Quick formulation of consensus fidelium

For a theology essay, (Bahai, not Roman Catholic), I would like to include introductory paragraphs on the consensus fidelium doctrine in Roman Catholic theology. Here’s my first draft, your feedback would be welcome

In early Christianity, the Church Fathers translated their assurance that the believers are guided by the “Spirit of Truth” (John 14:17) and by Christ, as he had said “I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” (Matt. 28:20) into a conviction that the body of believers collectively would not agree on an error. People knew of course that the disciples had disputes among themselves, which Jesus resolved, but they believed that the disciples, and the believers of every age would never agree on an error. However in Matthew 14:16, 19:14, and 19:26, and in Mark 9:13 and 10:24, Jesus corrects misunderstanding held by the disciples in general, and in Matthew 20:25 he explicitly corrects the thinking of ten of the disciples, and the other two (James and John) implicitly suffered from the same misunderstanding. It appears then that the disciples could agree on an error, if Jesus was not there to correct them. Nevertheless, it became a Roman Catholic doctrine, that the consensus fidelium – what is stated with the agreement of all believers – could not err. Therefore, one could deduce Christian doctrine from what Christians had generally believed and practiced in the past. Following the great schism and the Reformation, a more modest formulation would be that Roman Catholic doctrine could be deduced from what Christians in communion with the church at Rome had generally believed and practiced.

Here’s how the Catechism explains it:

91 The supernatural sense of faith

All the faithful share in understanding and handing on revealed truth. They have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who instructs them[sup]53[/sup] and guides them into all truth.[sup]54[/sup]

92 “The whole body of the faithful. . . cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”[sup]55[/sup]

93 “By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium),. . . receives. . . the faith, once for all delivered to the saints. . . The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.”[sup]56[/sup]

__________53 Cf. 1 Jn 2:20,27.
54 Cf. Jn 16:13.
55 LG 12; cf. St. Augustine, De praed. sanct. 14,27:PL 44,980.
56 LG 12; cf. Jude 3.

The verses you use do not demonstrate any error in “consensus fidelium” since they deal specifically with individuals rather than the entire community of the faithful. Thus to find even a disciple in Christ in error does not mean that somehow Apostolic Tradition became tainted. One prerequisites of said teaching is that the entire body of the faithful (all individuals) must be in complete agreement. This is integrally related to infallibility since rarely (possibly never) in the Church’s history does one find TOTAL agreement prior to the declaration of dogma. The idea of infallibility is mainly used as an item of defense and profound rule of law which then can be definitively used to combat heresy (false teachings). To the untrained reader, I believe your assertions will not be noticed as error, but I would caution using them on someone of great Catholic theological knowledge.

When viewed in light of the Reformation, we can see that Protestantism is heresy which of course is in reference to Catholic teachings. Thus consensus fidelium has not been changed due to Protestantism, it mainly is now necessary to more clearly define items because The Church no longer means The Catholic Churches in Communion with the Bishop of Rome to all of Christianity, as it likely would have prior to Protestanism. To be technical you should replace Roman Catholic Church with The Catholic Churches in Communion with the Bishop of Rome and possibly add something regarding the Reformation creating new churches which lead to the need to more specifically define this doctrine - but otherwise I believe you show decent understanding for someone of a different faith although there are some issues/errors in your reasoning.

I hope that this provides you with some insight into your questions.

Thanks David, I knew about the sensus fidei and its relation to the consensus fidelium. I decided not to include it in the paragraph.

At the time “the disciples” were (I assume) the whole of the church. All but the last of the verses I cited were cases in which the disciples collectively needed to be corrected; in the last case it was 10 disciples explicitly and the other two by implication.

I have changed “church at Rome” to “the Bishop of Rome” following your suggestion.

The difficulties facing the Sunni doctrine of consensus fidelium are considerably greater than those facing the Catholic doctrine, because Islam’s great schism occurred before any substantial doctrines had been formulated. That case illustrates a point that I do not recall being discussed in Catholic authorities. Abu Bakr and Imam Ali disagreed, but it was not because they read the scriptures differently (sensus fidei) but because they read the world differently (sensus mundi ?). They had different visions of the role of religion in society, because they were operating with two different models of what “society” is. That at least is my theory.

I would like to start off by saying that my primary purpose is to provide you with some objective feedback, and I certainly respect the scale of your knowledge, especially when considered in light that this is not your faith.

I do not believe that a deep theological discussion on consensus/sensus fidelium is necessary and is really above the scope of my post since many individuals which much greater knowledge than I have explained much more beautifully than I could ever hope to achieve.

With that being said, to truly answer your assertion – that Matthew 20:25 shows all twelve of the disciples in error at the same time, and that, even in spite of this, the theology of sensus fidelium (and more generally Apostolic Tradition) was adopted; one must consider the totality of the Gospels. As a note, when I mention things like perfect knowledge I am referring to only matters of faith expressed in a formal manner (meaning the Apostles couldn’t “know the winning lottery numbers” so to speak).

The first consideration is the fact that the Apostles/Disciples had no inherent “magical” properties. They were men no different than you or me. The supernatural powers that they came to possess: healing of the sick, forgiveness of sins, etc. were direct gifts from God. They also possessed a wonderful gift: a perfect teacher – Jesus Christ, God Himself, in the form of man. With that being said, and when we consider the record of the Gospels, we can clearly see a progression of the Apostles from “babes in Christ” to progressively deeper understanding.

Apostolic Tradition is a wonderful gift from God, arguably second in importance only to the sanctifying grace of Jesus. It was instituted, along with the Canon of Scripture and the Magesterium of the Church, so that the message of God could be fully communicated to all generations after the death and ascension of Jesus. This gift allows us as Christians to know with absolute certainty that we are both receiving the fullness of salvation and the fullness of revelation.

When Christ first sent the twelve out to evangelize the Jews, it is my opinion that they did not, at that point, possess, as a group, perfect understanding. This is due to the fact that at this point chronologically, perfect, complete understanding of the Apostles was not necessary because Christ, the perfect teacher, was still alive. Thus, even if we concede that Matthew 20:25 shows that all twelve of the disciples are in error (which I believe a reasonable argument could be made that this isn’t true), this has no bearing on Apostolic Tradition because, in my opinion, it had not yet been fully established.

There is some disagreement among Christians as to when exactly Apostolic Tradition began, but all of them occur after Jesus’s death, since at this time the perfect teacher was no longer present and that role needed to be fulfilled by the group. It is my personal opinion that Apostolic Tradition began at Jesus’s ascension into Heaven, since after his death, burial, and resurrection, he came back and spent considerable time with the Apostles, in all likelihood teaching them different things and making sure that they were ready to accurately communicate His message to all generations (although, it is also important to note that, in my opinion, Apostolic Tradition is, at its core, really the Holy Spirit using man as an instrument to speak the Word of God). Another possible “genesis” for Apostolic Tradition is the Day of Pentecost, because in this event we see perhaps the clearest, most concrete example of the inherent trueness of Apostolic Tradition – that the Holy Spirit, God Himself, came and “filled” the Apostles, and that, by doing so, used the Apostles as an instrument to evangelize those present. Regardless of whether we believe the Ascension or Pentecost are the true beginning of Apostolic Tradition, both of these events occurred chronologically after Jesus fully left Earth and thus after the verses you mention.

Thus, with all of this being considered, to disprove sensus fidelium or more specifically Apostolic Tradition, one must find an example of the Apostles being in error on a specific topic after the Ascension or Pentecost (depending on what you prescribe to). This actually was a contentious issue for Martin Luther during his Reformation because he felt that James was at odds with Paul. To that I will note that I believe that each of the Apostles possessed different skills, and these specific skills were the ones that the Holy Spirit chose to employ for each man. Furthermore, there really is no contradiction (actually, by definition, they are in perfect harmony) between James and Paul – they just each present things in a slightly different manner, highlighting their own talents.

Once again, I admire your knowledge and look forward to helping you formulate anything else.

In early Christianity, the Church Fathers translated their assurance that the believers are guided by the “Spirit of Truth” (John 14:17) and by Christ, as he had said “I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” (Matt. 28:20) into a conviction that the body of believers collectively would not agree on an error.

Yes. But, in this case, “body of believers” includes the those living on earth, and those living in heaven, so that the Sensus Fidei is the collective agreement of the body of believers across the ages.

Furthermore, it is not mere “agreement,” nor simply common understanding. Doctrines held in Sensus Fidei are held as true, both explicitly and implicitly, and these doctrines always pertain specifically to Faith and Morals.

People knew of course that the disciples had disputes among themselves, which Jesus resolved, but they believed that the disciples, and the believers of every age would never agree on an error.

Correct. And after Jesus departed, the task of resolving disputes fell to Peter, who received that power from Jesus.

However in Matthew 14:16

He does not correct a doctrinal matter, here. They could not have foreseen a miracle He had not yet revealed. It does not pertain to Sensus Fidei.


The passage says “the disciples” but it is unclear how many did so, if these included the Twelve, or not, if these were just the general crowd of disciples following and listening to Him, if it was all or a handful.

Furthermore, He was correcting their attitudes, specifically, not a doctrinal error. I get that when He says “for the kingdom of heaven is for such” (children) it seems like he’s correcting a misunderstanding, but that’s not the case. Jewish tradition inducted infants into the Covenant through circumcision. The disciples wouldn’t have seen it any differently in that instance. What Jesus was addressing was a cultural taboo (children interfering with the teachings of a spiritual master).

This does not pertain to Sensus Fidei.


Again, not a doctrinal matter. He is, once again, addressing their attitudes of incredulity, which in this case comes again from their cultural understanding of God’s blessings and cursings (such that a man was rich because God blessed him for his righteousness… so if it was so difficult for a righteous man to enter heaven, then how could anyone else possibly do it? a fair concern).

And again, it is unclear what “the disciples” refers to exactly.

Mark 9:13

Not even sure how this qualifies. The question was posed by three disciples. Jesus wasn’t correcting their misunderstanding so much as simply answering their question.

and 10:24, Jesus corrects misunderstanding held by the disciples in general

See my response for Matt. 19:26.

, and in Matthew 20:25 he explicitly corrects the thinking of ten of the disciples, and the other two (James and John) implicitly suffered from the same misunderstanding.

This might actually qualify for the point you’re trying to make, but I’m dubious. This is again something like a cultural attitude, or a common way of thinking. I would have serious doubts that any of the Apostles spoke, in clear agreement, in advancement of the idea that those who would be greater in His kingdom would get to lord it over everyone else. But they certainly could have.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t really violate the principle of Sensus Fidei. I’ll explain below.

It appears then that the disciples could agree on an error, if Jesus was not there to correct them.

Actually, the opposite of what you state here is true. It appears the disciples could be in error, as long as Jesus was there to correct them.

And here’s the really salient point, Sensus Fidei belongs to the Church, as the Church is the body of Christ, who is its head, and who protects it from error. But the Church wasn’t formed, as such, until Pentecost. Yes, Jesus instituted the Sacraments during His ministry. Yes, Jesus conferred the powers of office belonging to the various offices that are part of the Church, during His ministry. But, at that time, the New Covenant hadn’t yet been made. Jesus hadn’t yet completed His mission. He had not yet died, nor risen. He had not yet given the Great Commission.

Until Pentecost, Sensus Fidei didn’t yet exist because the Church didn’t yet exist. Sensus Fidei is a property of the Church because it is headed by Jesus, who is Truth itself. This means that the body of believers who belong to it, are in unity with Truth, Himself. But this reality didn’t exist until Christ’s mission was complete, and the Holy Spirit descended upon the gathered Twelve, who became the Church.

Thus, even if the disciples fully agreed, and clearly so, on an error at any time during Jesus’ ministry, this wouldn’t have any affect on Sensus Fidei.

If there’s a consensus :slight_smile: that Jesus and the disciples did not constitute the Church, I can reduce my paragraph considerably, as most of what I’ve said is then irrelevant. It’s not a view I’ve heard before, and I studied theology in a Catholic seminary for a couple of years (as an external student). Perhaps I should have taken the Ecclesiology paper instead of the Christology paper, as I find myself very ignorant in the ecclesiology field.

I am not seeking to disprove the Catholic consensus fidelium doctrine, but if Jesus and the Disciples together are part of the Apostolic Tradition, then one could hardly omit mention of Jesus correcting the disciples’ understanding. Nor could I omit mention of the great schism and the reformation, which pose the same kind of difficulty for the doctrine. The difficulties for the Sunni doctrine are even greater, to the extent that one must ask whether it is at all credible.

However the discussion has helped me along, to a new understanding and question. There seem to be two possible grounds on which the consensus fidelium can be argued. One is that it is more or less the plural of the sensus fidei. This is a psychological or mystic approach, and I know I’ve read somewhere in the Fathers descriptions that rang true of a way of “responding to” the text and tradition in faith, as distinct from “reading it.” But if this is the grounds of the consensus fidelium, one cannot say that it was not present among the disciples, or indeed among the faithful Jews before Christ. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word” quoth Simeon.

The second ground is an argument that God will not allow the vessels of salvation to be broken, because they are (or so far as they are ) necessary to God’s plan. This is an argument that Abdu’l-Baha makes, in Some Answered Questions, using the essence-attribute language of Greek philosophy (and hence, Islamic philosophy):

“… infallibility as an attribute is not an essential requirement; rather, it is a ray of the gift of infallibility which shines from the Sun of Truth upon certain hearts and grants them a share and portion thereof. Although these souls are not essentially infallible, yet they are under the care, protection and unerring guidance of God — which is to say, God guards them from error. Thus there have been many sanctified souls who were not themselves the Daysprings [rising-place, origin] of the Most Great Infallibility, but who have nevertheless been guarded and preserved from error under the shadow of divine care and protection. For they were the channels of divine grace between God and man, and if God did not preserve them from error they would have led all the faithful to fall likewise into error, which would have wholly undermined the foundations of the religion of God and which would be unbefitting and unworthy of His exalted Reality.” (Some Answered Questions, revised translation, 2014(?)

One could rephrase this to say that the Church is not inherently (by nature, in essence) infallible, but is guarded from error because it is a channel of divine grace, and therefore that the consensus fidelium, as the outward form of the mystic Church, can be relied upon. This puts infallibility first, and deduces the consensus fidelium from it, rather than starting with the life of the spirit in the individual, multiplying it to the consensus fidelium, and deducing infallibility. And, if one takes this approach, then indeed God need not have preserved the disciples collectively from error, because Jesus was there to teach them. Consensus fidelium may be supposed to begin at the Ascension.

Does the Church teach one or other of these approaches? Or both?

They do constitute the Church, and all Faithful Christians since, but there’s a timing issue involved.

More precisely, Jesus Christ is the Church. We are part of the Church insofar as we are united to Jesus Christ. That unity confers particular powers and authority for different offices. Every Christian shares in Christ’s priesthood, for example, but each priestly office holds additional and/or unique powers.

The power of infallibility resides uniquely with the office of the Pope, in that it belongs to a single office-holder. It also resides with the collective offices of Bishops, in Magesterial teaching. It further resides in the whole body of the faithful.

Thus, there are three levels of infallibility within the Church, each pertaining to specific sets of circumstances, corresponding roughly to implicitly held doctrine, explicitly defined doctrine and dogma. The Sensus Fidei normally refers to implicitly held doctrine, but is never in contradiction with explicitly defined doctrine and dogma. Indeed, implicitly held doctrine has over time tended toward being explicitly defined due to the rise of different heresies throughout the ages. Thus, explicitly defined doctrine arises out of the Sensus Fidei.

But Sensus Fidei exists insofar as the Fidei truly are Fidei. That is, that the Faithful truly are Faithful to Christ, and therefore in union with Him. The Church does not profess to hold merely a body of teachings that is true. The Church professes to be Truth itself, Jesus Christ, a living body with a living mind, the mind of Christ. The Sensus Fidei is infallible because the faithful are united in mind with the Truth, either through understanding of the truth, belief (even where there is no understanding) in the truth, or even through simple submission to the truth (even where one has difficulty believing it).

The timing issue, however, resides in the actual institution of the Church. No Church, no Sensus Fidei. If Christ was never sacrificed, for example, no Church. If Christ never rose from the dead, no Church, as another example. The mystical unity of the faithful resides in Christ alone. Before He redeemed man, repairing the relationship between God and man, such a mystical unity was not available. Thus, no Church and therefore no Sensus Fidei.

But He did do all of that, so we do have the Church, and we do have Sensus Fidei. And the Twelve are foremost members of that body. Not, “they were.” They are. But they are not the core of the Church. Jesus is. They were the genesis, out of which the Church grew, but they are not, themselves, the Church. They are part of the Church, who is Jesus, just as we are.

I believe that your mentioning of Matt 20:25 and others are very useful in a meaningful discussion on the doctrine, but it should not be used as a basis for the lack of its validity. Instead, this would be beneficial to demonstrate the progression of the Apostles and to show that even they required instruction from Jesus.

To answer your second question, we are beginning to get slightly into gray areas of comparing contrasting things, but I believe your option “two” is very close to Catholic theology (you could probably change a few philosophical words, etc. and fool most Christians on the author!).

The humans on earth who make up God’s Church are clearly not perfect (although, as the other poster mentioned, there are members of the Church who are). Catholic theology teaches that there were only two humans in all of creation who were entirely perfect (ie sinless). Those are Jesus Christ and his mother the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus Christ was perfect due to his nature of being God, but we can be certain that he faced trials and temptations as intensely as we do. Mary was preserved from the stain of all sin (actual and original) due to a special grace from God on behave of her son.

This is all to say that the Apostles as men were not perfect (sinless). However, what is perfect (free from error) is the Tradition (oral teaching from Jesus Christ, God Himself, on matters of faith) which they established. This Tradition was preserved from error as a gift from God. Similarly, the Canon of Scripture is perfect, another gift from God. The final of the Three Pillars of the Church’s Authority or the Magesterium is perfect when dogma is declared infallible. This is another gift from God - the Holy Spirit speaking through man the literal Word of God. In these manners, we can that the Church on Earth is perfect since we can be certain that they are guided by divine grace.

Thus, it is important to be deliberate and explicit when we say that the “church is inherently perfect or not inherently perfect” with regards to on Earth. One characteristic of all of the mentioned items is that the Holy Spirit definitively and with absolute certainty uses man as an instrument. It is more proper to say that the Canon of Scripture, the Magesterium acting Infallibly, and the Tradition are perfect on Earth.

Your second proposition is then correct but needs a little bit of touch up to be technically right and to help prevent any misunderstandings. Perhaps something like “The Apostles, Fathers, and humans members of the Church are not inherently infallible while on Earth”. The latter half of it is also correct. We can be sure of consensus fidelium due to the nature of infallibility, Canon, and Tradition. Meaning, that consensus fidelium flows from the Canon, Magesterium, and Tradition rather than the other way around.

As a final note: here is an excellent article outlining in detail the entirety of the doctrine, and would be most beneficial for someone doing a research paper on the topic…


Thak you Alchemon. It will take me some time to work through all that.

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