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In a July 14 article, responding to queries about Building a Bridge, his new book on the Catholic-LGBT divide, Father James Martin, SJ explains why he did not devote more space to explaining the Church’s teaching on same-sex relations and marriage. The positions of both sides, he says, are clear, and neither side regards them as negotiable. He continues:

Theologically speaking, you could say that these teachings have not been “received” by the L.G.B.T. community, to whom they were directed. So I intentionally did not focus on those topics, since not only are those teachings well known, but they are also areas on which the two sides are too far apart. I preferred to focus on areas of possible commonality.

His reasons are ultimately, it seems, pragmatic. Proclaiming Catholic teaching has not worked and rather seems to make things worse, and so we must try something else.

But there is more packed into that first sentence than meets the eye. The theological basis Fr. Martin proposes for his approach becomes clear in a more recent interview, one that queries the meaning of “received”:

To take a theological perspective, a teaching must be “received” by the faithful. It’s a complex topic (and I am no professional theologian) but, in general, for a teaching to be complete it must be appreciated, accepted and understood by the faithful. The tradition is that the faithful possess their own inner sense of the authority of a teaching. That’s the sensus fidei or sensus fidelium. You can find out more about it in the Vatican document Sensus Fidei.

He goes on to cite this line from the Vatican document: “The sensus fidei fidelis is a sort of spiritual instinct that enables the believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith.”

Fr. Martin says that a teaching “must” be received—“appreciated, accepted and understood”—or else it is not “complete.” In one sense, this observation is banal. Of course the point of a teaching is to teach, and thus teaching is completed by its reception; until the teaching has been received, there remains some receiving to be done. The document Sensus Fidei accordingly anticipates the possibility that a magisterial teaching is not “received” by the faithful: “The faithful must reflect on the teaching that has been given, making every effort to understand and accept it. Resistance, as a matter of principle, to the teaching of the magisterium is incompatible with the authentic sensus fidei.” The magisterium, for its part, must consider clarifying or reformulating the teaching to facilitate its reception.

But Building a Bridge eschews these recommendations, both for the faithful and for the magisterium. For Sensus Fidei, the faithful “must” seek to understand and accept the magisterial teaching they reject, and the magisterium must help them understand it; for Fr. Martin, a lack of acceptance is a reason for everyone to stop talking about the rejected teaching.

The ambiguity of the word “complete” suggests another, perhaps more coherent way of reading Fr. Martin. If a teaching “must” be received, then perhaps there is something wrong with an incomplete teaching. One cannot help but wonder whether Fr. Martin is furnishing us with the premises to infer: The Church’s teachings on sex and marriage lack something required of real, magisterial teachings, for the LGBT faithful “to whom they were directed” do not recognize their authority and conformity with the Gospel and apostolic faith.

This inference is incompatible with the Vatican document on the sensus fidei. The sensus fidei is the spontaneous intuition of one who possesses the habit of faith, which does not err; it manifests the believer’s connatural friendship with God, whose mind is not equivocal. The sensus fidei is correct, whenever it is authentic. So if the Church’s teachings on same-sex relations and marriage are magisterial teachings “in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith,” then no exercise of the sensus fidei can result in the belief that those teachings are wrong. That is not to say that every member of the LGBT community lacks the supernatural virtue of faith and the sensus fidei—but it is to say that no member of the LGBT community exercises the sensus fidei when he judges the Church’s teachings on sexuality to be false.

The authority of teachings cannot be tested by consulting the inner senses of practicing Catholics. The Vatican document, in fact, is largely at pains to rule this out as a theological method. Subjective certainty is not a certain guide—nor even, really, a reliable one—to whether one’s intuition actually springs from the sensus fidei: “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.”

Reception by the faithful—the document is clear—is not a precondition of a teaching’s being authoritative. This does not rule out the possibility that the sensus fidei may contribute to development of doctrine, that the laity have something to contribute to the magisterium and to theology—these are points which the document argues at length.

As I read and reread Fr. Martin’s interviews, I am struck by a persistent ambiguity. Whether given a banal or radical sense, his remarks do not cohere very well with the Vatican document he cites. Why mention the theology of reception at all, if he just meant to make a tactical point about the scale of the Catholic-LGBT divide? Fr. Martin agrees that the rejected teachings are magisterial—so the rejection of them cannot spring from any intuition “infallible in itself with regard to its object,” the Catholic Faith.

The topic is one that requires clarification. Ever since the document's release in 2014, progressive Catholics have treated the sensus fidei as a kind of magic bullet licensing dissent on, well, exactly those issues you would expect. The sensus fidei—the spontaneous intuition that the faithful have on account of their connaturality to God—sounds very exciting, because it is. But it is not quite as exciting as certain theologians want it to be.

Gregory Brown is a research associate at the Witherspoon Institute.

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