterium ahead. Anyone who says otherwise, quoting scripture in establishing truth, is brushed off as “sola scriptura” – whatever that means – and told, ‘The Church gave the bible to the world’, as if that gives it the right to ignore its teachings.
And you wonder why the Church and its members are confused!

Bill 912 October 8, 2017 at 5:15 pm

What has me confused is your post. Perhaps you could give us some specifics?

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