Underreported survey responses for synod on the family a valuable tool for Vatican

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Christine Schenk

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Last week, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reported on survey responses from U.S. dioceses in preparation for October's first session of the Synod of Bishops on the family. Kurtz's report was underwhelming at best. His take is that responses pointed to a need for a "more remote and proximate formation" of Catholics: "We know there is a need for greater, effective teaching on key tenets of the faith, such as the indissolubility of marriage, the importance of sexual difference for marriage, the natural law, and the married couple's call to be open to life."

Unfortunately, Kurtz is echoing a talking point used by many prelates who spin survey feedback as if it is just another consumer poll designed to rate how well they are doing their job. There is no real dialogue here, no real listening, only the assumption that Catholics will change their minds if bishops talk louder and longer.

Worse, the report watered down what many laity really said. For example, St. Petersburg, Fla., Bishop Robert Lynch, reporting on a diocesan survey that attracted 6,800 respondents, wrote: "On the matter of artificial contraception the responses might be characterized by the saying, 'that train left the station long ago'. Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium [the sense of the faithful] suggests the rejection of Church teaching on this subject."

Surveys from other dioceses indicate similar disconnects between official teaching and acceptance of that teaching by ordinary Catholics.

One large national survey that went mostly unnoticed by the media is worth discussing here because it provided an opportunity for Catholics from anywhere in the U.S. to give feedback, not only those in the 72 U.S. dioceses out of 195 that offered online surveys. Conducted in November and December by 15 progressive Catholic organizations, the survey reports on 16,582 respondents from across the United States. Quantitative and qualitative responses were analyzed by Dr. Peter J. Fagan from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. (Disclosure: I served as a consultant to this project in its early stages.) Demographically, 83 percent of the respondents were laypeople, 27 percent were parents and 11 percent were professed religious, priests, deacons and seminarians.

Even though progressive Catholic organizations conducted the survey, just 13 percent of respondents described themselves as a "member of a church reform organization." Fifty-three percent are weekly Massgoers. This finding undercuts any potential stereotypes that respondents are outsiders throwing stones. Au contraire -- they are among the most faithful of Catholics, given that the U.S. Catholic average of weekly Mass attendance is 24 percent, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

"This was a tedious survey for respondents to complete -- probably taking 45 to 60 minutes," Fagan said. "The fact that 16,582 faithful submitted responses is testimony to the depth of care and concern they had for the future of the church and the transmission of the Gospel. Their voices deserve to be listened to."

The survey consisted of 49 items based on the Vatican's original survey and, as did many diocesan surveys, the designers made alterations in the language to make it more accessible to a lay population. Three items -- about marriage equality, the needs of children of parents in marriages not recognized by the church, and the importance of community availability of contraception -- were also added.

While results of the survey's quantitative questions were in the main consistent with similar studies by the Pew Forum, CARA and international bishops' conference reports, some of the key findings are worth emphasizing.

Divorce and remarriage

  • 75 percent felt divorced and remarried couples believed their relationship to be worthy of the sacraments, regardless of church recognition of their union.
  • 82 percent agreed that simplification of annulment rules would be beneficial.
  • Ninety-two percent viewed parents in marriages not recognized by the church as approaching the church for sacraments, while 51 percent viewed them as approaching the church for catechesis and 52 percent, general teaching.
  • Most did not know of ministerial outreach at the diocesan (51 percent) or national (67 percent) level.

Marriage equality and ministerial outreach to LGBT Catholics

  • 73 percent said marriage equality is either extremely important (47 percent) or very important (26 percent).
  • 64 percent felt there are Catholics in same-sex unions who do not believe their situation warrants denial of sacraments and still approach the church for them.
  • 57 percent said there is a law recognizing marriage equality in their states.

This survey asked more in-depth questions about LGBT issues than other surveys. The findings are worth reporting since they suggest there is more acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples at the parish and small faith community levels than at the diocesan level.

  • Over a third of respondents saw dioceses as hostile and condemning of marriage equality (37 percent) and same-sex couples (35 percent).
  • A significantly smaller number viewed their parishes as hostile and condemning of marriage equality (11 percent) and same-sex couples (13 percent).
  • Even fewer saw their small faith community as hostile and condemning of marriage equality (3 percent) and same-sex couples (4 percent).

Responsible parenthood and family planning

  • 1 percent said the teachings of Humanae Vitae were completely accepted. Fifty-six percent said they were not accepted, and 43 percent said they were accepted in part.
  • 76 percent support alternatives to Humanae Vitae, including contraception.
  • 80 percent judged availability of contraception to be either extremely important (56 percent) or very important (24 percent).
  • Three-quarters indicated that the following of conscience about family planning, even when it is not consistent with church teaching, does not appear to restrict approaching the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.

A 15-page report of both qualitative and quantitative findings and an 81-page report of randomly selected written responses in English and Spanish are downloadable at mycatholicfamily.org.

In January and February, survey organizers Deborah Rose-Milavec of FutureChurch, Kate Conmy of Women's Ordination Conference, and Linda Pinto of Catholic Organizations for Renewal sent complete survey reports to the Vatican synod office as well as to the USCCB. They received a warmly written form letter from Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri at the Vatican, as presumably did all others who wrote to him. Pinto received a generic postcard from the USCCB acknowledging they received the report.

It is encouraging that Vatican synod offices are sorting through responses from Catholics all over the world. But I am concerned that according to early reports, only heads of bishops' conferences and Vatican offices will be present next October. Both sessions of the synod would benefit greatly from inviting lay Catholics of every stripe to inform proceedings. In particular, married theologians -- men and women who are experts in contemporary moral theology -- should serve as theological consultants to the bishops' focus sessions.

While it's true that church teaching doesn't come from opinion polls, neither does it emerge without regard for the lived experiences of those taught. The Holy Spirit lives, moves and guides the lives of ordinary people seeking to love and follow Christ within their own particular, unique circumstances. Could such Spirit-filled lives also have something to teach our bishops?

Our church must listen. Otherwise, synod outcomes are doomed to fall on deaf ears. If this happens, it will only be because our bishops have failed to open their own.

P.S. You can work to include all kinds of Catholic families, including married theologians, at the Synod of Bishops on the family at mycatholicfamily.org.

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years.]

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