Do you believe everything the Church teaches?
But do you really?
When candidates make their profession at the Easter Vigil, they are asked, “Do you believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God?”
The question cannot really be asking, “Do you in fact have specific knowledge of each and every thing that the Church teaches? If so, do you assent to those teachings?” It’s not as if there’s a checklist somewhere that lists “all” the Church’s teachings, with each candidate affirming them line by line. Candidates entering the Church aren’t made to swear on the Catechism.
Certainly, this is not what is meant by the candidates’ profession. What is being asked of the candidate is more like, “Would you?” If given the opportunity to do so in public or private, would you “believe and profess” with the Church?
One phrase that captures this principle is, “to think with the Church;” or, in St. Ignatius of Loyola’s formulation, sentire cum ecclesia. Sentire, of course, is not simply “to think,” which in English is often meant in a cold, rational way. Other words that are used to translate sentire are sense, feel, and perceive. “Feel” is a great translation that can also carry connotations of “think” except that “feel” can also imply the lack of rational thought.
What does it really mean to “think with the Church”?
For one thing, thinking with the Church means giving a unique respect to our bishops and to the Pope. Pope Francis said, “thinking with the Church finds one of its filial expressions in faithfulness to the Magisterium, in communion with the Pastors and the Successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, a visible sign of unity.”
Still, thinking with the Church is much broader than this. In an interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, Pope Francis was questioned about St. Ignatius, who first wrote the phrase sentire cum ecclesia. He said, “We should not even think… that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”
How can we reconcile these two statements? First, it might be helpful to describe what the Church is not. The lay faithful are not pawns who are to take marching orders from their priests and bishops. The Church is not a secret organization where information (e.g. revelation) is possessed in full only at the top and then is distributed selectively and imperfectly throughout. To think with the Church does not mean “to let the Church think for you.” Thinking with the Church should not be confused with “ultramontanism,” which includes ascribing excessive authority to the person of the pope. As Pope Francis said in Amoris Laetitia, “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
In response to Fr. Spadaro, however, Francis makes clear that “thinking with the Church” refers to something much broader than just obedience to the Magisterium. Pope Francis says,
In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.
The people itself constitutes a subject. And the church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the ‘thinking with the church’ of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only.
In Donum Veritatis, the CDF document on the “ecclesial role of theologians” written under the tutelage of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the point is explained in greater detail. Insofar as faith is a gift of God, it cannot be in error. Through faith, we participate in this infallible sensus fidei, which has been purified in the light of God’s revelation to the Church, namely Jesus Christ himself.
However, “the opinions of the faithful cannot be purely and simply identified with the ‘sensus fidei’.” Individuals can err because they do not have perfect faith. As the CDF states, “Although theological faith as such then cannot err, the believer can still have erroneous opinions since all his thoughts do not spring from faith.”
This, then, is precisely why the Magisterium is so necessary if one desires to think with the Church: “Magisterial interventions serve to guarantee the Church’s unity in the truth of the Lord. They aid her to ‘abide in the truth’ in face of the arbitrary character of changeable opinions and are an expression of obedience to the Word of God.” The Magisterium exists precisely for the purpose of ensuring that the Church can authoritatively distinguish what derives from faith and what is merely an opinion. The Magisterium, therefore, is constantly serving the “today” of the Church, revealing opinions to be false and setting the Church straight on its journey to God. In short, the Magisterium serves the sensus fidei, guards it, and protects it; it does not control it.
As Donum Veritatis states, we know that it is possible for Magisterial teachings to contain deficiencies. Some magisterial documents can be incomplete, too specific, too general, or unclear. Documents can contain teachings that are prudential as opposed to definitional, or definitional but not final, leaving open the possibility that the teaching may develop over the course of time. Despite all this, the Magisterium is never wrong when it preaches on the essential matters of faith and morals. It is always trustworthy on matters that are necessary to the teaching of the faith, even if it only becomes possible to determine what is “necessary” with the passage of time (cf. Donum Veritatis 24). The Magisterium serves to protect against false opinions and guide the Church in truth. It is the “guarantor” of the Church’s unity in truth.
However, as necessary as the Magisterium is, learning from the Magisterium is not the only means by which individuals grow in faith and consequently better “think with the Church.” God himself, through his grace, grants to each person the gift of faith through his church. This gift is most concretely nurtured and developed through a deep abiding relationship with God in prayer, especially in the reading of Scripture. In prayer, God progressively reveals more and more of himself to us. This is why sentire cum ecclesia is related to prayer. St. John Paul II, in a homily that he addressed in part to catechists, says “Always strive to think with the Church. Above all else you must be devoted to personal prayer. Only if your ministry is nourished by prayer and sustained by genuine Christian living will it bear lasting fruit.”
And so, a better model for the Church is one in which God has saved a community through his gift of faith. This gift of faith is “entrusted to the Church under the guidance of the Magisterium.” The Magisterium is not a funnel through which the faith is crammed down, as if our human Magisterium could contain the entirety of the faith. Rather, the faith is a gift to the whole church, considered as a whole, lay and clergy together! The Magisterium, through the work of the Spirit, serves this whole by ensuring that the house of faith remains firmly planted on the rock of Christ, countering the actions of those who would seek to uproot it and topple the whole thing into the stormy seas.
There is only one sure voice, the voice of God, who speaks to the whole Church and in a special way through the Magisterium, through Scripture, and directly in the human heart. If God speaks with only one voice of love, he cannot contradict himself. To think with the Church means to hear this voice of God and obey.
Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman, finance professional, and armchair theologian. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of “encounter” with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing soccer and coaching his daughter’s soccer team.