Sensus Fidelium and the question of women’s leadership

The scene is familiar, one that has been recreated many times in parish social halls across the country: One wall is lined with a long table laden with cookies, cut vegetables and dip, cheese and crackers. The walls are decorated with banners from past parish missions and a crucifix adorned with a woven palm branch. The faint smell of oil from last Friday’s Lenten fish fry hangs in the air.

Parishioners from a three-parish cluster come in, are welcomed and encouraged to sign in at card tables by the door. They smile as they recognize the faces of friends across the hall. There are the requisite hugs and handshakes; people asked after each other’s family members, commented about sports, local politics, and the cold winter weather.

The pastoral associate called us to order, offered a brief opening prayer, and introduced the speaker, a representative of the diocesan office, who is to speak about Pope Francis and the New Evangelization. After a power point presentation highlighting themes from the apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” about being missionary disciples and some anecdotes about applying Francis’ words, we were given time for discussion at our tables. Each table was to discuss “what the church needs to leave behind” and “what the church needs to carry forward” and then share insights with the large group.

At our table the ten of us looked at each other expectantly. A metal chair squeaked when the woman beside me shifted her weight. Her husband beside her flipped through his copy of “The Joy of the Gospel.” The woman next to him took a bite of her cookie. We heard the murmur of conversations from neighboring tables.

“We’re going to need to give a report back soon,” someone said, frowning slightly.

“So,” I said, jumping into facilitator mode and pulling out a notebook and pen, “let’s start with the first question: what does the church need to leave behind?”

There was a thoughtful pause.

“Well,” ventured one woman, “what about the position of women in the church?”

Our formerly quiet and unengaged group of ten became instantly animated around this question and I jotted down notes as quickly as I could so as not to lose any threads of the conversation. Several people at the table remembered the post-Vatican II energy when it seemed to them women’s ordination to the diaconate and priesthood was a distinct possibility. One man spoke about examples from the New Testament of women in leadership roles in the early church. Someone else pointed out Pope Francis’ words in Evangelii Gaudium about a “more incisive female presence” in the church. I mentioned a recent article by Mary Ann Walsh, RSM in America magazine which gave concrete examples of ways women could assume more leadership in the church even without engaging the question of the ordination of women.

“So,” I said, “based on all I’ve heard, here’s a statement: ‘in order to move forward, the church needs to leave behind the exclusion of women from particular leadership and decision-making roles.’ Do we have consensus?”

“Yes,” came the resounding agreement.

The speaker re-convened us, thanked us for our work, and started with the tables in the back of the hall. The ideas shared ranged from big-picture and abstract to nuts-and-bolts practical. One table spokesperson spoke about the need to use personal invitations and not just rely on bulletin announcements to engage parishioners. Another recommended greater collaboration in several ministries among the clustered parishes. As ideas were shared, those gathered listened and occasionally nodded in agreement.

The speaker pointed to our table. I repeated our consensus statement: “in order to move forward, the church needs to leave behind the exclusion of women from particular leadership and decision-making roles.”

No sooner had the words been spoken than the room burst into sustained, hearty, and enthusiastic applause. One guy a few tables away even let out a cheer, pumping his fist in the air. I looked around the parish hall at the about 100 Catholics – mostly lay, but several deacons and priests – continued to clap.

holy-spirit-people-in-worship

When the applause finally subsided, the speaker smiled graciously, made no comment about my statement or the community’s response, and simply invited the next group to share. I sat down and someone at a neighboring table tapped me on the shoulder, grinned and gave me a thumbs up.

Please note that this took place in a rural, economically depressed part of Western Pennsylvania and not in some left-leaning urban area. This wasn’t a group of progressive, lefty millennials or hyper-educated academics. The parish hall that night was filled with women and men who are steel workers, teachers, nurses, small business owners, retirees who are committed to their parish family and Catholic faith. I wager most of the 100 people in attendance wouldn’t self-identify as feminists or activists for church reform. It was a room full of average American 21st century Catholics, responding out of their own experience.

As I reflected on that evening’s events, I began to look at them through the lens of sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) which Pope Francis defines in Evangelii Gaudium #119 as the “instinct of faith which helps them {the People of God} to discern what is truly of God”. It’s a tricky concept, described as an “intuition” about “the right way forward” for the church. It would be an abuse of the idea to say that it turns the church into a democracy which conflates majority opinion and doctrinal teaching. On the other hand, it is problematic to claim that sensus fidelium should never be invoked to contest or challenge the teachings of the Magesterium.

According to the document Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church by the International Theological Commission, “not only do they {the laity} 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.”

The document goes on to speak of “new ways for the journey…as they are sensed by the people.” I was graced to witness and articulate something which was “sensed by the people” in the social hall that night. In our little corner of Western Pennsylvania, 100 Catholics spontaneously, unanimously, and enthusiastically spoke about the need for inclusion of women in leadership and decision-making roles in the church.

What are the “new ways for the journey” to which we are being called as the Pilgrim People of God around questions of women’s leadership?

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

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One thought on “Sensus Fidelium and the question of women’s leadership

  1. What a heartening response! It is refreshing, with all the trolls online smearing the Catholic “authenticity” of people who want church reform, to have the affirmation that “regular Catholic folks” are tired of the same old, same old, too.

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