Students’ synod questionnaire meets with surprisingly wide response

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

by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt

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Deeply disappointed by the complicated language and low level of distribution of the official Vatican questionnaire issued before the Synod of Bishops on the family, three German Catholic theology students decided to prepare their own.

More than 12,000 Catholics of all ages from 42 countries and different backgrounds, most of whom regularly attend Mass, responded to the questionnaire on marriage and the family circulated by Anna Roth and Tobias Roth from Münster University and Sarah Delere from the Free University of Berlin between September 2014 and March 2015.

The students "translated" the pope's questionnaire into a more familiar language. From September 2014 to January 2015, in the first phase of their research project, they took the questionnaire on a research trip to coastal cities in Europe, North Africa, Latin and North America.

They distributed copies in parishes in England, Poland, Germany, Belgium, France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain Italy, Morocco, Brazil and the U.S. By hand delivering the questionnaire, the students were able to supplement answers with valuable informal interview material. From January to March, they published their questionnaire online in seven languages.

The large majority of the 12,400 responses, namely 7,873, came from Germany, but it is interesting to note that responses to the questions concerning Mass attendance, church weddings, practicing the faith in the family, and the importance of praying with children also received similarly high percentages in the other 41 countries.

The responses show that, with the exception of the under 30-year-olds, a large percentage of the German participants attend Mass more than once a month.

"The majority of the German participants can be described as active churchgoers, a conclusion that was drawn from the number of times they attended Mass," the study said. "Roughly half of the participants attended Mass once a week or more often, 80% more than once a month. The same applied to participants from other countries. … It is striking that even 60% of those who said they did not agree with church teaching on the family, attended Mass more than once a month."

More than 90 percent of the respondents in all the 42 countries said that a church wedding was very important and more than 95 percent wanted a Christian education for their children. Sixty percent replied that they prayed with their children at least once a week and thought morning and evening prayers, grace before meals and singing hymns in the family were important.

Opinions on more controversial issues, such as church teaching on divorce, homosexual partnerships, mandatory priestly celibacy and women deacons, differed more widely across the countries.

Ninety percent of Germans would like to see second marriages for divorced people recognized and blessed. The picture differs slightly in other countries, but 75 percent of all those who filled in the questionnaire thought that permanently excluding divorced and remarried people* from the Eucharist was disproportional. One deacon from Salvador, Brazil, said it was completely incomprehensible that murderers could receive communion again after going to confession, but divorced and remarried people remained excluded for life. Many German Catholics consider the present practice unmerciful and want divorced and remarried people to be allowed to receive the Eucharist — although "possibly only after examining each case individually."

The picture differs considerably in other countries, however, the report said. "Even if on the whole Catholics in these other countries tend to want [divorced and remarried people] to be allowed to receive the Eucharist, the bar in these other countries is raised far higher with some saying only the 'clearly innocent parties of a divorce' should be allowed to receive communion again." The big exception is Poland, where 50% said they were in favor of adhering to present church law and excluding all divorced and remarried people from the Eucharist.

While 70 percent of German Catholics would like to see homosexual partnerships recognized and blessed, "no clear picture emerges as far as allowing same-sex partners to marry in church is concerned," the report said. "A frequent explanation given in many interviews is that according to Catholic church teaching the significance of sacramental church marriage is that it is open to having children by the man and woman concerned. Participants see this as so important that same-sex partners are per se excluded from marriage."

The majority of Catholics in Poland, southern Europe and Brazil, however, clearly reject recognizing and blessing same-sex partnerships and same-sex church marriages.

Opinions on whether or not priestly celibacy should be made voluntary differed widely. While 75-85% of Catholics in the German-speaking countries -- that is in Germany, Austria and Switzerland -- are in favor along with the majority of Catholics in France, North America and Brazil, this is not so in southern Europe and Poland.

Eighty-seven percent of German Catholics are in favor of introducing the diaconate for women. Assessing the situation in other countries proved impossible at the outset during the field-work stage, however. "Due to the difficulty of translating the term 'diaconate,' it proved impossible to draw a valid intercultural comparison" the report said.

Many of the participants criticized the church for seeing things exclusively in black and white.

"These are people's lives. One can't just produce a template and say they fit or they don't," one priest from Casablanca, Morocco, said. "The majority of participants demand that an ideal be seen as an ideal and that categories of failure and the principle of gradualness be included in church teaching."

The survey also showed that there was a great desire for open, honest dialogue.

"The participants who do not want church teaching changed frequently judge Pope Francis negatively," the report stated. "The clear majority of the participants are in favor of change, have a high opinion of the Pope and voice numerous wishes and constructive suggestions for changing church practice and teaching."

The results were evaluated at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and the Free University of Berlin and presented in Berlin Aug. 19. A detailed account of the entire research project has been published in the September issue of the German Jesuit theological monthly Stimmen der Zeit.

The astonishingly wide response from the questionnaire attracted widespread attention in the German-speaking countries. The questionnaire was reported on German television news programs the night of its release.

The high response seems to show that the relatively low response to the Vatican questionnaire cannot necessarily be attributed to a lack of interest on the part of the diocesan faithful, the authors said. On the contrary, the response shows the potential of a methodically well-founded Catholic opinion poll when it is used as an instrument of nuanced listening. It is a good example of how it would be possible to systematically record the real life of the Catholic faithful and bring it in to discussions on church law, the students said.

German Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, who will be accompanying Cardinal Reinhard Marx and Archbishop Heiner Koch to the synod in October, will present the results of the students' questionnaire to the synod participants.

*This story has been updated with the terminology 'divorced and remarried people' to replace instances of 'remarried divorcees.'"

[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London Catholic weekly The Tablet.]

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