In order to grasp what’s going on with the Vatican survey, the first thing you need to understand about the Catholic Church is that when She says, “a few years ago,” what She means is, “within the past several centuries.” And so it is that She has now asked the bishops to poll their flocks about some issues that have come up that were “unheard of until a few years ago” (their words): cohabitation, same-sex couples, single-parent families, and mixed- or inter-religious families, to name a few.
Imagine the most culturally disconnected conversation you ever had with a grandparent. Now imagine having that same conversation with your ancestor from the 17th century, or thereabouts. Yeah. That’s what’s going on here.
Please don’t get me wrong. This is a good and important conversation. But let’s keep in mind our conversation partner. For millennia, Catholics worldwide have sat in the pews and practiced one form or another of active listening. Now the Synod of Bishops is offering some reciprocity, at least until the responses to the Vatican survey are due at the end of this year.
Why a survey?
According to a letter dated October 18, 2013, from Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, which was then distributed to all bishops throughout the world, the Synod is collecting feedback based on a questionnaire in order to utilize the information in preparing a document to be reviewed next October (2014) at an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod, called by Pope Francis. The theme of the extraordinary calling of this group is “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” The data from the survey is to be collected in the United States by December 31st, with the various conferences of bishops returning their feedback to the Secretary General by the end of January. This information will begin to be analyzed in February. It is expected that the final version of the resulting document will be published in May. (The full letter and questionnaire are available here.)
How is this survey being conducted?
Well, that depends on where in the world you are. In Belgium, the bishops have included the survey in their magazine and are putting it online. The bishops of England and Wales kicked it up a notch further and actually have it hosted on SurveyMonkey. So what of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops? Well… they’re dragging their feet. And the clock is ticking. (An editorial from the National Catholic Reporter – here – argues that the letter and questionnaire are an opportunity to hear from the people in the pews, but the US bishops seem to think they can provide valuable feedback without reaching into the pews and asking. We are now one month away from the deadline for submitting this information to the USCCB, but to look at their website, you wouldn’t even know this questionnaire existed.
What’s in this letter and questionnaire?
The letter is accompanied by a preparatory document entitled, appropriately, Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization. The document outlines the various “social ills” relating to family life in the modern world, and discusses the need for the Church’s attention to these matters and how they should be addressed. To be clear, the document is not asking bishops to take a poll in order to change Church teachings. Rather, it seems the questionnaire is designed to take the temperature of the laity to better help the clergy “meet people where they’re at” and then, of course, steer them in a different direction. After these brief introductory remarks, wherein the intention of the questionnaire is made clear, a list of nine topics are presented with accompanying questions.
To give you a taste of the range of questions asked in the document, here are the topics presented (in bold), along with a brief summary of the questions (in my own words) under each.
The Diffusion of the Teachings on the Family in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Magisterium
How do people today understand the Church’s teachings on the family? What kind of instruction are they given? How do the faithful respond to these teachings? How does the wider society respond to them?
Marriage according to the Natural Law
What importance is placed on Natural Law in the community? Is the idea that marriage is limited to heterosexual men and women accepted by the faithful? By society at large? How is it challenged? How is it taught and nurtured? When non-practicing Catholics or those outside the Church request marriage, how is this dealt with?
The Pastoral Care of the Family in Evangelization
How is the preparation for marriage handled? Is there an emphasis on the family as the domestic church? Have your efforts to promote family prayer been successful? How is faith transmitted from one generation to the next? What has worked in promoting these ideas?
Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations
Is cohabitation a problem in your Church? What percentage of couples in the Church are unmarried and living together? Are there remarried couples in your parish? What is the percentage? How do you deal with this? How do the parishioners feel about this? Do those remarried or cohabiting couples feel excluded from the sacraments? What kinds of questions do they ask? Could annulment help?
On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex
Does your local government recognize civil for same-sex couples and equate it to marriage? How do parishioners feel about this? How can you provide pastoral attention to those who have chosen to live this way? For same-sex couples who have adopted children, what can we do about transmitting the faith?
The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages
Compared with children of traditional marriages, how many children and adolescents in your parish have parents who are unmarried, divorced, remarried, or same-sex unions? How do their parents approach the Church? Do they request catechism or sacraments? How does your parish meet their needs in providing Christian education?
The Openness of the Married Couple to Life
How familiar are your parishioners with Humanae vitae? Do couples know how to morally evaluate different methods of family planning? Is Humanae vitae accepted in your parish? What aspects of it cause the most difficulty? What methods does the parish promote for natural family planning? How does this issue affect participation in Penance and Eucharist? What are the differences between the Church teaching and the civic education in your communities? How can we promote an open attitude toward childbearing and increasing births?
The Relationship Between the Family and the Person
What is the role of the family as a vocation? What family issues block personal relationships with Christ? How do crises of faith affect families?
Other Challenges and Proposals
Of all the above mentioned topics. what is most urgent and fixable?
Is there any way to participate in this survey in America?
As I mentioned earlier, the American bishops seem uninterested in taking the approach of many of their brother bishops in other countries who have opened this questionnaire up as an actual survey of the faithful. So how can you have your voice heard? There are a couple of organizations that are currently collecting responses to questions such as these and presenting their data to the bishops. What the bishops then do with this data is up to them. (Personally, I’m inclined to believe that it will be ignored. If the bishops were interested in actual data and input from their flock, they would have presented the opportunity to sponsor a survey themselves.)
If you’re still inclined to participate, you’re always welcome to contact the USCCB and offer your insights. You can also take advantage of the opportunities to participate being offered by several lay organizations. One version of the survey is available here and is sponsored by the members of Catholic Organizations for Renewal. Another version, sponsored by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good can be found here. Or, you can skip these steps and go right to the top, by sharing your thoughts with the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, Archbishop Baldisseri. In a press conference earlier this month, he clarified that he expected bishops to take the local pulse in their communities, but that individual Catholics are welcome to communicate directly with his office at the Vatican. (Their mailing address is Palazzo del Bramante, 00193 Roma, Via della Conciliazione, 34. They can also be reached by phone at 0039-06-6988-4821. You can send email to this address.)
So what have I decided to do?
To this point, I have read a lot about the vatican survey under discussion here, but have opted not to participate in any of the unofficial survey options. This is not to say that I don’t have opinions. But rather than expend the energy to respond, I choose to respond with my feet. Unlike many “progressive” Catholics before me, however, my feet go in the other direction: into the Church. I am a baptized member of the Catholic faith and a member of the Body of Christ. While my opinions differ from a handful of the opinions vocalized by the USCCB, I do not let these points of conflict keep me from my place in the pew. I will stay, and I will pray. I will continue to read excellent books, like the one I reviewed here about meaningful dialogue and the myth of the Vatican.
The stay and pray strategy bears fruit. Considering how slowly time seems to move in the institutional Church, I never expected to have a pope like Francis in my lifetime. I pray for him daily, and for his intentions. And I pray for all of you, especially those of you who are under the microscope in this Vatican survey. I pray that you will keep the faith and stay strong. Change is not impossible. Hope is a virtue. Love will always win.