Listen to the people. Listen to what the Spirit is telling us through the words and experiences of the people. This will lead us to the truth. In simple terms, that is what the church's principle of sensus fidelium or the "sense of the faithful" is proclaiming.
From the time of the earliest Christians, when the apostles in agreement with the whole church sent representatives to the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:22), to the 1940s when Pope Pius XII asked bishops to consult with the people about proclaiming the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, our history is replete with examples of the laity being called upon to share their wisdom in developing the teachings of the church. Sensus fidelium recognizes this history. The idea became part of our official council teachings with the documents of Vatican II.
Church documents are not entirely clear (or in agreement with each other) as to what represents the sensus fidelium or its relationship to the authority of the teaching office of the church. The principle will no doubt be subject to further theological development as well as heated debate when it comes to specific issues related to the future of pastoral ministry.
What is clear, however, is that the sensus fidelium is a thread which has been woven throughout our history as church, our theological writings and our official teachings. In other words, the "sense of the faithful" is as real as the experience of God in people's lives.
Vatican II's conciliar document Lumen Gentium: the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church perhaps most explcitly lays the foundations for the current thinking on sensus fidelium. This document describes the church as all the people of God, and says that all the faithful : laity and clergy alike : share in its mission. The authorization to carry out this mission comes from being baptized into Christ, not from being ordained into priestly ministry.
Consequently this call to ministry by virtue of our baptism implies an equality among all the people of God, an equality that takes precedence over any further distinctions between clergy and laity, and it applies to our work in the world and within the church itself...The idea here is that all the faithful, possessing the Spirit by virtue of baptism, have an instinct for the truth and a corresponding suspicion of error in matters of faith.
Cardinal Newman's contribution:
Vatican II was by no means the first time that church scholars and officials referred to the sensus fidelium. For example, St. Cyprian, a 3rd century bishop of Carthage, believed that the people had a divine right to choose their bishops.
In modern times, sensus fidelium was proclaimed and developed most clearly by Cardinal John Henry Newman in a work entitled On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, published in 1850. In this work, Newman disagreed with English Catholic bishops who protested that laypeople had no right to offer them advice on the subject of Catholic education. The bishops believed that because they were the magisterium (the official teachers), education was solely their prerogative. Newman countered that if Pope Pius IX could consult with laypeople regarding the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, surely the bishops could do the same on the subject of Catholic schools.
Newman believed that the gift of infallibility (freedom from error and the ability to discern the truth) was given to the church as a whole, and that one indicator of infallibility was the consensus of the body of the faithful. Newman's study of church history, particularly of the 4th century Arian heresy (which denied the divinity of Jesus) had taught him that sometimes the church's infallible teaching has been more adequately proclaimed by the laity. He documented instances when the official magisterium (i.e., the bishops!) had failed to teach the correct dogma while the laity more faithfully followed the truth. He believed that if the official church magisterium ignored the sensus fidelium, it did so at its own peril.
Newman continued: "the sensus fidelium (consensus of the people) is a branch of evidence that is natural and necessary for the church to consult." He added: "[This is so] because the body of the faithful is a witness to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine and because their consensus throughout Christendom is the voice of the Infallible church." His essay was not well received at the time it was written; yet more than 100 years later these ideas on the laity were given voice by church leaders at Vatican II.
Laity & Clergy Dialogue
One of the major implications of Lumen Gentium is that clergy personnel should be open to the ideas of laypeople because the Spirit speaks through these laypeople. While other passages in the same document note the need for obedience to church authority, the document calls for enhancing the position of laypeople in the church and for collaboration between clergy and laity.
Following in that same spirit, the church's Code of Canon Law (promulgated in 1983) noted the responsibility of Christians to show obedience to the teachings of church leaders; but it also proclaimed the right and indeed at times the duty to share their faith-inspired views with clergy on matters of concern for the good of the church at large.
Sensus fidelium is the collective wisdom, the collective experience, the collective voice of all the faithful. It is in part the Spirit manifesting itself through the voice of the laity and the call for the bishops and ordained clergy to listen attentively. Sensus fidelium is a gift and a challenge to the future of our church.