When a significant portion of the Catholic faithful ignore or reject a church teaching, it is often -- but not always -- a sign that social and cultural pressures are weakening their faith or that church leaders simply have not found a way to explain the teaching, said members of the International Theological Commission.
The commission published the document " 'Sensus Fidei' in the Life of the Church" on the Vatican website in late June with the approval of Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The theologians, who were appointed to the commission by Pope Benedict XVI, had been asked to explain the meaning, purpose and limits of "sensus fidei" and "sensus fidelium" -- the capacity of individual believers and of the church as a whole to discern the truth of faith.
"The sensus fidei fidelis," they said, "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. It is intrinsically linked to the virtue of faith itself; it flows from, and is a property of, faith."
While the validity and importance of different church teachings cannot be the subject of a popular vote, the degree to which they are or are not accepted by most Catholics is important, the commission members wrote.
"When the reception of magisterial teaching by the faithful meets with difficulty and resistance," the document said, "appropriate action on both sides is required."
Catholics "must reflect on the teaching that has been given, making every effort to understand and accept it," the document said. "Resistance, as a matter of principle, to the teaching of the magisterium is incompatible with the authentic sensus fidei."
At the same time, the theologians said, "the magisterium must likewise 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."
Writing about Catholic laypeople, the commission said, "not only do they have the right to be heard, but their reaction to what is proposed as belonging to the faith of the apostles must be taken very seriously, because it is by the church as a whole that the apostolic faith is borne in the power of the Spirit."
While "the faithful have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel," the document said, there are situations in which Catholics claim to be relying on that instinct when, in fact, they are promoting deviations from the Christian faith, particularly on moral issues.
The document explains what sensus fidei means, gives biblical evidence for its importance, looks at the history of its development in the church, provides some criteria for discerning when it is authentic and discusses how it is "different from the majority opinion of the faithful in a given time or place."
Particularly drawing on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, members of the theological commission rejected the idea that Catholic laity are to blindly obey everything the pope and bishops tell them. However, the document emphasized the importance of assuming church leaders are correct, trying to understand the basis for their teaching and, in particular, for praying, regularly receiving the sacraments, studying and being an active member of the Catholic community before claiming to be able to discern that a church teaching needs adjustment.
"It is clear that there can be no simple identification between the sensus fidei and public or majority opinion," the document said. "These are by no means the same thing."
"Faith, not opinion, is the necessary focus of attention," it said. "Opinion is often just an expression, frequently changeable and transient, of the mood or desires of a certain group or culture, whereas faith is the echo of the one Gospel, which is valid for all places and times."
In addition, members of the commission noted, "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."
The International Theological Commission also said the sensus fidei guarantees Christian freedom and can help purify the faith because it helps individual believers distinguish "between what is essential for an authentic Catholic faith and what, without being formally against the faith, is only accidental or even indifferent with regard to the core of the faith."
As two examples, the commission members mentioned the possibility that some Catholics may downplay certain forms of Marian piety while still maintaining a devotion to Mary, or "they might also distance themselves from preaching which unduly mixes together Christian faith and partisan political choices."
The sensus fidei also is essential in helping the church respond to modern problems and challenges because it gives "an intuition as to the right way forward amid the uncertainties and ambiguities of history, and a capacity to listen discerningly to what human culture and the progress of the sciences are saying," the document said.
The commission members said the lay faithful are able "to sense what Pope Francis has called 'new ways for the journey' in faith of the whole pilgrim people. One of the reasons why bishops and priests need to be close to their people on the journey and to walk with them is precisely so as to recognize 'new ways' as they are sensed by the people. The discernment of such new ways, opened up and illumined by the Holy Spirit, will be vital for the new evangelization."