A fun concept in Catholic teachings is the notion of the sensus fidelium, the “sense of the faithful.” The idea is that the work of the Spirit guiding the church can be found not only in the teachings of ecclesiastical leaders, but also in the beliefs and experiences of the members of the church, the community of faith. Theologian Roger Haight explains that it includes “an active charism of discernment, a power of practical and possessive knowledge belonging to the body of the faithful by virtue of their concrete living of the faith.” He clarifies, “This does not mean that in every matter of detail a majority of even a consensus of opinion in the Church at any given time is theologically sound. But it does mean that the experience of the faithful is a source for theology.”1
I like this way of thinking about divine communication, that it not only comes top-down, mediated by the church hierarchy, but also from the ground up. Put another way, the faith of the people at large also plays a role in shaping doctrinal understanding; it is not something simply imposed by the leaders. And I would say that one can see a number of parallels to this notion in Mormonism. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about this idea in the context of General Conference.
In preparing and delivering Conference talks, church leaders discuss those particular ideas which they, under the direction of inspiration, feel are important for the Saints to hear. They expound doctrine, tell stories, encourage better living, and so forth. However, a portrayal of the church as an organization in which the leaders say something and all the members immediately jump to obey (a caricature of the church both ridiculed by anti-Mormons, and idealized by some Mormons), overlooks an important factor–the role of the community in determining which teachings “take,” so to speak, and become influential in Mormon thought and practice.
As just one example, I mention two talks by Elder David A. Bednar. In April 2007, Elder Bednar gave a talk titled “Ye Must Be Born Again.” In this talk, he used the analogy of a cucumber becoming a pickle. This was a memorable image, and many remember the talk because of it. But the metaphor hasn’t exactly caught on; I have seen few if any instances of this particular image being cited as part of lessons or discussions on the subject of being born again. This can be contrasted to a talk given by Elder Bednar in April 2005, titled “The Tender Mercies of the Lord.” Since then, the phrase “tender mercies” has become commonplace in LDS discussion, as people make use of this model to interpret their own life experiences.
I think this is a helpful point to remember in thinking about just what it means to have inspired leaders guiding the church. Those sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators play an undeniably significant role. But when they speak, this is not the end of the conversation. And given the emphasis in LDS belief on the importance of personal revelation, this process too can be seen as a facet of the work of the Spirit guiding the church. Members of the community are not simply passive recipients of knowledge which is conveyed to them by their leaders. Rather, LDS teachings are formed and refined through an ongoing interaction among leaders and members of the church (at both the general and the local level.)
Discussion regarding D&C 1:30 usually focuses on the question of what it means to say “only true and living church” (and how it might be related to the clause “with which I, the Lord, am well pleased”). But there is another interesting element in this verse–the Lord says he is “speaking unto the church collectively and not individually.” Whatever it means for the church to be “true and living,” it applies to the church collectively. This ecclesial model also underlies the principle of common consent. When we talk about God guiding the church, attention is often exclusively focused on how God inspires and directs church leaders. But bringing in the role of a kind of Mormon sensus fidelium, I would argue, allows for a richer understanding of how revelation functions.
- Roger Haight, “Sensus Fidelium,” The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, ed. Richard McBrien (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 1182-3. [↩]