The National Catholic Review
A little about the Vatican's surprising plan to poll Catholics about important issues in preparation for the Synod of Bishops next October, just reported in NCR.
First off, this is indeed new. While in the past bishops were encouraged to promote discussion in their dioceses in preparation for a synod, there were never any outright polls conducted, and certainly nothing on a worldwide basis. Second, needless to say, the questions are not going to ask, "Should we overturn this church teaching?" Nonetheless, the Vatican will surely get a better sense of how the teachings are being "received," to use a theological term, by the faithful. Third, the U.S. bishops seem to have received a sort of exemption from doing the polling (at least that's how I read the covering letter).  Here's an update from the USCCB on that question. "It will be up to each bishop to determine what would be the most useful way of gathering information to provide to Rome," said Helen Osman of the USCCB.
But that doesn't mean that a bishop can't conduct a poll, or that he won't conduct one. And even if none of the US bishops choose to adopt the idea of a poll (which is hard to imagine) the Vatican will be hearing from the rest of the world through a poll, which is both good and new. 
Also, the news makes me smile, because for years when some people would speak about the sensus fidelium (that is, the "sense of the faithful") as an important part of the way that the church lives and grows, a few people would protest, "But the church is not a democracy! And we don't do polls!" 
People often forget the Second Vatican Council's teaching on this matter in "Lumen Gentium": "They [the laity] are, by [reason of] knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church."  
Finally, it's a sign, in case we needed to be reminded, that the Holy Spirit is at work in everybody. From the Pope, to the local bishop, to your pastor, to the sister teaching in your school, to the director of religious education at your parish, to the mother of three, to the man who holds out the collection basket on Sundays, to the college student struggling with her faith, to the fellow who cleans the church bathrooms, to the Catholic baptized just last Easter. 
The Holy Spirit is at work in her church and in her people. And she will let her voice be heard, this time through these polls, because she desires to speak.

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Michael Barberi | 11/6/2013 - 6:01pm


If input is the goal of this Synod on the Family, and the Church wants to know the attitudes and opinions of the laity, especially with respect to teachings received and not, and the obstacles the Church faces in increasing reception, then their voices should be heard.

It is unclear exactly what the goal of this poll is. It asks for specific answers on many issues that cannot be possibly known with accuracy by every priest.

If framing the status of the question, which I assume but cannot be certain of, is the goal of the 2014 Synod on the Family, then theological input should also be garnered. Theological input cannot be limited to traditionalists and a repeat of doctrine and its historic narrative, but also to revisionists and the principles and philosophical disagreements that must be addressed if reception is to increase.

As Fr. Martin wisely said, "….the Holy Spirit is at work in everybody…from the Pope, to the local bishop, to your pastor, to the sister teaching in your school, to the director of religious education at your parish, to the mother of three, to the man who holds out the collection basket on Sundays, to the college student struggling with her faith, to the fellow who cleans the church bathrooms, to the Catholic baptized just last Easter.

The Holy Spirit is at work in her church and in her people. And she will let her voice be heard, this time through these polls, because she desires to speak."

The Holy Spirit leads us to the truth in agreement and disagreement.

This will be my last comment.

Tim O'Leary | 11/6/2013 - 10:24pm

I have no doubt the Holy Spirit is working not only in Catholics but also in Protestants, Jews and Muslims and even in Atheists. But not all have the charism of teaching, nor the protection from error. Otherwise,we would all agree on everything and Jesus would never have needed to give the Magisterium the power to bind and loose on doctrine.

Bruce Snowden | 11/6/2013 - 4:24pm

Tim - I understand that my examples of ecclesial polling weren't universally applicable within its present frame, but since the "polling principle" whatever that is (!) was already in place, maybe it could be extended to other Church business as well. Your explanation throws light of why it couldn't or shouldn't be done and as stated it would seem that because "Rome has spoken the case is closed." Well, maybe, so let's see what will happen over time. Thanks for taking time to comment on my post, but as is my preference, I do not like to enter into an ongoing back and forth so probably this will be my last post on the subject. Again, thanks!

Tim O'Leary | 11/6/2013 - 5:01pm

Michael – regarding a definition of Sensus Fidelium, it is best to go to the source, which can be found in the Vatican Council II document Lumen Gentium.

The definition is in section 12: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples' supernatural discernment in matters of faith when "from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful" they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life.”

Notice especially the words “entire”, “whole”, “faithful”, “universal agreement”, and “under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority”, “in faithful and respectful obedience.” So, it specifically excludes a sensus laicorum (sense of the lay people), or any opinion of that is apart from the Magisterium. It in no way can be determined using a poll or be used to counter official teaching. it cannot even advance new teaching ("adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints").

For a more recent confirmation see what Pope Benedict said to the International Theological Commission on Dec 7, 2012: "Today, however, it is particularly important to clarify the criteria used to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeits. In fact, it is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, this because the sensus fidei cannot grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her Magisterium.”

Bruce Snowden | 11/6/2013 - 6:45am

Come to think of it, didn't the Church in a chosen slate poll by casting lots, selecting Matthias to replace Judas? So following that Apostolic tradition, I think polling the People of God is right on target as a device through which the Holy Spirit can speak. Isn't it also true that Popes are sometimes chosen by Conclave polling?

Tim O'Leary | 11/6/2013 - 4:59pm

Bruce - both of these are voting polls, designed to decide an election, with Bishops or Cardinals eligible to vote. They are not opinion polls (on doctrine, etc.), and certainly not doctrinal deciding polls. Protestant congregations often decide appointments based on voting. They also use polls or votes to decide doctrinal or devotional questions. The latter might be prudent in settling a dispute when one doesn't have the Keys of the Kingdom or the Power to Bind and Loose. That might be one reason there are over 35,000 Protestant denominations.

Michael Barberi | 11/5/2013 - 7:43pm

Per the news today, the Vatican did not intend the questionnaire to be completed by lay Catholics (despite offering this questionnaire to all Catholics by the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales).

It seems that the Vatican wants to get their hands around the status of the question (on issues concerning marriage) for the 2014 Synod on the Family. Nevertheless, if bishops expect their parish priests to respond to the questions posited in this questionnaire, for many of them ask about the reception of various teachings and prevalence of people living in irregular marriages, et al, then priests will be hard-pressed to provide accurate results. Perhaps the Vatican is only interested in "general observations and judgments" from parish priests.

At least Pope Francis is calling for a most important Synod on the Family, first session in 2014 to address the status of the question and another one in 2015 to address pastoral responses. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will guide all bishops and the pope with His wisdom, love and courage in addressing the fundamental problems of non-reception and the inconsistencies/contradictions between doctrine and pastoral advice.

Michael Barberi | 11/5/2013 - 4:03pm

The senses fidelium is defined as the people of God and is all-inclusive. If there is an explicit and unambiguous definition of sensus fidelium that the Church expects bishops to use, I am open to be enlightened.

Clearly political and other polls are conducted by sampling. However, the poll questionnaire sent out by the Vatican and posted online by the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales was not limited to some kind of definition of faithful Catholics. It was open to all Catholics.

If such a poll is to be distributed to all Catholics, and it is unclear if this is the intention of the Pope Francis, then each parish must have the names and addresses of their parishioners or they would have to hand out the questionnaire after each Mass. Many parishes have a register of their parishioners. Other do not. Some may post the questionnaire on their parish website, if one is available.

If all parish priests are expected to complete this questionnaire, and not parishioners, then I have no idea how every parish priest would have knowledge of the attitudes and opinions of their parishioners on the issues that this poll addresses: contraception, same-sex marriage, divorce and remarriage, cohabitation…et al. For example, my parish has 1 priest and 2500 parishioners. Perhaps every priest will rely on their judgment based on a small sample of parishioners that he had first hand information about their opinions on these issues. If so, the results could be highly misleading.

Perhaps, we will lean more about this poll in the weeks ahead.

Tim O'Leary | 11/4/2013 - 10:00pm

I have never seen the term "sensus fidelium" so abused as on the comments below. A poll of "registered" Catholics (what does "registered" even mean?) could never get at the sensus fidelium. It is even implied that priests do not represent part of the sensus fidelium (again the grammar is all wrong). When did they get excluded? This would be comical if it wasn't so serious. Also, a poll generally tests only a tiny sample of the population it is presumed to represent (in political polls, a thousand or so are presumed to represent the over 300,000,000 US population, so the chances of being included in a questionnaire is tiny). Maybe, a census is needed, where everyone remotely connected with the Catholic Church could be included. The Church could ask the Obama Administration if they can add a few questions to the ObamaCare website!

Michael Barberi | 11/4/2013 - 7:25pm

I googled this subject again and read the actual letter to the Conferences of Bishops and the questionaire that accompanied the letter. I also read the letter sent on behalf of Cardinal Dolan to all U.S. Bishops.

The attached questionnaire is the same questionaire that was posted online by the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales. This questionnaire can be completed by any Catholic from any country and the completed questionnaire will be forwarded to their local bishops. The questionnaire is to be completed and returned to the Vatican by the end of January 2014 (U.S. Bishops by December 31, 2013).

The questions are very general and a careful reading of them is perplexing because they seem to apply to parish priests about the opinions of their parishioners, not a questionnaire addressed to lay Catholics per se. The letter seems to say that the questionnaire should be distributed widely, but then it is not clear if this means the senses fidelium or parish priests. I can't imagine if every parish will distribute this questionaire to its parishioners, then send all the completed "hand-written" questionaires to their bishop, then to Rome. To translate, collate and record all hand-written answers from as many as a hundred million worldwide parishioners is a monster of an problem, but not impossible.

I would not be surprised if not all parishioners will be given the opportunity to complete the questionnaire. I would also not be surprised if not all parish priests will complete the questionnaire on behalf of their parishes. Even if they did, I can imagine a thunder of criticism by many parishioners because they would question how their priest would know their opinions on such specific issues as contraception, same-sex marriages, the divorced and remarried, cohabitation, et al….which are the issues that the questionnaire addresses. Parishioners will also wonder why they were not offered an opportunity to complete the questionnaire…as the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales is doing.

I supposed we will know more about this issue sooner rather than later.

Tom Wilson | 11/4/2013 - 4:39pm

How do we distinguish between that which comes from the Holy Spirit and that which comes from Satan? Surely not all of those polled will be responding after deep spiritual contemplation of the questions being asked.

In any event, I don't think that the Bishops will be seeking peoples' opinions about the Church's perspective on today's hot social topics. Those diverse opinions are well known. I think that what they should be seeking is what Catholics believe that the Church teaches on certain subjects and where and how they acquired that knowledge. For example, a widespread belief among Catholics that the Church teaches that homosexuals are not welcome to attend mass and was learned online from, e.g., America Magazine or from a homily or from CCD or from an op-ed about a recent speech by Pope Francis would help the Bishops figure out how to reconnect to and educate what is likely a largely misinformed/uniformed group, courtesy of a liberal media and homosexual lobby.

Whereas V-II made the mistake of making the shepherd bend to the sheep's path, I should hope that this Synod will focus on how to get the flock to return and follow the shepherd through outreach and education. There are already plenty of protestant sects out there; we don't need a Catholic Church that protests itself (again).

Michael Barberi | 11/4/2013 - 5:17pm


I believe the Church wants to know the attitudes and opinions of all registered Catholics on the issues that plague families across the world, as well as how well they understand their faith. I don't think we can take for granted that all the bishops know all of this information. I also don't think that the RCC ever conducted a worldwide poll of the sensus fidelium. In all my 40 years of parish life, in 3 states, I never was asked to participate in any poll asking me about my attitudes or opinions. The voice of the senses fidelium is important.

If this survey poll is merely restricted to how well the senses fidelium understands their faith, then the 2014 Snod on the Family would be missing a most important issue, namely, non-reception and the opinions of worldwide Catholics on a host of moral issues plaguing families today. If non-reception is not fully understood and a poll does not allow the voices of Catholics to be heard, then I sincerely question the value of such a poll for the 2014 Snod on the Family.

I think that inclusion should be preferred over exclusion and that we should approach this type of worldwide survey with the assumption that the overwhelming percentage of Catholics will give it serious reflection. This does not mean that every single Catholic will give such a survey the same level of spiritual reflection expected, but it would be foolish to limit such a survey to the testing of religion education.

Michael Barberi | 11/3/2013 - 7:54pm

If each diocese or conference of bishops is free to design their own lay survey/poll in anticipation of the 2014 Synod on the Family, then the findings will be a convoluted mess of dissimilar results. See the following "open questions" format from the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales...Extraordinary Synod on the Family 2014 Survey

Let's hope that a mandatory survey of questions are provided to each conference of bishops giving them latitude to add more questions relevant to the families they shepherd. Otherwise, open-ended and dissimilar questions will do an injustice to such an important worldwide poll of the real attitudes and opinions of Catholic families on the important issues.

Michael Barberi | 11/3/2013 - 5:54pm

The term faithful and unfaithful is a form of demeaning rhetoric and name-calling. For example, how does one define faithful and unfaithful? Is it weekly Mass attendance, agreement with every Church teaching or other factors? Are only a narrowly defined segment of the senses fidelium, called faithful Catholic opinion, important to the task of inclusion? Does the Holy Spirit only speak to those that abide by every Church teaching? I think not.

What is important about survey methodology, that my friend Tim O'Leary mentioned, is important. I add the the following:

1. The questions should be both theologically accurate yet understandable to average Catholics.
2. The questions should be relevant and representative of all the issues facing Catholics today, especially those issues that are in tension with Church teachings. For example, the questions should address unanswered and difficult questions such as: frozen embryo adoption, sterilization when another pregnancy threatens the life of a mother with certainty, self-stimulation for male semen fertility analysis, termination of pregnancy to save the life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest. Questions should also probe: the confidence of Catholics with the hierarchy, and if certain actions are always immoral such as: same-sex unions, homosexual relationships, masturbation, divorce and remarriage, contraception, the use of various reproductive technologies for infertile couples, etc. Other questions should also address if pastoral advice is different from doctrinal teachings on various issues and if the individual conscience is used rather than hierarchy teachings in cases of moral dilemma.
3. The answers, if multiple choice, should be clear and span all reasonable and possible choices.
4. The questionnaire should capture information so that the findings can be broken down by age cohort, marital status (divorced and remarried, divorced and single, single and never married, married and never divorced, widow or widower), country, frequency of Mass attendance, frequency of confession, among other important breakdowns.
5. The surveys should be sent to all "registered" members of each parish or a list representative of all Catholics in a parish.
6. The findings should be statistically significant with a 95% confidence level.
7. The questions should not be biased or slanted to gain or encourage a specify answer.
8. Some questions should be asked to determine if Catholics understand certain teachings and if specific education programs such as natural family planning programs offered by parishes have been effective and if not "why not".

I am certain that I missed a few important considerations, but the major point is this: if the pope and bishops want to understand the attitudes and opinions of the worldwide senses fidelium, then ensure that the methodology is professionally accurate, questions span the deeply into difficult issues, and the Vatican takes the time to "learn" from the many surveys that have been going on for a long time such as those frequently conducted by the Catholic University of America and Georgetown University.

Lastly, survey results are only important to the critical task of inclusion if the voices of the senses fidelium are appropriately acted upon and not ignored or minimized.

Tim O'Leary | 11/3/2013 - 9:58pm

Michael - you have provided a good list of morally relevant questions that we discuss on the pages of America but many are very complex and euro-centric (or US-centric) for a global audience. I think it would be very difficult to get relevant or reliable results on most of these items by polling. Imagine the relevance of your questions to many people in Africa or Asia who are facing persecution and martyrdom on a daily basis?

I do object to your characterization of the words faithful (and its logical opposite) as demeaning or name-calling. You yourself used the Latin version of faithful (fidelium) that you want to get the "sensus" of. There seems to be a resistance to being specific about the meaning of sensus fidelium. It appears to be used more as a mantra rather than a rational term. What do the two parts of the phrase mean to you? It seems irrational not to want to know how it is defined or to who it refers? Surely, the term faithful means something? Those who use it could mean all Christians (Protestants included) or just those who believe Christ was God or those who believe the Catholic Church is the only Church founded by God. The Vatican II wording seems to exclude its use in any doctrinally disputed areas (VC II says it has to be unanimous and include the agreement of the Magisterium).

As to polling, I would be happy to include our Protestant and Orthodox brethren in the questions, at least as an aid to ecumenism. Some are certainly closer to faithfulness than many nominal Catholics who may not even believe in the divinity of Christ.

Michael Barberi | 11/4/2013 - 3:34pm


What I wrote was not meant to be a comprehensive list of issues and questions for this worldwide poll. As I said, I believed that I missed some important considerations.

Clearly, the issue of condom use for seropositive married couples would be important to Catholics in Africa, as there are specific issues to Catholics in Asia, South America etc. A minimum set of questions and issues should be mandatory in this poll for obvious reasons, leaving each Conference of Bishops free to add more questions and probe more specific issues they believe are important. If you check out the surveys that CUA has conducted in the past, many of the issues I raised have in-part been addressed through questions. Survey experts would not feel such a poll would be impossible or detrimentally confusing.

As to the term sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful, my point is this: if we live in a divided RCC and in a crisis of truth as JP II and others have said, then all Catholics who love Jesus Christ and are registered Catholics should be invited to partake in this worldwide poll of the sensus fidelium. I objected to your use of the word "unfaithful" because it implies something negative from the standpoint that their attitudes and opinions are not important for they are dissenters and have turned away from God and his Church.

I don't want to debate the eligibility criteria for participating in this worldwide Catholic poll except that it should be inclusive. If the RCC wants to understand the attitudes and opinions of all Catholics so that responsible solutions can be designed and implemented to address real problems, then denying this poll to only Catholics who agree with every Church teaching or who attend weekly Mass would be scandalous for the majority of Catholics would be excluded.

Finally, I have no issue with including our Protestant and Orthodox brethren in this poll provided this is Pope Francis' objective. However, I believe the 2014 Snod on the Family and this worldwide poll is focused on Roman Catholics.

Tim O'Leary | 11/3/2013 - 1:38am

I wonder if anyone at the Vatican has thought about how to ensure any information from these polls are scientifically reliable? Otherwise, they will be seen to be useless and will waste everyone's time (and waste money). At a minimum, it will be important to see if the people answering the polls are doing so once or multiple times, if they are Catholic, if they are practicing, believing, etc. A poll is only useful if the tested sample can be shown to be a statistically accurate reflection of the target population.

On another point, I think it demeans the noble term "sensus fidelium" by associating it with opinion polls and there was never any such connection in the Vatican II documents. An opinion poll is very different from determining the opinion of the faithful, especially if it is not scientifically controlled, if the questions are too open-ended, or too open to a variety of interpretations, etc. How could one be sure one was getting the sense of the "faithful" unless one asked a series of doctrinal or practice questions, at a minimum? As a logical point, one should at least be able to determine if the data generated represent the "faithful" or the "unfaithful." Finally, the Holy Spirit is in no way dependent on opinion polls to get His message out.

Tim O'Leary | 11/3/2013 - 10:10am

Fr. Martin - While I know this is very trendy, there is a little more at stake in calling the Holy Spirit female (with a female pronoun). It not only deviates from Scripture and Tradition but adds to the massive gender confusion that is going on in our society (you may have seen the CNN or NPR report today about German government's decision to recognize a third gender). While I know there are some feminine metaphors that refer to God, one is taking major license going beyond that. One implication would be that two feminine beings cooperated together to conceive the Lord Jesus Christ. It also adds an unwarranted sexual analogy to the Trinity.

Michael Barberi | 11/2/2013 - 4:47pm

In light of Archbishop Muller's recent reaffirmation "No Change for Divorced and Remarried Catholics", my question is this: What is the point of this poll and the up-coming Snod on the Family?

Does anyone now think that any teaching that plagues RCC families today will be changed such as: contraception, artificial reproductive technologies, same-sex unions and frozen embryo adoption?

I think not.

Tim O'Leary | 11/3/2013 - 1:44am

Michael - from the phrasing of the questions on the UK internet polling site (again completely uncontrolled for number of responses and self identification - all on the "honor" system), I think the effort is to find out why and how some Catholics (however defined) have not accepted the teaching, not an evaluation of the teaching itself.

Michael Barberi | 11/1/2013 - 5:18pm

Clearly Jesus entered the world as both man and God. This does not mean that everyone in heaven, including God, is a particular gender because they are "spirit". Scripture does refer to God as He, but this may be more of a problem of the ancient writers of the Bible who lived in a paternalistic society. Women were second class citizens, so to speak. The issue of God's gender does not seem to be worth too many words.

Hamilton Armstrong | 10/31/2013 - 9:17pm

The last time I consulted scripture (English, Spanish, Latin and Greek versions), the Holy Spirit was still "He."
Is there a relevant theological reason for changing Him a Her? According to Von Balthasar, the Virgin Mary is the perfect creature espoused by the Holy Spirit to bring forth Our Lord and Saviour.

James Martin | 11/1/2013 - 7:58am

There is no gender to the Spirit, needless to say.  And if you want to reach farther back, Ruah, the Hebrew word for Spirit, and the traditional way for the Hebrew people to speak about the Spirit, is feminine.

Michael Barberi | 10/31/2013 - 6:23pm

I can't imagine, as Fr. Martin mentions, that the U.S. Bishops will refuse to conduct this poll.

Of course, the most important thing about surveys and polls are the "results" and "what is done with the results". if the bishops and Pope Francis use the results to responsibly reform certain teachings or do implement something significant to change the tide of Catholic non-reception, then this effort will be truly worth it.

Based on the recent interview that Pope Francis gave to Commonweal Magazine, one of his answers to the question if certain teachings might be reformed, he implied that this would be sad because the Church's teachings on the issues of homosexual relationships and contraception were "just catching on".

One could only speculate that PF was either being humorous or that he is misinformed about Catholic reception. It is abundantly clear from recent polls that Catholics are more tolerant of same sex unions, while the overwhelming percentage of Catholics across all age cohorts have not received Humanae Vitae (e.g, about 90% in the U.S.) . In fact, according to a United Nations Report, only about 3% of married women worldwide use periodic continence or natural family planning as the preferred means of birth control.

If the bishops and Pope Francis do very little with the results of this world-wide poll of Catholics, then most Catholics will be extremely disappointed. Remember that Paul VI did not accept the conclusions of the Majority Report of the Pontifical Birth Control Commission that was made up of 72 members from 5 continents, including 16 theologians, 13 physicians and 5 women without medical credentials, with an executive committee of 16 bishops from 11 countries including 7 cardinals.

Let's hope Pope Francis and the Bishops will seriously reflect upon the results of this poll and recognize that the Holy Spirit moves us to the truth in agreement and disagreement.

STEPHANIE SIPE | 11/1/2013 - 11:59am

Pope Francis' "interview" with Commonweal was written 'tongue in cheek.'

Michael Barberi | 11/1/2013 - 3:35pm

Stephanie…..I hope you are correct. However, I would not rule out misinformation. If anything, this poll of worldwide Catholics will get to the heart of the matter. If done correctly, all Catholics registered in parishes will have the opportunity to participate regardless if they attend Mass frequently or not.

Marie Rehbein | 11/1/2013 - 11:52am

Let's also hope that whatever polling they do isn't just those Catholics who go to church on a regular basis, but includes those who have excluded themselves because they do not accept what the Church has been teaching about relationships and sexuality or find fault with the hierarchy where only ordained (males) have authority and it is used to overrule others no matter how wise or inspired they may be. In all cases, however, the results will not be 100% conclusive on any issue, given that not all can be required to contribute their opinions.

Eugene Pagano | 10/31/2013 - 5:42pm

WHy do the American bishops have "a sort of exemption" from the poll?