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.