Charles E. CURRAN and Lisa A. FULLAM, eds. The Sensus Fidelium and Moral Theology. Readings in Moral Theology No. 18.New York: Paulist Press, 2017. pp. 300. $34.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8091-5315-2. Reviewed by Ryan MARR, Mercy College of Health Sciences, Des Moines, IA 50309.


     The 2014 International Theological Commission (ITC) document, “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church,” represented a landmark study in the Catholic Church’s articulation of the sensus fidelium. The issuing of this document initiated a new era of engagement with Church teaching regarding the sense of the faithful, and, since that time, discussions of the idea have proceeded with the ITC’s theological treatment as an integral reference point. Appropriately, then, the recently published collection of essays, The Sensus Fidelium and Moral Theology, begins with a reprinting of the 2014 ITC document. By making this editorial decision, Charles Curran and Lisa Fullam signal that the reader will have difficulty tracking the discussion that follows without first having a working knowledge of “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church.”

  According to the editors, the sensus fidelium is properly understood as “the whole Church’s own instinct of faith” (vii). This idea came to the fore of ecclesiological reflection following the Second Vatican Council, which affirmed that “the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief … when ‘from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals” (Lumen Gentium, no. 12). The contributors to this volume take Lumen Gentium’s assertion and apply it specifically to the field of moral theology. Adopting this angle imbues the book with a noticeable polemical edge, since moral theology is one area where tension persists between the sense of the faithful, at least among those residing in Western liberal democracies, and official magisterial teaching.

One thread running throughout the various essays is an underlying sense that not enough has been done to create space for voice of the faithful to be heard in a meaningful way. Early on in the book, J.M.R. Tillard signals this concern, drawing attention to what he calls “the crisis of ecclesial authority” (p. 25). In his view, there seems to be a lack of clarity about “the value to be accorded to the insights of the faithful in the face of certain statements or attitudes of the ecclesial authorities” (ibid.). While some theologians and clerics view dissent as a “grave lack of obedience throwing doubt on the healthiness of the churches,” others see it as “a source of vitality, preparing the Church to meet the demands of future times and expressing the mysterious purpose of the Spirit” (ibid.).
Tilllard appears to lean in favor of the latter reading, and his basic sensibility echoes in most of the essays that follow. In chapter three, Paul Crowley challenges ecclesial authorities to become more attentive to receptions of the faith in particular places, that is, to take seriously the healthy tension between catholicity and inculturation that will persist in a worldwide Church. John Burkhard (ch. 4), meanwhile, argues that a purely passive understanding of the sense of the faithful restricts the role of the laity unduly. In his view, “the mutuality of interaction among believers in general, theologians, and the hierarchy needs urgently to be restored” (p. 88). Two of the later essays—chapters 14 and 15—work from these starting points to argue that the widespread nonreception of certain moral teachings related to marriage and family life demands a serious reevaluation of these teachings on the part of the magisterium.

    Even if the reader disagrees with this last point, she will nevertheless be able to benefit from an engagement with this volume. Taken together, the essays provide one of the more in-depth treatments of the historical background to the sensus fidelium specifically as it bears upon moral theology. By way of forewarning, the volume on the whole does not delve deeply into practical moral discernment, and its readership will likely be divided in their feelings on this point. Some readers will wish there was more analysis of concrete moral questions, while others will be relieved that the essays lay the groundwork for such analysis without getting bogged down in topics that continue to generate controversy.

Commendably, the authors do an excellent job of pressing crucial questions that call for further explanation by theologians and ecclesial leaders: “Where precisely is the sensus fidelium to be located” (p. 286)? In other words, “what portion of the faithful represents the sensus fidelium”—all of the faithful, or only those who regularly practice their faith and frequent the sacraments (p. 288)? Relatedly, is the sense of the faithful primarily an active or passive phenomenon? If active, what should this mean for how the hierarchy elicits the faithful’s input? Finally, how should the magisterium respond in instances when there is widespread nonreception of particular teachings? This stimulating collection of essays provides helpful tools for addressing these questions, while leaving the conversation open-ended enough for dialogue to continue. One would hope that the book garners a wide readership, not only among theologians, but among bishops as well.