On January 13, 2018, my wife and I were married in the Catholic Church according to the rite provided for use by canonical members of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. One of the distinctive features of that rite is a lengthy exhortation given at the beginning of the wedding charging the couple that marriage is “not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly; but reverently, discreetly, soberly, and in the fear of God, duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.” The priest then lists these causes, the first of which is that “it was ordained for the increase of mankind according to the will of God.” The
importance of children within marriage is emphasized again in the marriage vows and the blessing which the priest gives the couple. Any well catechized Catholic will realize that this charge does not simply mean that they should at some point seek to have children, but that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (Humanae Vitae, 11). Thus, my wife and I were well aware when we entered into marriage that we would be open to life, and that the only method of family planning open to us was one which did not impede our natural fertility (Natural Family Planning or NFP). Despite the fact that my wife and I have ultimately found NFP to be a rewarding and cooperative way of living out our marriage, it has involved many serious sacrifices. For many other couples, NFP seems not just a sacrifice but a near impossibility. For more Catholics still, the Church’s teaching on contraception is either unknown or ignored. Thus, when The National Catholic Reporter published an opinion piece by Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman entitled “The end of the affair? ‘Humanae Vitae’ at 50” that told couples that the Church’s teaching on birth control was invalid and could be justly ignored, this must have seemed a wonderful relief to many. It certainly was treated as such by the person who told my wife about it. However, the reasoning laid out in the piece is deeply flawed.
The essay refers to a series of “experiential” reasons for denying the validity of Humanae Vitae, unironically referring to the Methodist “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” to justify this focus on experience. A great deal is wrong with the essay, but instead of going through the whole thing, I intend to focus on its deep misunderstanding of the idea of the sensus fidei in order to help my readers achieve a better grasp of that theological concept and to reassure those committed to the Church’s teaching. I will conclude with some thoughts on how the Church might better support her teaching and those who practice it.
The Sense of the Faith According to the National Catholic Reporter
After dealing with various other kinds of “experience” that they claim refutes the validity of Humanae Vitae, Lawler and Salzman turn to the linked ideas of reception and sensus fidei, which they say is “a third type of experience that unites theology and human experience.” Their initial definition of the sensus fidei is fairly accurate, if broad: “Sensus fidei is a charism of discernment, possessed by the whole church, laity, theologians and bishops together, which knows and receives a teaching as truth and, therefore, to be
believed.” They then go on to claim that reception is a separate process by which members of the Church make “a prudential judgment from experiential data that the teaching is good for the whole church and is in agreement with the apostolic tradition on which the church is built” and that a “non-received teaching is not necessarily false; it is simply judged by virtually all believers to be irrelevant to both their own lives and the life of the church.”
Having established these two concepts, Lawler and Salzman go on to point out that around 85% of Catholics do not follow the Church’s teaching on contraception. Thus, according to them, Humanae Vitae has not be received and so “[t]his overwhelming non-reception indicates that the universal sensus fidei does not assent to the church’s teaching on contraception.”
Though the authors themselves admitted in their definition that the sensus fidei concerns the reception of a teaching as “truth,” they muddled this with their claim that the reception of a teaching by the faithful has nothing to do with truth but rather with usefulness and they stick to this latter claim by concluding that Humanae Vitae’s “non-reception by Catholic faithful does not prove that the church’s teaching on contraception is false. It proves only that it is irrelevant to the vast majority of married couples and their theological experience” and that this “growing non-reception is a more than sufficient reason to consider a revision of its contraceptive norm.”
In the first place, the authors’ separation of truth and usefulness is an ethical and philosophical quagmire that makes a mockery of the Catholic Tradition’s understanding of ethics. Nearly universally throughout the Church’s history, Christian thinkers have recognized that truth and goodness are intimately linked. Humanae Vitae claims that its teaching regarding the morality of contraception concerns the natural law – that is, the universal moral precepts which hold for all human persons in virtue of the ends (or purposes) of our nature. If the teaching of Humanae Vitae is true, then it is binding on all human persons. To say that a teaching is true but not useful, therefore, is simply to say that it has been found difficult or impractical, which is irrelevant to its binding nature.
Second, by appealing to census data, Lawler and Salzman deeply misconstrue the nature of the sensus fidei as taught by the Church.
The True Sensus Fidei
The Church does indeed teach that “the faithful” have a supernatural sense of the faith. This teaching has deep roots in the Tradition but was made especially explicit in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, which stated, “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium 12). Taken at face value, this teaching might seem absurd. There is, after all, a great variety of contradictory belief amongst Catholics, not to mention all of the baptized outside of the Catholic Church. This teaching is not, therefore, about any given individual believer, but about the whole of the Church down through time. It is a claim that God will never allow the whole Church to fall into error, yet this does not mean that there will not be times when a majority of the baptized fall into error.
To make this point, I will turn to The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s explication of the teaching in “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church.” It’s a relatively short document, and you should definitely read it for yourself.
According to the document, “the faithful have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel . . . That supernatural instinct, intrinsically linked to the gift of faith received in the communion of the Church, is called the sensus fidei” (Sensus Fidei, 2). Crucially for our purposes is the fact that the sensus fidei stems from the theological virtue of faith, “it flows from, and is a property of, faith” (ibid, 49). The Catholic Tradition teaches us that there is a difference between the theological virtue of faith referenced here and natural (or acquired) faith. The latter kind of faith is a natural human action. For example, I can have faith in a reputable historian’s account of the battle of Waterloo because I am convinced of his credentials and recognize that he has much better knowledge of the matter than I do. We can even have natural faith about matters of theology. For example, I can witness a miracle performed by a Christian and become convinced on the basis of that miracle that God is real and is the God of the Christians and so I ought to believe what Christianity teaches.
Supernatural faith, on the other hand, is a grace or gift from God. Supernatural faith does not consist in beliefs about the supernatural but “as a theological virtue, enables the believer to participate in the knowledge that God has of himself and of all things” (ibid, 53). The reason that the sensus fidei is infallible, therefore, is external to the mind of an individual believer: “The sensus fidei fidelis is infallible in itself with regard to its object: the true faith. However, in the actual mental universe of the believer, the correct intuitions of the sensus fidei can be mixed up with various purely human opinions, or even with errors linked to the narrow confines of a particular cultural context. ‘Although theological faith as such cannot err, the believer can still have erroneous opinions since all his thoughts do not spring from faith. Not all the ideas which circulate among the People of God are compatible with the faith’”(ibid, 55). Because the sensus fidei arises from the supernatural gift of faith, it is not a culturally relative reception of truths of the faith as Lawler and Salzman imply, but a total assent to the whole faith (even if the believer does not have explicit knowledge of all the parts thereof).
The gift of faith is given to the believer in its entirety at baptism, but the believer’s accommodation to the gift of faith is not static. As such, because the sensus fidei, “is a property of the theological virtue of faith, the sensus fidei fidelis [the sensus fidei manifest in the individual believer] develops in proportion to the development of the virtue of faith,” especially through growth in holiness (ibid, 57).
This means that not every Christian can properly be called one of “the faithful” in the full sense of the term required for the sensus fidei. “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church” lists several criteria for a proper manifestation of the sensus fidei:
- Active participation in the life of the Church, including engagement in Mass, regular confession, practicing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, service, and acceptance of the overall teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals, and “a willingness to follow the commands of God, and courage both to correct one’s brothers and sisters, and also to accept correction oneself” (ibid, 89).
- A “profound and attentive listening to the word of God” (ibid, 92).
- Recognition of “the proper role of reason in relation to faith” (ibid, 95).
- A disposition towards listening to the teaching of the magisterium (ibid, 97).
- Holiness (ibid, 99). Due to this criterion, the most visible carriers of the sensus fidei are the Saints (ibid, 100).1
Thus, “the faithful,” in the sense used in defining sensus fidei, is not convertible with all Christians but with those who live active lives in pursuit of God through His Church. As such, “the sensus fidei cannot simply be identified . . . with public or majority opinion in the Church” (ibid, 118). Indeed, “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” (ibid, 118). As I have quipped before, the sensus fidei is not the same as a census fidei.
The sensus fidei, rightly understood, can be a powerful method of discernment in the Church as she seeks to achieve a deeper understanding of the Apostolic Deposit of Faith, but for that very reason it cannot change or contravene the eternal teaching of the Church and so depends on the active faith life of believers.
What then of Humanae Vitae?
Having established that the Church’s teaching regarding the sensus fidei does not concern majority opinion in the Church, but the instinct for the faith developed in the most faithful Catholics, it should be clear that Lawler and Salzman’s appeal to sociological data regarding use of contraception is irrelevant. Indeed, at several points Lawler and Salzman inadvertently make the case that the majority opinion they are citing could not count as the sensus fidei. If “the majority of Catholics now look to themselves rather than to church leaders as the proper locus of ethical authority on contraception and other sexual issues,” then the majority of Catholics do not have a disposition towards listening to the magisterium, which is one of the basic criteria for authentic sensus fidei.
It goes further still. In addressing certain arguments made in favor of NFP, the authors of the piece rightly accuse those who cite stronger marriages amongst users of NFP as a reason to follow the Church’s teaching of confusing causation with correlation:
It is much more likely that there is no more than correlation between marital stability and NFP, and that already convinced observers have jumped to a preferred but false conclusion. Census studies at the time of Humanae Vitae’s publication indicate a lowered divorce rate for those who attend church regularly and an even lower divorce rate for those who both attend church and pray privately at home. It might be that church attendance and prayer life are more directly related to marital stability than NFP.
Yet, as we have seen, active participation in the life of the Church is one of the key criteria for the authentic sensus fidei. If the stable marriages of practitioners of NFP are not due to their practice of NFP but rather a result of their deep Catholic devotion, then the presence of the active practice of NFP amongst these couples is indication that it belongs to the authentic sensus fidei and not the contrary.
The data from the recent America magazine survey bears out this fact. Amongst Americans who identify as Catholic, only 24% of women and 19% of men attend Mass at least once a week, which is the bare minimum for active Catholic faith. And, while the numbers are still not high, women who attend Mass at least weekly are far more likely than those who don’t to practice NFP (one third compared to 12%). A recent Pew Forum survey found that 12% of weekly Mass attenders in America think contraception is morally wrong compared to 6% of those who attend Mass less often. 12% is still not high, but recall that weekly mass attendance is a bare minimum for the sensus fidei. Anyone deeply involved in Church work can attest that even many weekly Mass attenders are otherwise minimally engaged in their faith.
This is born out by the fact that when we turn to participation in other sacraments, the
situation is even more dire. “Sensus Fidei in the life of the Church” says that “regular reception of the sacrament of reconciliation” is critical for true discernment of the sensus fidei. Yet, only 3% of American Catholic men or women go to confession at least once a month, while a mere 27% of women and 24% of men go at least once a year (which is the bare minimum required by canon law). 45% of American Catholics never go to confession.
Moreover, few would question the fact that the Catholic faith is more alive in Africa than in the West (around 83% of African Catholics attend mass weekly). The same Univison poll cited by Lawler and Salzman found that 52% of African Catholics oppose the use of contraceptives, compared to 15% of North Americans.
Thus, as indicators of active Catholic life increase, so does opposition to contraception. Thus, if anything, the sociological data bears out the fact that the true sensus fidei has received the Church’s teaching on contraception.
Humanae Vitae and Apostolic Tradition
The critical question which the sensus fidei is always asking is, “is this teaching of the Apostolic Deposit of Faith? Do I hear the voice of the Shepherd in this teaching?” (Sensus Fidei, 63). Yet, as we saw above, Lawler and Salzman do not touch on this critical question in the section of their article explicitly addressing the sensus fidei, instead appealing to statistical data and judgments of “usefulness.”
In the one place where Lawler and Salzman do explicitly address Humanae Vitae’s relationship to the Apostolic Deposit, they makes the laughable claim that the teachings of Humanae Vitae, “had never been taught before in the Catholic tradition.” This would come as a great surprise to many Saints and Doctors of the Church who, if anything, taught a more rigorous doctrine of sex than that of Humanae Vitae. To prove this point it will suffice to quote from three Doctors of the Church:
- St. John Chrysostom asked his flock, “Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit, where there are medicines of sterility . . . What then? Do you condemn the gift of God and fight with his laws? . . . Yet such turpitude . . . the matter still seems indifferent to many men–even to many men having wives. In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife” (Homilies on Romans, 24).
- St. Augustine said of those who obstruct “their procreation by an evil prayer or an evil deed… although they are called husband and wife, are not; nor do they retain any reality of marriage, but with a respectable name cover a shame” and that “the wife is in a fashion the harlot of her husband or he is an adulterer with his own wife.” (Marriage and Concupiscence 1:15:17)
- St. Thomas Aquinas says of contraception that it is “always a mortal sin because no offspring can result, so that the purpose of nature is completely frustrated” (In Libros Sententiarum, IV, 31, 2, 3).
The teaching that contraception is illicit thus has deep roots in the Christian Tradition. The burden of proof against it being a settled ethical norm for Catholics rests heavily on those who wish to reject the teaching. Yet, what we have instead is sociological data that indicates many Catholics going along with the cultural trends of the secular and pagan world around them. As the CDF has said, “not all the opinions held by believers spring from faith . . . since many people are swayed by public opinion” (Sensus Fidei, 61). When sociological trends stand in such obvious contrast to so much of the Church’s past teaching, they should automatically be more suspect. The most simple explanation for the widespread “non-reception” of the Church’s teaching on contraception amongst Catholics is that those Catholics have been unduly influenced by the sexual ideologies of our time.
The Real Problem
There remains, however, a real problem of reception. The Church’s teaching on contraception is definitive and authoritative, which makes the widespread rejection of it amongst Catholics deeply troubling. Rebellion on the part of the faithful is certainly part of the problem, but there is also a failure on the part of the shepherds of the Church.
“Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church” teaches that when “when the reception of magisterial teaching by the faithful meets with difficulty and resistance . . . The magisterium must . . . 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” (ibid, 80). There is a definite need for the Magisterium to act in order to help spur Catholics away from vicious behavior that endangers their immortal souls.
For one, while NFP is often talked about in marriage prep classes, the Church’s teaching on contraception is too often ignored throughout the rest of a Catholic’s education. Unless we actively seek to educate ourselves, most of us are aware of the teaching at a distance. Most probably know the Church opposes distribution of condoms in Africa by its charities, for example, but few know why. Worse still, when we are taught to avoid contraception, we are often simply given a shallow apologetics case that presents various utilitarian arguments for the Church’s teaching. There is serious need for bishops and pastors to invest time and energy in helping Catholics to understand the robust moral reasoning behind the Catholic position on contraception. Catholics need to be made to understand the importance of the teaching and the glorious challenge of it, instead of being fed saccharine half-truths.
As I said in my introduction, while children are always a blessing, there is real suffering and sacrifice that goes along with faithfulness to the Church’s teaching on contraception. All too often, the reality of these difficulties is ignored, “those who teach in the name of the Church” fail to “give full attention to the experience” of those “who strive to put the Church’s teaching into practice in the areas of their own specific experience and competence. (ibid, 59). When the virtuous rejection of contraception is portrayed as an easy and instantly rewarding practice, people will inevitably abandon it when they find it difficult.
Finally, the Church needs to invest in better providing practical support for those who follow her teachings. The struggles of those who live according to the teaching of the Church can vary from minor sexual frustration to the sorrow of repeated miscarriages, but across the board we often find a serious lack of support from our shepherds. The Church should be investing in various family support programs. To name a few ideas:
- The Church could help to establish affordable housing communities for Catholic families. Such communities would provide a support network to young Catholic families and provide for them an example of the real worth and possibility of following Catholic teaching.
- The Church could help provide affordable counseling for the overstressed parents of large families.
- The Church could open affordable day care centers.
- The Church could help to set a good example in its employment policies. The Church could be providing better than average maternity coverage in their health insurance plans, good maternity and paternity leave, and, ideally, salaries that could more easily support a family without both spouses having to work. One priest friend of mine has even suggested that there should be a pay table that increases salaries for employees with more children.
There would be many practical difficulties in making any of these suggestions happen, but that does not mean that they should not be tried. I don’t think those who fail to follow the Church’s teaching are excused by the lack of this kind of support, but I do firmly believe that better support for those who do follow the Church’s teaching on this matter will go a long way towards helping them flourish and towards evangelizing those who, for one reason or another, have rejected the Church’s teaching.
The National Catholic Reporter’s article on Humanae Vitae is objectively terrible. It’s egregious misunderstanding of the sensus fidei and reception, which I have thoroughly deconstructed, is but one of many errors in the piece. The teaching of Humanae Vitae on contraception is true and is authoritative for Catholics. Yet, far too many Catholics reject the Church’s teaching on this matter, and it is critical that our pastors find new and creative ways to encourage the faithful in this particular call to holiness.
- A vivid model of the true sensus fidei at work would therefore by Catherine of Siena, who lived an undeniably holy life and in virtue of that was able to call out even the Pope for his dereliction of duty. You can read an account of the story here.