Pope Francis Promotes “Sensus Fideii”, Listening Church

For LGBT Catholics, possibly the most important news I’ve seen coming out of the Synod assembly on marriage and family, is a speech that Pope Francis gave on Saturday, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops.

Pope Francis

It’s been widely reported that he spoke in favour of “decentralization”, but there’s much more of great importance. Not only is he speaking in favour of decentralization, but also reminds the bishops of the importance of listening, and of the “sensus fideii”, and of collegiality at all levels of the church — from the top, down to parish level. He also describes the structure of the church not as the usual pyramid, with pope and bishops at the top and the rest of us down below – but as an inverted pyramid, with pope (and bishops) at the bottom – because their job is service, not control. I see this as the most important, most exciting news to have come out of the synod thus far. (I’m working towards an English translation, which I’ll publish later at my website, “The Queer Church Repository”, with commentary on the blot, “Queering the Churcch”)




Stressing the importance of listening to the views, joys and troubles of real families, he reminded the bishops of the central importance of the idea of the “sensus fideii”, that the structure of the church is not a simple hierarchy with pope at the top and lay people at the bottom, but an inverted pyramid, with the pope at the bottom. Bishops and other pastors, he said, are there to serve – not to dictate, and it is wrong to draw a firm distinction between the “teaching” church (the pastors) and the “learning” church. We are all, each of us, agents of evangelisation, and not simply passive recipients of the messages sent out by the active agents – i.e., the bishops.

Aligned with the principle of listening, is that of collegiality, of joint decision taking. This is inherent in the synodal process. The very word “synod”, he pointed out, is derived from the Greek for “journeying together”, and is also central to his style of management. However, he wants to extend the principle way beyond collegiality between bishops, but says it should apply at every level of the Church, from national bishops’ conferences, through diocesan synods, to parish councils.  This also implies a need for some decentralization of decision taking on pastoral matters, to take account of marked differences in regional or local circumstances.

None of this was said with any specific reference to LGBT people. His words apply to the Church as a whole, but have particular relevance to us, on at least three counts.

We must make our voices heard

Pope Francis pointed out that we cannot talk about families, unless we talk with families. Precisely the same principle applies to us: we (the Church) cannot speak about gay people, unless we speak with gay people. But LGBT voices have been totally absent inside the synod assembly, and far too often at local level, have been deliberately ans systematically excluded from any discussion about our concerns. Some synod fathers have admitted that the process would have benefited from having LGBT people present, there is evidence that at local level, an increasing number of bishops are willing to give us a hearing, and to work with us. Francis’ words will encourage still more to become more open, and make it more difficult for others to refuse to talk to us. Now more than ever, LGBT Catholics, individually and as groups, should make every effort to speak to our bishops, priests and fellow parishioners.

Challenge the Sensus Fideii on Sexual Ethics

 Francis reminded the bishops that

the Second Vatican Council proclaims that “the whole body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Jn 2,20.27), can not err in matters of belief and displays this in the supernatural sense the faith of the whole people, when ‘from the bishops to the last lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals

(emphasis added)

Whatever else we might say about Catholic responses to doctrines on sexual ethics, it is abundantly clear that Catholics do NOT “show universal agreement” on these. In the contrary, it is well – known that worldwide, Catholics overwhelmingly reject the doctrinal insistence sexual love may be expressed only within marriage, and open to procreation. There is no evidence whatsoever that these doctrines have in fact received the assent of the faithful in the sensus fideii  – and if they have not, their claim even to be valid as doctrine is open to question.

Opportunities in Decentralization

It has become clear that some bishops’ conferences, and some individual bishops elsewhere, are ready to move ahead with substantially more sensitive approaches to LGBT pastoral ministry, in some cases possibly even extending to private blessings for same – sex partnerships. Decentralization in these areas would be enormously helpful for LGBT ministry, for example, in northern Europe (probably including the UK), New Zealand, parts of Latin America, and selected dioceses of the USA. It would clearly not be helpful in Chaput’s Philadelphia, or New Jersey, or South Africa, and some others, but we’ve already seen in the secular world, how achievements towards equality in one area of the world have a tendency to spread. This will be especially true, in the Catholic world, if we continue to remind our bishops of Francis’ clear directive, that they should be talking with us, not about us.

A Portent?

It’s been widely reported that Bishop Chaput and others are “anxious” about the direction of the synod. What these reports do not make clear, is that this “anxiety” is entirely on the part of the conservative orthotoxic bishops and their claques, whose understanding of Catholicism, is of a set of clear, rigid rules and regulations, with the bishops (notably, themselves) in control.

As Archbishop Cupich of Chicago has noted, this anxiety is not shared by Pope Francis himself, or by Cupich – or by the vast majority of the bishops, who gave this speech a standing ovation.

Included in Francis’ observations, was one that has alarmed some of the conservatives: that the final word on the synod rests with the pope himself (just as it has always done). Saturday’s speech was short on detail but strong on principles. I would expect those principles to be expounded, in more detail, when he reports his final reflections and conclusions from the synod assembly. I look forward to reading it.

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