Limited options for lay Catholics wanting synod input

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

by Dennis Coday

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Catholics still looking to have input into the October synod on the family have limited options.

Bishops who head about half of all U.S. Latin-rite dioceses (93) are conducting some kind of survey among Catholics in their territories. Information-gathering has already ceased in about 18 of these dioceses, and in about 24 of these dioceses, consultations may be not with the parishioners at large, but with select groups, like parish council members in Stockton, Calif., or "pastors, parochial administrators, and parochial vicars" in Venice, Fla.

The Association of U.S. Catholic Priests is asking Catholic priests to complete a survey by March 5. The association will share the survey results with the synod secretariat.

Last year, a coalition of 19 Catholic reform organizations commissioned a survey of attitudes based on the Vatican's survey and sent their findings to the Vatican's Secretariat of the Synod. The coalition isn't doing that this year, said Ryan Hoffmann, director of communications for one of those groups, the Chicago-based Call To Action.

This year, the reform groups are encouraging Catholics to engage their local diocesan leaders, Hoffman told NCR.

"Bishops have been directed to learn from the experiences of lay Catholics," he said. "In dioceses where the bishop hasn't reached out, laity are encouraged to be proactive, making it clear they expect to be heard. We feel it is extremely important Catholics take advantage of this opportunity to make clear their pastoral needs and ways the church can better serve them."

Ryan pointed out a website,, with resources and suggestions for Catholics wanting to offer input to their bishops. The website's suggestions:

  • Conduct a listening session in your parish or community. The website offers resources on how to convene and conduct listening sessions. (The diocese of Scranton, Pa., also provides online resources that groups outside that diocese may find useful. These include a sample community meeting agenda, a sample focus group process and a smorgasbord of additional resources for marriage and family life.)
  • Ask for a meeting with your bishop to discuss both the processes and issues related to the synod. The website offers a sample letter to send to your bishop and "tips for meeting with bishops."

Some Catholics have contacted NCR saying they plan to write directly to the Vatican about the family life topics under discussion. The email address for the secretariat is The mailing address is:

Sinodo dei Vescovi
Palazzo del Bramante
Via della Conciliazione, 34
Città del Vaticano

The secretariat has not indicated what it will do with such direct input.

The Catholic reform organizations are focusing their attention this year on the October synod itself. They have launched a campaign called "Widen the Circle at the 2015 Family Synod." They are petitioning the synod organizers at the Vatican to "to make every effort to include a wide diversity of Catholics" as auditors and experts who will address the Synod of Bishops in October.

Synod statutes limit direct participation in the synod -- the so-called "synod fathers" -- to bishops elected by national bishops' conferences and appointed by Pope Francis. In addition, the Union of Superiors General of men's religious orders elects 10 delegates. (The female counterpart, the International Union of Superiors General, does not have delegates.)

But the pope can appoint anyone he wants as auditors or experts. These auditors and experts can address the synod and are included in synod sessions and discussions. Francis appointed 14 married couples to the October 2014 synod.

The Widen the Circle supporters want that number expanded, with more representation coming from "the constituencies being discussed including divorced and remarried people, cohabitating couples, interfaith families, impoverished families, single parents, families with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members, same-sex couples, and families torn by the violence of war and abuse."

"The gap between the people of the church and its leadership is very evident, and, sadly, growing," said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a Catholic LGBT group that is among the Widen the Circle campaign.

"Catholics are yearning for the kind of dialogue that Pope Francis has called for, and very ready to express their hopes, dreams and frustrations with the church," she told NCR in an earlier interview.

[Dennis Coday is NCR editor. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @dcoday.]

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