Family Synod Survey South Africa

Discussing the Family Synod Questionnaire in South Africa

The Jesuit Institute South Africa has reported its findings made in a survey on family life in preparation for the Synod on the Family in October 2015. It was based on the Lineamenta that was issued after the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 2014. The Institute found that 80 percent of Catholics who responded believed that divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive the Eucharist. The survey also discovered that Catholics believe that clergy need more training in family ministry to be effective or are “too busy” to give adequate care to individual families and cannot help them with emotional and practical support.

The Institute questionnaire gathered information from South African Catholics in different contexts—townships (an apartheid construct where most black people still live), suburbia and the inner city. The report summarises what both individual respondents and focus groups said. Focus groups were held in parishes in which people were invited to come together and discuss the questionnaire. The discussions were noted and reproduced as verbatims without identifying people by name.


The Institute established that many South Africans found the definition of “family” problematic. The Eurocentric view of family—father, mother and children (nuclear family)—is foreign to African traditional understandings. The increasing trend of children who grow up in the absence of biological parents under the care of extended family was highlighted. A number of respondents said that they consider the extended family to be mother and father and therefore family is not a “nuclear family.”

Despite the fact that the family is often spoken of as important in the Catholic Church, Catholics did not know of support programmes for family life because of the lack of communication. People had some idea about pre-marriage formation, but 46 percent of respondents did not know of any initiative at parish level to support couples in the early stages of marriage. Many said that they were not aware of any specific promotion of marriage or parenthood by the church.

A strong view was that priests were too busy to minister to individual families and that many struggling families get support elsewhere. The need for lay people to be more involved in family ministry was emphasised. This is curious—if family life is a priority for the church one might conclude that this would be a priority for clergy in their pastoral practice. Many respondents did not think priests were equipped to practically support families emotionally. Questions were asked about the effectiveness of priestly formation in the area of family ministry. In some formation centres it was reported that no practical training is given; the only training received was in the Canon Law of marriage.

Eighty percent of Catholics reported that they knew of no pastoral care for those in what was termed “unconventional families.” This included single parents, divorced parents (regardless of whether they have married again or not), separated parents, parents who are of the same sex and families that relied on uncles and aunts and other family members for support. A UNICEF report in 2012 stated that 32 percent of children under the age of 18 are living with both biological mothers and fathers. Therefore the majority of families in South Africa (68 percent) can be described as unconventional families. This highlights a significant challenge and pastoral gap in the practice of the church in South Africa.

Sixty percent of respondents said that clergy should be more welcoming to people and treat everyone equally, regardless of their state. Thirty percent said that they would encourage clergy to speak more about God’s love and mercy to unconventional families. Language, the report says, should be more used more sensitively. Priests do not know of unconventional families—even though many of them exist in parishes. Unconventional families remain hidden for many reasons but mostly because they are afraid of being judged. Some simply stay away from the church altogether. This is another big challenge if the church wants to reach out to the majority of families in the South African context. Most South Africans do not fit what would be considered “the norm.” Forty percent of respondents said that priests and deacons should not communicate “judgemental attitudes” towards people living in unconventional families.

The survey highlighted a clash between traditional African marriages and the church’s practice. Many couples are married in traditional African marriages but not in the church and therefore, although married traditionally, are “cohabitating” in as far as the church is concerned. Forty-six percent of people said that they knew nothing of what the church was doing to help couples in this state.

Respondents suggested that the church learn from other Christian churches in terms of family ministry. Mixed marriages (between a Catholic and non-Catholic) are a common feature these days; respondents said that this was an opportunity for clergy to enter into ecumenical dialogue. The Catholic Church, some said, ought to be less arrogant in its approach to ecumenical dialogue.

The highly emotive and sensitive issue of divorced and remarried Catholics being allowed to receive Holy Communion was strongly supported. Eighty percent of Catholics who took the survey said that this should be changed. The current practice, respondent’s felt, unnecessarily marginalised people. The Eucharist is a central part of Catholic identity and denying people this Sacrament is an obstacle to the sensitive pastoral care of marginalised Catholics. It also causes confusion and modelling problems when parents faithfully take their children to mass and encourage reception of Communion but they cannot receive. It contradicts and undermines the message preached.

Forty-two percent of people said that the parents of unconventional families should be allowed to participate fully in the life of the Church. Uneven application of Communion admittance was a concern: an abusive spouse can receive Holy Communion but people in good, healthy second marriages cannot. Twelve percent felt there should not be “wholesale” permission for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, this should be done case-by-case.

Other findings included that the current annulment process was too cumbersome and was a practical barrier to people seeking help in the church. A significant number said that LGBTI (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered Intersex) Catholics should be welcomed with respect and care.

The full report is available on the Institute’s website

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