International church group enters synod fray with ‘alternative’ survey

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

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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An international church reform group is the latest to offer a version of the Vatican’s 46-item questionnaire that will guide discussions at the upcoming ordinary Synod of Bishops on the family.

Catholic Church Reform International has created a 20-question “alternative” survey, which it describes as “a straightforward, non-directive questionnaire inviting people to share their experiences on the effectiveness of the Church's pastoral care of families in all their diverse forms.”

“We want to be sure their voices are heard,” Rene Reid, the group’s director, told NCR in an email.

As of Friday morning, the alternative online survey has gathered 1,100 responses since opening Monday, according to the international reform network that represents more than 100 groups in 65 countries. Posted in English, the group has invited Catholics worldwide to participate.

“Pope Francis is eager to know you and your family. Here is an opportunity to share the challenges of your family life with him and how effective the Church's pastoral care has been for you,” reads the alternative survey’s greeting.

Reid said the survey will close around March 9, but the deadline may be extended if response is high. At that point, a team of six people will collate and organize responses by country to see what cultural variances may exist before sending the report to the Vatican before its April 15 deadline. The reform also plans to publish the final report on its website.

The survey asks respondents to rank on a five-point scale the church’s effectiveness on a range of issues: among them, the pastoral care of co-habiting couples, interreligious families, LGBT persons and their families, single-parent families, and couples using contraceptives. Other questions ask how the church fares in reaching out to Catholics who have left the church, and how family relationships can be strengthened.

From Oct. 4-25, bishops from around the world will convene in Rome for the ordinary Synod of Bishops on the family, focusing on the theme of "The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World."

At the extraordinary Synod of Bishops last October, bishops created a working document, known as the lineamenta, that included 46 questions on a range of topics, including marriage and sexuality. In compiling their own reports on those topics, bishops were asked in preparing their reports to consult with clergy, laity and relevant institutions.

Related: “Most US dioceses consult Catholics on family issues for fall synod

Catholic Church Reform International has encouraged respondents to detail their lived experiences, either personally or from credible sources, that relate to each of the questions.

The group has also offered four additional surveys, which will remain open through mid-2015, on four topics: fulfilling relationships, openness to life, gender and sexuality, and how the church teaches and listens.

Part of the reason for the alternative synod survey, the reform group said, is a “deep concern over deficiencies” in the lineamenta questionnaire, which they called “self-defeating.” Though they saw progress at the extraordinary synod and its preceding questionnaire, the group said the latest survey -- whether intentionally or not -- “seems designed to thwart” an open flow of feedback from everyday families.

“The questionnaire is far too complex and, with its abstract language and juridical views of marriage, it is largely incomprehensible to even the most well educated Catholics. It will not gather the much-need input from Catholic families themselves,” they said in an open letter to Pope Francis dated Feb. 7. 

It continued: “The questionnaire should allow respondents to voice their personal sense of the faith and how they understand marriage and family. With freedom of expression in such a survey, new perspectives will emerge, and the Church may find fresh ways of showing compassion and providing pastoral care. Clearly, the Lineamenta will not do this.”

The group asked that the upcoming survey in addition to its bishop participants include a broader representation of the world’s diverse families. They also urged Francis to take “a strong leadership role” in setting the synod’s priorities so that the church better reflects how Jesus would respond to the needs of today’s families.

“If the Church is to be a credible instrument of the Gospel, there must be a structural change in the way the Church operates today, namely, that all the baptized, as is their right, have a full say in the governance of the Church,” they said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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