The National Catholic Review

Cardinal John Henry Newman's classic 1859 article, "On Consulting the Faithful on Matters of Doctrine," was much disputed in his time and after. Newman included the laity among those faithful, but also parish priests and indeed the whole body of the faithful. He wanted to stress not just orthodoxy but orthopraxis (right action or pastoral regard). He once noted: "If even in the preparation of a dogmatic definition, the faithful are consulted, as lately in the instance of the Immaculate Conception, it is at least natural to anticipate such an act of kind feeling and sympathy in great practical questions." Few pastoral questions are more telling than how the church can support, bolster and make more flourishing and holy the life of families. Families are, after all, quintessentially 'the domestic church.'

Pope Francis has called a synod for the fall of 2014 and that of 2015 to address key issues of pastoral outreach to families. The Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, headed by Archbishop Lorenzo Badisseri, sent out a long questionnaire in late October to the bishops' conferences of the world. On Nov. 5, the Vatican put the document online. It is also posted on the Vatican radio web site. The bishops of England and Wales and of Belgium (and a number of Australian bishops) also put the questionnaire online so that parish priests and the faithful laity could have input on a number of questions that involve, among other things, wounded families, the divorced/remarried, and de facto and same-sex couples.

The document behind the nine part questionnaire remarks that "Concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago have arisen today as a result of different situations from the widespread practice of cohabitation which does not lead to marriage, and sometimes even excludes the idea of it; to same sex unions between persons who are not infrequently permitted to adopt children. The many new situations requiring the church's attention and pastoral care include: mixed or inter-religious marriages; the single-parent family; polygamy; marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry; the caste system; a culture of non-commitment and a presumption that the marriage bond can be temporary... an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood.... Within the church, faith in the sacramentality of marriage and the healing power of the Sacrament of Penance show signs of weakness or total abandonment."

Widespread access to the questionnaire is advisable. It is advisable both to give information to the synod of bishops' representatives and for pastors on the ground. That said, there are some inherent problems in the questionnaire. It asks how widely the church's teaching on the family is known and accepted and what pastoral programs for the family exist at national, diocesan and parish levels. A second question on marriage according to 'natural law' is rather technical and some questions there and elsewhere seem to need a more readable English rendition. The natural law sections include phrases that invite over-generalization—such as questions about 'the people at large' and 'the baptized in general.'

Sections 4-7 deal with the pastoral care of the family (including both marriage preparation and on-going support for couples, especially couples in crisis situations). Programs for marriage preparation seem better than the follow up for the already married. Question 4 deals with pastoral care in certain difficult situations, e.g., the divorced-remarried. It seems clear the synod will at least speak to the practice of Orthodox churches which recognize a second marriage, after a divorce and a period of penance for the break-up of the earlier marriage. This second marriage is not considered sacramental but does allow couples to receive communion. Surely, one pastoral problem for the divorced and remarried involves their children who never see their parents receiving the sacraments. Question 5 deals with persons in same-sex unions and marriages. It asks: "What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?" (The question presumes some real pastoral outreach to them!) It also asks about what to do when same-sex couples adopt or have surrogacy children. How does the church's pastoral care reach such children? We know some U.S. pastors have refused Catholic schooling for such children, but some bishops have rightly demanded that Catholic schools provide outreach to them. Question 6 deals with the education of children in irregular marriages. Question 7 with the openness of the married to life.

At certain places in sections 4-7, conjectured numbers are asked for, a kind of statistical information beyond the immediate reach of most lay people, parish priests or bishops lacking sociological acumen. Answers to these kinds of questions would have been better approached in the context of a serious research project. Not enough attention is probably given to single parents or practicing Catholics married to non-Catholics and those with adult children who have rejected the church or are same-sex inclined.

Nevertheless, it is a good beginning. The deadlines, however, are totally unrealistic. The Synod Secretariat letter, released Oct. 31, asked for responses by Dec. 31 (this is partially to meet a spring deadline for a first draft of the synod document). But since the synod will not meet until October 2014 and will reconvene in October 2015, even later responses should be welcome and illuminating.

The gist of the questionnaire is: (1) What is your view of the church's take on the following: (a) giving communion to divorced and remarried people; (b) artificial contraception; (c) gay marriage or unions; (d) divorce? (2) Do you think the church gets across its teaching on marriage well? Do you know what it is? (3) Could the church do more to support families in conflict-ridden or unhappy marriages? (4) How should the church deal with children born outside a sacramental marriage?

A number of U.S. Catholic groups have created their own—in better English and simplified (there are 196 items in all in the questionnaire)—surveys. Some have critiqued doing this on the premise that answers would not be totally commensurate across such surveys (but in reality the questionnaire is not really a scientific sociological survey). The fifteen Jesuit parishes on the West Coast plan to put online for their parishioners their own simplified survey based on the questionnaire. They will not meet the Dec. 31 deadline but the results will be sent on to the Jesuit Superior General who will be a delegate at the Synod. It will also be an invaluable resource for those parishes' own pastoral outreach. Surely, we have in our parishes gay and lesbian couples; single mothers; divorced-remarried; Catholics married to non-Catholics; people living in co-habitation; parents with children who have abandoned the church and/or are gay. If we have no pastoral and life-giving word of mercy and outreach for them we fail our pastoral task as pastors.

In an interesting interview, Archbishop Badisseri said that the questionnaire is not really a survey nor a referendum. "The idea came from a desire to find out about people's individual and collective experience directly from them, in order to gather statistical data, reflection and thoughts. Our questionnaire is much more than just a sociological study. It is also an ecclesiastical and spiritual reflection and the questions are open." They had better be open, otherwise we could risk failing our people in crucial, life-affirming pastoral practice.

Show Comments (14)

Comments (hide)

Michael Barberi | 12/11/2013 - 6:49pm

The purpose of the questionnaire is to understand the many issues facing families today. By disseminating the questionnaire widely, as Pope Francis requested, it is clear that he wants to determine how many Catholics are in irregular marriages, have not receive the teaching on contraception, are divorced and remarried, et al. The other purpose of the questionnaire is to determine what pastoral programs are in place to address the many issues facing families, their effectiveness and the obstacles that impact their effectiveness.

The answers to the questions/issues under consideration must be in harmony with the findings of surveys taken over the years by responsible Catholic Institutions such as Georgetown University and the Catholic University of America…not to mention surveys conducted by universities and theologians in other countries. If the answers to the many questions are based on inconsistent methods of procuring answers, and they significantly differ from what is known, then this ecclesial process will result in misinformed judgments by bishops based on inaccurate information.

Profound widespread non-reception is a major issue facing the Church and it is important to the sources of truth. A teaching does not possess any power to change behavior if non-reception is widespread and significant among the clergy, theologians and the non-theologian laity. If the hierarchy thinks that given more time that non-reception of many teachings will be reversed and become inconsequential, then the Church must put forth a convincing theology, because it is the lack of a reasoned convincing theology the underpins many teachings that divides the Church. It is not the diabolic culture per se that is preventing most faithful Catholics from recognizing, understanding and living the truth. Nor is a repeat of the same narrative that does not address legitimate reasoned counter-arguements an answer that will ring true to most Catholics and to the deepest levels of their minds, hearts and souls.

Hopefully, the pastoral answers of 2014/2015 Synods will bring us to a better understanding of truth and resolve the moral dilemma and division that characterizes the RCC today.

Let's pray that answers that the questionnaire seeks to the many issues facing families today are accurate and do not mislead the bishops in their most important preparation for the 2014 Synod.

Tim O'Leary | 12/11/2013 - 11:12am

While I think the Vatican's motives are well-intentioned, I think the whole process of an online survey will produce mainly noise and agitation. A much more systematic and scientific process would be needed to generate useful data and assist the Church in its evangelizing mission. As Archbishop Badisseri said, this is not even a survey. But, it is not a sociological study, and of course it could not be a referendum. It is even less an example of the sensus fidelium, which, according to Vatican II, is only present if it involves a unanimity of belief among "the faithful". This process has no way of ensuring the respondents are even Catholic, or faithfully Catholic, however that is defined. Would we know if the majority of respondents were actually atheist activists trying to influence the Church?

Maybe, the best outcome of the upcoming Synod will be to put in place a solid systematic scientific study. His would be much preferable to the current situation of relying on polls of self-identifying Catholics from newspapers or organizations with an agenda far removed from evangelization. It would also be a great outcome if the synod devised some better pastoral approaches to those in difficult family situations that bring them closer to God, to His Scriptures and His Love and Truth and to the graces from the Sacraments (with a particular concern for the children involved).

As to the idea in the comments below that non-reception of a canon law might make it less effective, well, that is true of all law. It doesn't make it less true if it relates to a moral truth. When Moses saw his people worshipping the golden calf (the "sense" of his people at the time), it would not have been a legitimate response to adjust the wording of the 1st commandment to align it with his peoples' "sense" but to correct their unfaithfulness, as he did.

There is the joke that Italians look at the rules of the road as not really laws but suggestions. But, traffic rules have a pragmatic arbitrariness about them, as do some canon laws or rules. They can easily be modified without introducing any defect in the truth. That is very different from the Truths of faith and morals. The Church cannot separate God's Love from His Holiness in its teaching.

Andrew Di Liddo | 12/10/2013 - 12:29pm

I filled out the survey as it is unavailable in my diocese. I contacted the diocesan office but no response. In my experience families in crisis are not well served by the church compared with other denominations. The church teaches "family" only as an idealized "Rockwellian" standard that few families ever attain. Dysfunctional families feel further marginalized from the church as the unattainable standard is pushed onto people frustrated that their family falls short. My own family has been denied assistance at moments of crisis. The church's answer for everything is the sacraments. The church is solely focused on delivery of the sacraments and seems to figure that if the sacraments are delivered regularly, everything else will take care of it itself. It just doesn't work that way. There is so much time, temptation, and tribulation between each sacrament that other support is needed. Even those who receive Sacraments become targets of the roaming, roaring lion that seeks to devour each one of us and we may need support above receiving the Eucharist. Our parishes can be very inhospitable to the newcomer, the stranger or the visitor. I noticed this is in my own parish regrettably when we had Baptisms on Sundays. Relatives of the babies being baptized would come in from out of town frequently and be wandering the church, not knowing where to go, no one guiding them....Godparents from out of town were frequently aimlessly wandering around the church seeking someone for help. For some reason, I experienced a lot of this because I was a newcomer and stranger and sensitized to our lack of hospitality to the stranger or visitor. I approached my pastor, told him what I just wrote here. He asked me to form a hospitality committee which I did and he sat on the committee with us the first year until we could get it up and running. First off, was getting parishioners to recognize that we had an issue in this area because we were a small town parish and everyone knew everyone else, so, the attitude was: "Who needs hospitality when we know who everyone is?". One evening, the 7PM hospitality committee meeting was very lengthy as new members were confused about their tasks, assignments, schedules and had many questions. I got home from the meeting well after 9PM and my wife had been struggling to keep my supper warm. She asked me where I had been and I responded that she knew and was apprised that I had a meeting at the parish. She retorted: "How hard can it be to put coffee and donuts out after Mass." I responded, "You have no idea how hard this is, how unused to fellowship, how unused to friendliness, or welcoming or hospitality so called Christians can be." This parish was also instituting and implementing the Passionist Priests Family Groups Australian model whereby non-blood related family groups were cobbled together for support because parishioners were so isolated. The Passionist Family Groups model, recognized that there were issues in our parish. However, I was an active member of the parish for two years before I even heard of and was invited to participate in a family group. Oftentimes these can deteriorate into cliques and defeat the purposes for which they were intended. I am not sure our church knows how to do family. The church needs to recognize that people are forming alternative family models because their family of origin is no longer fulfilling them adequately for a whole host of reasons. Alternative and quite creative family structures evolve even further in times of economic hardships where people align with each other to share resources, child care, housing and transportation. Our church needs to recognize that many people live in non traditional settings and not marginalize us for living in family units NOT consisting of one man, one woman and 2.5 children.

Tom Wilson | 12/13/2013 - 12:45pm

I think the Church recognizes that people are living in non-traditional relationships and settings and She believes that that is not a good thing. This is not the first generation of people who have been subject to time and temptation between sacraments; not the first generation to be subject to extreme hardship. One need only look back to fairly recent history to see that adhering to Catholic teaching on stable, traditional families has been a panacea of sorts for husbands, wives and children. And this is not merely the case for Catholicism but for other religions, as well.

The question therefore is not how the Church should change to accommodate the non-traditional; it is how to best pastor to those who are in alternative situations to recognize the benefits of the traditional, to aspire to the traditional, to adjust to the extent possible to become the traditional, to maintain the traditional through God, and to encourage the offspring of these non-traditionalists to embrace the traditional.

As for hospitality, I've always found Catholics and all people for that matter to be quite hospitable for those who ask. Why wonder around aimlessly a Church when all you need to do is ask for assistance? Seek and ye shall find. The issue is not hospitality; the issue is social awkwardness and timidity, and it's not just a Catholic issue.

Michael Barberi | 12/10/2013 - 5:48pm


You make a good point here about hospitality. I was a member of one parish in New Jersey for 20 years where hospitality did exist if you were in the so-called parish click. This does not mean that the lack of social hospitality was deliberate and evil. Rather it was the nature of the culture of a small group of parishioners who volunteered for various ministries but were not very welcoming.

On the other hand, my current parish in California is the exact opposite. I feel welcomed, appreciated and the hospitality is widespread and warm among the parishioners who work in various ministries. I believe it is somewhat related to the personality of the parish priest. Not all parish priests have the same social gifts as others. I am not certain what Pope Francis can do about it, but I get your point.

Nevertheless, and "most importantly" Pope Francis can change the attitude, hospitality and pastoral response of clergy to Catholics who are in irregular marriages, the divorced and remarried, those in a committed, faithful and lifelong same-sex relationship, et al. That is the hope but it will take a long time and much effort to change the current culture of the Catholic Church and the narrative and theology that has shaped the perspectives of priests and parishes toward many parishioners and what is considered a sin.

Michael Barberi | 12/8/2013 - 5:07pm

Finally, a wise and to-the-point article on the problem.

Fr. Coleman can you give us a link to the fifteen Jesuit parishes in California that will put a more understandable version of this survey online?

I live in California and directly asked my parish priest about it a few weeks ago. He had not heard a word about it from his bishop. I can only speculate that this survey has been discussed by hierarchy where, perhaps, each bishop may or may not put the survey online for parishioners. Some dioceses in the U.S. have done so like Philadelphia. It is now December 8th and no word from the pulpit or our local Church weekly letter.

I fear that this survey is not being given the same import by every bishop. The deadline, as you noted Fr. Coleman, is unrealistic. The questions are not fashioned in the right way to get easy quantifiable and consistent responses. All answers, save for a revised questionnaire, must be "hand-written" onto the survey or typed if it is online. A simple yes or no would satisfy some answers on reception of certain teachings such as birth control, but not all.

I fear that the bishops will not get an accurate reflection on these most important issues facing families today. If these fears are experienced, as it appears likely, it would further tarnish the reputation and authority of the Church to represent the opinions, concerns and practices of the faithful, and not adequately address the question of non-reception among the laity but also among many priests.

Fr. Coleman: what advise do you suggest to Catholics who want to participate in this survey but do not have a means of doing so because the survey has not been put online in many diocese?

john Coleman | 12/9/2013 - 1:38am

You can google Saint Joseph Parish, Seattle, Washington to see the Jesuit parish survey. The pastor of St. Joseph's, Father Whitney designed it. Besides the 15 Jesuit parishes also some non-Jesuit parishes in the West Coast have joined in. On St. Joseph's web page there is a link to the survey.

Michael Barberi | 12/9/2013 - 4:28pm

Thanks. I liked how St. Joseph Parish designed the survey. It provided some realistic choices for answers. Also, the survey does not seem to be limited to Seattle for it asks for your parish and city. I hope they will accept my responses because I live in California and the Diocese of San Diego does not offer parishioners an opportunity to participate in this most important survey.

Pope Francis' request that this survey be widely disseminated to all is very inconsistent. God only knows what the results across the U.S. will be in terms of accuracy of the answers and participation by the laity.

Bruce Snowden | 12/7/2013 - 6:39am

Thank you, Father Coleman, for the clarification on "Sensus Fidelium." It's not just interesting, it's exciting and humbling to know that, the whole Church does share in ecclesial consultative and dogmatic guidance. And yes I did notice that Pope Francis used the "I" word relative not only to the hierarchy but for laity as well, another helpful clarification, all rooted no doubt in Baptism which confers on the whole Church a share in the inerrancy of the Divine Nature." How tremendous! Again, thanks!

Bruce Snowden | 12/6/2013 - 10:07pm

Regarding the question, "On Consulting The Faithful On Pastoral Questions" I wonder if that possibility/reality has its root in the "Sensus Fidelium" teaching? I don't understand how the "SF" theology works, but have a sense it might be connected to the "Oneness" of the Church, guaranteeing that Christ did not found a multiplicity of churches, with a multiplicity of characteristics, but just ONE church of singular characteristic, which is hierarchical, a character ecclesially shared by the whole church in specific ways, similar to the whole Church being priestly, prophetic and kingly, characteristics intrinsic to all members also in speciufic ways. If that premise is correct I see foundation on which to build the "Sensus Fidelium" theology applicable to consultation of the Faithful on Pastoral Questions.

Now let me move one step beyond, wondering if "Sensus Fidelium" might also have a place in consulting the Faithful on Dogmatic Questions? This comes to mind reflecting on the Dogmatic declaration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into Heaven. As I understand, it was always the sense of the Faithful that the body of the Blessed Virgin was assumed into heaven, which in 1950 Pope Pius XII dogmatically ratified. If so would scriptural rooting be necessary? So, was "Sensus Fidelium" actually dogmatically pivotal regarding the Assunption? Other dogmas too? I do not know. Maybe another might clarify for me.

john Coleman | 12/6/2013 - 10:36pm

Both for the definition of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption, the popes consulted bishops, Pontifical Faculties of Theologians and asked the bishops to reflect on whether, in fact, the faithful already believed and accepted the doctrine. So yes this is the sensus fidelium. You may have noticed that on at least two occasions ( the papal interview which appeared in America and in the pope's recent apostolic letter) the pope said ( this from the America interview):" And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibillity in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. .. this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only... We should not even think, therefore, that ' thinking with the church' means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church". Newman's point in his essay on Consulting the Faithful was that during the Arian heresy, the faithful held on to the full divinity and humanity of Jesus when a large number of the bishops did not!

Anne Chapman | 12/7/2013 - 4:53pm

Father Coleman, could you also comment on Newman's views of teachings or doctrine that is not "received" by the faithful?

Thank you!

john Coleman | 12/9/2013 - 1:42am

I don't think Newman dealt with non-reception of doctrine by the faithful. It is a newer issue, germane for many in the question of reactions to Humanae Vitae and the outlawing of contraception. Newman dealt with the sensus fidelium in holding on to doctrine central to Catholicism but to the best of my knowledge did not deal with non-reception. One might find some pieces about non-reception in the book by John Noonan, The Church that Can and Can not Change ( he talks about a change in the doctrine about the legitimacy of slavery and other issues.)

Anne Chapman | 12/10/2013 - 11:54am

Fr. Coleman, I came across an article on reception by James Coriden, a Canon lawyer. He discusses reception within the framework of canon law, and maintains that the first person to delve into it in depth was Gratian (the "founder of canon law") in the 12th century, who used sources going back to Augustine. He gives a brief summary of the various thinkers on the subject and variations in understanding throughout history. I haven't read Noonan's book, but I will look for it. It may be he draws on many of the sources mentioned in this article.

The Canonical Doctrine of Reception

". . . For a law or rule to be an effective guide for the believing community, it must be accepted by the community."
The canonical doctrine of reception… asserts that for a law or rule to be an effective guide for the believing community it must be accepted by that community. …It began with John Gratian in the twelfth century. Gratian based his version of the teaching on the writings of Isidore of Seville (seventh century) and Augustine of Hippo (fifth century). The development, varieties and vicissitudes of reception have been explored in recent years in a series of important studies by Luigi DeLuca, Yves Congar, Hubert Müller, Brian Tierney, Geoffrey King, Richard Potz, Peter Leisching, and Werner Krämer.. ...

...3. … Reception pertains to the intrinsic quality of the content of the rules, and their consequent acceptance by their subjects… the formal authority of those issuing the rules … are not in question here.

4. The Spirit of God is present and operative in the community of faith, and in each of its members. God's guidance is given to all, not only to a select leadership group. ... All have something to say about its faith and its discipline.

The canonical doctrine of reception originated in the statement of Gratian after canon 3 in Distinction IV of his Decretum (circa 1140). He cited Isidore of Seville and Augustine on the establishment of laws, and then wrote:
“Laws are instituted when they are promulgated and they are confirmed when they are approved by the practices of those who use them. ... those for whom it is intended (the "users") approve conformity with it. Or … They do not conform their actions to the new rule. ….In that event, others cannot be held to obey it. …..Without the confirming usage of its subjects, the law remains incipient, and can eventually be considered abrogated....Gratian adhered to an older way of thought, common among the church fathers, which saw law as a norm of conduct rather than the command of a sovereign legislator….

"Is acceptance by the people required for the establishment of a law?" The doctrine of reception responds to that question in the affirmative.… those for whom it was made must acknowledge it and comply with it… It is really obligatory for its subjects only when they have accorded it acceptance.

James A. Coriden is the Academic Dean Emeritus at Washington Theological Union, where he also teaches canon law. Ordained in 1957, he holds degrees in theology, canon law, and civil law. He has written most often on matters of church discipline and ministry, and has served as co-editor of the Canon Law Society of America's commentary on the Revised Code of Canon Law. He has published books on an Introduction to Canon Law and on The Parish in Catholic Tradition. Currently, he is engaged as co-editor of a new CLSA commentary on the Code of Canon Law.

Recently by John A. Coleman

Building 'Fences' (April 23, 2014)
What to Hope for in Pope Francis' First Encyclical (March 28, 2014)
Julian of Norwich (March 17, 2014)
The Ironies of Wonder Woman (February 28, 2014)
Catholic Prison Ministry (February 4, 2014)