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Letter to Women

Sensus Fidelium – An Introduction   

by Colette Joyce

The Acts of the Apostles tells us that on the day of Pentecost Peter stood up and told the crowd the full story about Jesus for the first time.  “Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 3:41).  The church began with a great outpouring of the spirit upon a multitude of people who accepted the truth of this new faith into their hearts. Each one of us, I would suggest, catches something of this fervour anew from time to time when the truth of our faith stirs within us and we ache to respond with all that we are, for this good news of God who became a man and died and rose from the dead for us is the best news we have ever been told. From this begins the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, whereby we collectively recognise doctrinal truth. We participate in this through the sensus fidei, sense of faith of the individual believer within the community of the faithful.

Lumen Gentium  expresses it beautifully, linking the sensus fidelium to baptism, our life in Christ: "The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. Jn 2:20, 27), cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole people's supernatural discernment in matters of faith when 'from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful' they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. (LG12)

As the crowd were guided by Peter that first day so we recognize the leadership of a Magisterium to the present day: “It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the People of God accepts that which is not just the word of human beings (men) but truly the Word of God (cf. 1 Thes. 2:13)”. It is not the individual Catholic who carries the sensus fidelium but only that faith which is tested by all believers in the light of the teaching of the Magisterium. The imperative to lift up our voices if the Magisterium is perceived to be in error thus becomes all the greater.

The Church has always believed that its true Tradition is not fully expressed in external statements or practices. Tradition also contains “the gospel which our Lord did not write, but taught by word of mouth and implanted in people’s hearts, and part of which the evangelists later wrote down, while much was simply entrusted to the hearts of the faithful” (Joseph Ratzinger, ‘On the Interpretation of the Tridentine Decree on Tradition’, in Revelation and Tradition, by K. Rahner and J. Ratzinger, Burns & Oates, London 1966, pp. 50-68.) This Tradition is known as ‘the Gospel in the Heart’.

As we examine the history of the Church we discover a constant awareness of women's capability for Holy Orders:

1.Through devotion to Mary as priest. In art Mary was depicted in priestly or Episcopal vestments.  

2.The long traditions of the female diaconate in the East until the 10th century and its repeated attempt at emergence elsewhere indicate a tradition in waiting. There have been isolated cases of women having been ordained priests, especially in the South of Italy. Could it be that the resistance that led to decrees against female ordination in councils can be traced to sexism and ancient prejudices against women?  

3.For many centuries St Mary Magdalene was venerated as a woman saint who had preached (something presumed to be the sole privilege of priests)

4.All sacraments are administered in the name of Christ. But women administer both the sacrament of baptism and marriage.

5.Throughout the centuries outstanding women have testified to their awareness of their (equality in) close union to Christ.

6.The church herself is portrayed as feminine but there is a dissonance when the word “she” is used to describe teachings that have been agreed only among males. When Paul VI says that the Church “does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination” (Inter Insignores, 1977) this can be particularly painful because we hear the female pronoun but we can’t connect it to an experience of femininity.

Finally a word about the acceptance of the message or its “reception” if a doctrine is to be understood as truth by the sensus fidelium in our own time.

Ormond Rush locates the importance of reception of doctrine in twelve interconnecting dialogues[1] (cf. http://www.womenpriests.org/teaching/gaill6.asp). I shall focus just on one: “reception between a local church and its particular context in the world”. Slavery provides a good example. At the end of the 18th century the papacy was still teaching that the Bible did not ban slavery. However, the conditions for slaves of the time were appalling, with death on prison ships, separation of families and brutal punishments all common. This did not sit comfortably with a teaching that slave and free are one in Christ. In our own time as we examine our context for evidence of right relationships between men and women in the church, we become aware that many male priests enter into secret or abusive relations with women, women are trained in theology and pastoral care yet find few roles in parishes where they can use their gifts, and the Magisterium use fear to suppress requests for discussion. It does not sit comfortably with a teaching that men and women are one in Christ. Instead, there is a rising groundswell of opinion that women can be priests as a matter of pastoral need.

We are part of a worldwide universal church and must look for a shared understanding not just in one segment of that church but across all its different communities – whether they come with labels of “conservative” or “liberal”, which are unhelpful labels in this case.  In seeking the sensus fidelium we must be careful not to seek it only within a limited comfort zone. We will have women priests only when we can have them in every Catholic community from enclosed convents, to active orders, to Opus Dei, to Vatican departments, to urban chaplaincies and the remotest of parishes.  If it is right for the church then it will come.


Loving God,

Help us, your sons and daughters

to hear your Word

spoken in the very depths of our being

and to respond willingly

for the service of

your Church and world.

Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.


[1] reception between God and humanity;

(2) reception between God and the whole community of believers;

(3) reception between God and the Roman Catholic Church as a communion of churches;

(4) reception between the episcopal magisterium and the sensus fidelium of the whole body of the faithful;

(5) reception between a local church and its particular context in the world;

(6) reception between local churches in communio;

(7) reception between local churches and the church of Rome in communio;

(8) reception between theologians and their local church in its context;

(9) reception within and between diverse theologies;

(10) reception between the episcopal magisterium and theology;

(11) reception between separated churches and ecclesial communities;

(12) reception between Christian churches and other religions.

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