Appeals to “experience” obscure the ambiguity of “experience”

Clarity on this matter is vital if the Synod is to accomplish a theological task and not just be a pressure group to advance an agenda.

(Image: José Martín Ramírez C |

Back when I was an undergraduate student, my introduction to systematic theology was taught by a nun who was big on “experience.” I was hoping for an introduction to basic dogmatic theology but wound up with a methodology that constantly kept coming back to “experience” as the way to assess “good” theology.

I mention it because something of that mentality seems to lurk in the background of key advocates of the Synod on Synodality. Even when proposals advanced in the “synodal process” appear to clash with received Catholic teaching, they appear inclined to prolong the “dialogue” in the name of examining “lived experience.” The bolder among them even suggest that this “lived experience” may be revealing the Holy Spirit’s will for our times, a new kind of ecclesiology whose harmonization with received Catholic teaching is, again, disputable.

Experience, nevertheless, has a certain following. In times when reason is dismissed as “power” and “privilege,” the concreteness of experience appeals over “head trips” of intellectual cogitation, particularly when such thinking may be abstract and involved.

That said, appeals to “experience” struck me 40 years ago as wrongheaded, a position I maintain today. I think that those appeals get the problem exactly backwards. The problem lies in the ambiguity of experience.

Experience is neither good nor bad: it is. It provides us raw data for analysis. But it is a logical fallacy to smuggle in the assumption that experience has anything to say about its value or its truth. It doesn’t.

Take, for example, the experience of sin. It’s a common experience, practically universal. With the exception of two people in all of human history, it’s the story of every man and woman who’s walked this planet.

With that kind of commonality and frequency, one might be tempted to assume that experience tells us something of its normality. Statistically, it’s very normal. But, as the Church repeats, morality—rightness or wrongness—is not based on statistics. Morally, the experience of sin is not normal at all. Despite its incidence, it violates who the human being is and should become. So the Church has to preach against something that is a practically universal human experience.

Experience needs to be interpreted. It needs a “hermeneutic” to ascertain whether that experience is leading is in the direction of weal or woe. To make experience the hermeneutic of experience is something like a puppy chasing its tail: it gets wound up in circles but it’s a very closed system.

So, what is going to be your “hermeneutic”?

Catholics should answer: the received teaching of the Church. That’s because of what the Church is: the continued presence of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit with man until the end of time. The Church is not just (or even first of all) an institution. She is first and foremost the vehicle of making God’s saving work present here and now.

That is not something new, a task begun in the run up to the Synod on Synodality, or even Vatican II. It has been the Church’s mission since the Apostles burst out of the Upper Room the first Pentecost to teach all nations and baptize them. And since Baptism is first and foremost a sacrament of conversion, that message has been one of questioning the norms of this world in the light of Christ’s teaching carried forward in His Church (see Mt 28:19-20).

Because the Church’s mission has been ongoing, her teaching needs to be interpreted in continuity because, otherwise, one would have to say the Spirit lied in the past but now corrects the Church’s path—a plainly heretical (and blasphemous) assertion. This is precisely what Benedict XVI was getting at in discussing the “hermeneutic of continuity” (and contrasting it to the “hermeneutic of discontinuity”), a notion hardly his invention. Continuity of doctrinal and moral development is to be found in St. John Henry Newman, St. Vincent of Lérins, and even St. Paul. Already in I Corinthians, Paul makes clear that his affirmation of the Resurrection comes not first from his “experience” on the Road to Damascus but from the testimonies, in rank order, of Peter, the Twelve, and other disciples (15:3-8).

There is your hermeneutic for evaluating experience: “what I have received.” That hermeneutic allows the Christian to sift the wheat from the chaff, identifying which experience illumines the Christian message and which does not.

That hermeneutic does not allow, for example, for the selective dismantling of received Catholic moral teaching as evidenced in some of the documents of the German Synodaler Weg.

Proponents of experience, however, are likely at this point to advance the claim that not all teaching enjoys the same status, that some matters are more “central” to the faith than others and that—of course—those they are willing to jettison are on the sidelines.

I’ve previously addressed this subterfuge, which I’ve argued is a misunderstanding of the “hierarchy of truths” as regards Catholic teaching. Rather than imagining Catholic teaching as a basket of discrete items positioned at different places on a football field, a true understanding of the “hierarchy of truths” recognizes the interdependence and interwovenness of those teachings, notes in a whole that together constitute a unified symphony and not loose threads one can pull at.

That one needs to engage in such separation and parsing of Catholic theology in order to extract certain elements without pretending the entire edifice will collapse is alien to how previous generations of theologians did their work. From whence have their moderns “received” their deconstructionist hermeneutic?

One could suggest that this approach to experience is arrayed in support of a certain agenda, particularly in the area of sex. Human experience also shows that people regularly take short cuts to maximize a profit, make money, or gain advantages over competitors. Yet it is doubtful that the advocates of experience would tell us that the company that dumps its waste in the river, as many have done before, is acting according to experience. No, they would demand that the experience be evaluated through a moral lens, which includes the received moral teaching about stewardship for the earth and developed in contemporary concerns for our “common home.” The point is: raw experience doesn’t count.

Except, perhaps, when it comes to sex.

Suddenly, in matters related to the Sixth Commandment, we have a new hermeneutic. Suddenly, the “experience” of contemporaries at least “calls into question” what the Church has taught, even though the variations on a sexual theme have been far less differentiated over history than, say, economic choices. No, in the area of sex—where the immediacy of sensory experience and erotic pleasure are particularly intense—we are to believe that “experience” can somehow norm the Church’s teaching. And the principle that nemo est judex in causa sua (“nobody’s a judge of his own case”) is now atypically suspended in the same of “sexual minorities” and others with vested interests in the moral judgment’s outcome. That this special hermeneutic is the work of the Holy Spirit enlightening our age, rather than the appeal of the flesh (in its pejorative sense) against which Scripture repeatedly counsels.

Again, this appeal to experience appears in some novel interpretation of ecclesial teaching, though it originally showed itself in the effort to sideline post-Humanae vitae sexual ethics: appeals to the “sensus fidelium.” According to this argument, the “sense of the faithful” cannot err, so that their “experience” and “intuitions” should serve as ecclesial correctives.

Where to start?

The sensus fidelium, as St. Pope John Paul II was wont to observe, presupposes the sensus fidei. So, again, what is claimed as the “insight” of the “faithful” must be tested against what is the “faith.” The faithful—even bishops—can be wrong: consider the size of the Arian party after Nicaea, or the saints (Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius) who suffered because of it. So, once again, what is claimed to be the “sense of the faithful” needs a hermeneutical key to interpret it.

And, in appealing to received teaching, we are reminded that the sensus fidelium is not 400 Catholics gathered in a Frankfurt hall or 40 in a San Diego church basement. The “faithful” are not just here and now: we are part of a Church that extends through time and space, so that what today’s “faithful” claim as their “sensus” needs to be assessed against what the faithful of all times and places have said is and isn’t Catholic faith and morals.

In any event, we come back to where we started: experience provides us with a datum of what is that is in no way morally (or truthfully) normative. That datum requires a key—a hermeneutic—to interpret and assess it. What should be clear is that this datum is judged by and not the judge of what the Church “has received.”

Clarity on this matter is vital if the Synod is to accomplish a theological task and not just be a pressure group to advance an agenda. And that clarity should not be expected just to dawn in Rome this fall while pretending that the “listenings” and the “dialogues” and the “syntheses” are somehow privileged perspectives rather than mere data that already needs to be critically sifted and, indeed, sometimes rejected.

• Related at CWR: “What Is a ‘Welcoming’ Church?” (April 13, 2023) by John M. Grondelski, Ph.D.

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About John M. Grondelski, Ph.D. 8 Articles
John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He publishes regularly in the National Catholic Register and in theological journals. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.


  1. Grondelski identifies the reversion of revelation to experience, from what God gives us to our personal epiphany of what that revelation really means. Exactly as prescribed as concrete situations in Amoris Laetitia. “In appealing to received teaching, we are reminded that the sensus fidelium is not 400 Catholics gathered in a Frankfurt hall”.
    From hermeneutic of continuity to discontinuity is what the great Synod is about. Grondelski seems more hopeful in the Synod’s propensity to amend itself than many of us are. Reason is its papal appointed Relator Card Hollerich, elevation of favorites like Card McElroy, the pontiff’s urging of radical inclusion, welcoming all, premises that have their own predetermined findings. As such the Synod is not an effort for seeking knowledge, rather of imposition. It is neither binding nor can it legitimately alter doctrine.

  2. Even were the church hierarchy allied to the synod sincere in their supposition that the “sensus fidei” cannot err in matters of faith and morals (as the catechism teaches); I fail to understand how various parties to the ‘sensus fidei” can now offer insight of any merit beneficial to the synod: the transsexual, sex worker; the atheist; the protestant; the divorce and re-married; the polygamist; the wholly disgruntled, etc. It has been estimated that less then 1% of the faithful Catholics from around the globe actually participated in the “listening sessions”. At this point, unless the synod is to push an agenda, it has failed to garner the interest or support of the sensus fidelium in large enough numbers to even matter, which leads me to the conclusion that I made long before the synod ever convened for the first time – that the entire debacle will be, as Cardinal McElroy recently revealed, a means that will give the liberals the opportunity they need to complete the revolution in the church they began at Vatican II. If PF was the least bit sincere about the synod, he would also make room enough in the sensus fidelium for those that attend the Traditional Latin Mass. The fact he does not is ample evidence he’s not interested in Catholicism with a capital C.

  3. Children are ruled by their “experience” of things. They react with pure feeling and their reactions are typically immediate but transient. In the past, it was the pedagogy of their parents, in concert with teachers and religious figures who helped children harness the drive to let “experience” rule their lives, temper their emotions and increasingly allow their reason to dominate their passions. Unfortunately, in our day and age, most of the adults have left the room so to speak and the children (of all ages) now allow their “experiences” to run amok. Don’t agree? All you have to do is peruse the news headlines, observe what goes on in our schools and note that a majority of children today are being raised by either one parent or in homes where, if there are two adults living there, one of them is likely not be be the biological parent. So, it’s not at all surprising that “experience” is the guide post for this so-called “Synod on Synodality” (whatever the heck that means).

  4. Yours truly agrees, of course, with this article. But, with a comment and then a slight twist…

    Yes, the misdirection of “experience” at the expense of revealed and defensible truth, which was noticeable even more than 40 years ago. Laced into the Call-to-Action fiasco (try 1975) rolled out by the American bishops—only to be finally disavowed a few years later, long after the damage was done. Today’s Synodality is too much like Call-to-Action dug up like a corpse and with the toothy jaw holleriching into the media microphone…

    FIRST, a comment, regarding the naked tomfoolery that has taken hold of synodality, Cardinal Newman (noted by the author) sets things straight with this: “…This leads me to lay down the general principle […] that no religion is from God which contradicts our sense of right and wrong” (“Grammar of Assent,” Ch. 10, part 2).

    SECOND, regarding “experience” as a partial guide, Newman offers the “illative sense” of personal (but not subjectivist) conviction, which consists of a multitude of concrete influences which then add up to the threshold decision to believe fully. More than a conclusion; man does not live by syllogisms alone. But “experience” not as narrowly understood by doctrinaire empiricists like David Hume…

    So, THIRD, Newman’s underlying assumption from natural religion of Man reaching for God (but not yet God’s supernatural Self-disclosure): “I assume the presence of God in our conscience, and the universal experience, as keen as our experience of bodily pain, of what we call a sense of sin or guilt” (ibid.).

    FOURTH, might we consider the convincing power of the illative sense and of course-changing iconic “experiences”? I offer the following case for concrete hermeneutics:
    Some years ago, yours truly served on the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council for all of Western Washington State. At one of the twelve listening sessions (“listening,” hurray!), a voice from a small and peripheral parish remarked that ALL of their teens were enthusiastically on board with the Catholic faith! Wait, full stop! How so, what’s the secret?

    …A few of them had attended the World Youth Day–in Rome: Of the Church, they “saw” it, they “got” it, all at once–the fact of the Incarnation, the history, the sacraments, everything. And the upshot back home was magic. On Sunday evenings—and on their own initiative and under their own leadership—a gathering of 75 young people (in a small parish) was meeting in the church basement—together to study the recent Catechism! And, during the week? Well, during the week they were evangelizing their siblings and parents (!) at the family dinner table.

    So, the hermeneutic of an iconic and contagious encounter (“experience”)—but rooted in our universal and baked-in consciences (the natural law, also stressed by the author) which had not yet been relativized, as by those moles now embedded (pun intended) by synodal ambiguity.

  5. Horror novel writer, Stephen King, said that “Hell is all about repetition”, and repetition is not experience, it is torture. Just picture a drop of water falling on your head for all eternity. It’s purpose-less and insane torture. So the title of “experienced”, as seen in the past in my little traditional Catholic hometown, authentically belongs only to those who have lived and truly grown in purposeful, genuine Catholic lives.

    Those steeped in sin are not experienced but live in Satan’s never ending hamster wheel of sin, never growing but ever shrinking, the most horrific torture to a human immortal soul made to grow. If we don’t feel the torture of sin is because God’s grace still calls us and we reject it with a commitment to sentimental and emotional self-delusion disguised as superior intellectualism and mysticism, an infinite repetition that is the abortion of any real life and any real growth.

    The Sin-od on Sin-odality calls on “experience” by listening to a collection of non-Catholics and anti-Catholics, when all those are the very opposite of True Experience, which is the experience of God growing lovingly and incessantly in us while repetition-sin-repetition is constantly and incessantly crucified.

    • I prefer sin-nod, like we’re giving sin itself a firm nod and, if’ were going in the direction some members of the church insist on taking the synod, i.e. the German “church”, we’re certainly giving sin a firm and unmistakably affirmative nod. God.Help.Us.

  6. What others have warned is come to fruition with Archbishop Paglia’s accommodation of physician assisted suicide as a viable choice in a pluralistic society. Rotten fruit [then what the tree?].
    Reason, void of permanent principles of moral good are inevitable, and that occurs more frequently in the Church as the mitigation of those principles in Amoris Laetitia are taking root.
    Experience has wide meaning, inclusive of our allowing what a majority are inclined to hold realistic to influence our positions. That happens more easily when we lose our sense of moral permanence. Instead of the rule, or permanent principle as the determinant, reason, which logically is the measure of truth, reverses logic and becomes the rule. In Paglia’s mind Francis’ concrete situations are the reality we cannot discount when making a moral assessment. Truth is found in the reality of experience.
    I would have to agree with Grondelski, we cannot abandon the theological virtue of hope regarding the outcome of the Synod on Synodality. Although as far as practical expectation it doesn’t appear viable. Experience from observation of human behavior, our own tendency toward what is less strenuous, demanding indicates that. But then there’s grace.

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