Theologians discuss sense and absence of the faithful

Who should be included in the definition of the faithful and who of these are “absent” were among questions put at a recent US theological conference.

Earlier this month, the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America grappled with the issue of the “sensus fidelium” or “sense of the faithful” of the whole Church.

The meeting opened with a presentation that sought to describe the faithful, but also raised the question of whom should be included in that group.

“We do well to pay better attention to those who are now absent,” said Jerome P. Baggett, professor of religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University.

Professor Baggett challenged theologians to be “absence-minded”, to take note of those who once counted themselves among the faithful and are now missing from parishes.

According to research by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public life, one in ten adult Americans today is an “ex-Catholic”.

And a soon to be published study from the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame will show that one-half of US youth who self-identified as Catholic as teenagers no longer identified as Catholics 10 years later.

Professor Baggett also noted two other absences: an absence of understanding of the faith among those still in the pews and an absence of public-minded conversations.

The latter is a kind of “civic silence” in which people in parishes avoid difficult conversations, not only out of a fear of conflict, but to somehow preserve the sacredness of Church communities.

Franciscan theologian Fr John Burkhard discussed the need for reception of teachings by the People of God as a counterbalance to a modern need for certitude.

“In some situations the real question is not ‘Is it true?’ but ‘Is it life-giving?’ ” he said.


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