The Surveys for the Synod on the Bishops, Part II: Taylor Swift Saves My Sanity

Last Friday I wrote an overview about the surveys that all the dioceses of the world are doing right now in preparation for next October’s Synod on the Family. For perhaps the first time ever, a pope has invited the entirety of the faithful to be an essential part of the church’s discernment and conversation. It’s an extraordinary moment.

So, what exactly is this survey then? How does it work? And more importantly, how is it working? I set out to find out for myself.  


As it turns out, every diocese is handling the matter differently. Each bishop of the world was sent the same 46 questions to answer. But how they solicited information from the faithful was up to them. Some have held public town hall type sessions, or had small group conversations. Others have offered print or online surveys of varying kinds. And according to the National Catholic Reporter, as of last week almost half don’t seem to have done anything (though they still have a few weeks until their material is due to the USCCB).

In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles where I live, we were invited to do this online survey. The character of that survey is pretty similar to many other dioceses in the country: you can either answer the 46 questions from Rome; or do a shorter survey that addresses the same issues in a simpler format. 

But before you decide, Los Angeles (and many other dioceses) offer this sort of introduction:

In preparation for the Synod of Bishops to be held in October 4–25, 2015 on “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World,” the Vatican has asked the world’s bishops for a “broad consultation.”

The basis for this broad consultation is the Relatio Synodi [Synod Report] of the Extraordinary General Assembly held October 5–19, 2014 and the Lineamenta [Outline] for the Ordinary General Assembly to be held in October 2015.

Specifically, the Lineamenta has asked for responses to a set of 46 questions. In order to facilitate the response from the Archdiocese, below we have provided the Vatican’s set of questions. You are invited to respond on-line to these questions.

This instrument is designed to be electronically disseminated and collated. Pastors, academic leaders, leaders of Catholic agencies and organizations, leaders of religious congregations and lay movements and ecclesial associations, are asked to distribute this consultation as widely as possible. Individual as well as organized group responses are acceptable responses to this consultation.”

I have to admit, this intro left me a little bewildered. We’re just getting started here, and already we’ve been told about two different Latin documents that it kind of seems like we’re supposed to have already read. Is this a survey or a graduate seminar?

But then I remembered the words of the prophet Taylor Swift: “Players gonna play play play play play, and the haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate, baby, I’m just gonna shake shake shake shake shake, Shake it off, shake it off (Woo-hoo-hoo).”

So without further ado, I shook it off. Shook it off (Woo-hoo-hoo), and skipped to the bottom of the page, where I was given two options: “Full Survey” or “Short Survey.”

Now, I had no idea what either of those terms meant in terms of length or time necessary. Some dioceses offer a meter at the top of their survey that keeps track of how close to the end you’ve gotten. But L.A. doesn’t do that.

Still, wanting to really participate, I opted for the full.

A new page popped up, with a big fill in the blank box, and one question:

1. Does the description of the various familial situations in the Relatio Synodi correspond to what exists in the Church and society today? What missing aspects should be included?

Yeah. For all you clever kids out there who thought, “Pft. I ain’t reading no Relatio,” the very first question is a pop quiz about it.

Now, why would you start a survey of opinion about family life in the church in this way? I don’t know. It makes no sense. But there it was.

I’m gonna guess that at this point most of us, being smart and busy people, would turn back and opt for the shorter form. TRUST ME, THIS IS THE RIGHT CHOICE.

But of course I didn’t take that choice right away, because players gonna play play play play play and surveys gonna...vey vey vey vey vey? Okay that makes no sense, but the point is, no questionnaire is going to defeat me that easy.

So yes, I went to read the Relatio Synodi document, which was roughly 9000 words of church speak summarizing the conclusions of last October’s preparatory Synod, with a strange tendency to couch each important pastoral issue of the family in negative or judgmental terms. For instance, regarding cohabitation and divorce: “24. The Church looks with concern at the distrust of many young people in relation to a commitment in marriage and suffers at the haste with which many of the faithful decide to put an end to the obligation they assumed and to take on another.” In other words, young people, you don’t commit and you give up way too easy. Put a ring on it, for God’s sake.

Or regarding having children: “57. Today, the diffusion of a mentality that reduces the generation of human life to one variable of an individual’s or couple’s plans is easily observable.” When it comes to planning families, many people are being selfish. 

Or about gay family members: “55. Some families have members who have a homosexual tendency.” This might not sound so bad. Except people have a “tendency” to misspell words or take a wrong turn on certain streets; they do not have a “tendency” to be attracted to people of the same gender. They either are attracted or they aren’t. Also, you don’t generally use “tendency” to refer to something positive, healthy or even neutral. You wouldn’t say Jacques has a tendency to give his employees raises; but a tendency to make up stories about his weekend, absolutely.

In each of these cases and others, the Relatio follows its initial judgment with something more positive and pastoral. But by that point it’s kind of too late. You can’t tell me you love me right after you said you think I’m screwed up. I do like my Chex mixed; but my messages, not so much.

(Next October’s Synod Fathers: we get it, these documents are the fruit of your struggle and necessary compromises. Still, if you want them to be pastoral, try to start from a position of kindess, of welcome, of curiosity. Leave the judgey judge for later. We all already know that part of the album by heart anyway. Start by telling us that you care.)

So that was the Relatio. Back to the survey:

1. Does the description of the various familial situations in the Relatio Synodi correspond to what exists in the Church and society today? What missing aspects should be included?

Honestly, the question still didn’t really make sense. I think it’s trying to say, are there any family situations that the Relatio should have covered and doesn’t? But that’s a question you ask at the end of a survey, not the beginning. It’s the “Did we miss anything/Other comments” section.

Put at the beginning, it makes you feel like you’ve already missed the conversation. Which is disconcerting and mighty confusing.

Again: Players. Haters. Surveyors. Shake it off.

The next page featured questions two through five, preceded for no good reason by three more long paragraphs of introduction. For a taste, here’s the second paragraph:

“The path of renewal delineated by the Extraordinary Synod is set within the wider ecclesial context indicated by Pope Francis in his Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, namely, starting from “life’s periphery” and engaging in pastoral activity that is characterized by a “culture of encounter” and capable of recognizing the Lord’s gratuitous work, even outside customary models, and of confidently adopting the idea of a “field hospital,” which is very beneficial in proclaiming God's mercy. The numbers in the first part of the Relatio Synodi are a response to these challenges and provide a framework for reflecting on the real situation of families.”

Yeah. So that happened. I don’t know about you, but somewhere between “ecclesial context” and “life’s periphery” suddenly I found myself in a Peanuts cartoon hearing “WAH WAH WAH WAH WAH WAH.”

Players haters shake it. Here was the next question:

2. What initiatives are taking place and what are those planned in relation to the challenges these cultural changes pose to the family (Relatio, ns. 6 - 7): which initiatives are geared to reawaken an awareness of God’s presence in family life; to teaching and establishing sound interpersonal relationships; to fostering social and economic policies useful to the family; to alleviating difficulties associated with attention given to children, the elderly and family members who are ill; and to addressing more specific cultural factors present in the local Church?

Seriously, y’all, who is writing this stuff? I mean, just the length on that question, the number of different things they want you to answer —I’m gonna need a whole blue book and more than one no. 2 pencil.

And again, where is the part where we get to talk about the pastoral needs or situations of families? Or what it’s like for my family? In the words of David Byrne, “This is not my beautiful house.”

It didn’t really get much better, either.

3. What analytical tools are currently being used in these times of anthropological and cultural changes; what are the more significant positive or negative results? (Relatio, n. 5)

What analytical tools? What does that even mean?

4. Beyond proclaiming God’s Word and pointing out extreme situations, how does the Church choose to be present “as Church” and to draw near families in extreme situations? (Relatio, n. 8). How does the Church seek to prevent these situations? What can be done to support and strengthen families of believers and those faithful to the bonds of marriage?

The introductory clause is unnecessary and confusing. (Plus the editor in me shrieks at the idea of repeating “extreme situations” twice in the same sentence.) But the rest, not so bad. Maybe this is getting better.

5. How does the Church respond, in her pastoral activity, to the diffusion of cultural relativism in secularized society and to the consequent rejection, on the part of many, of the model of family formed by a man and woman united in the marriage and open to life?

Sigh. Never mind.

And that’s just the first five questions. 41 more to go. Some of which are as clear as #4. And some which are so long they could be chapters of books that none of us would ever read even if they were assigned to us in surveys that became graduate seminars and may later be the subject of humiliating bait and switch pop quizzes.

So that’s the survey from Rome. God bless it. I lasted as long as I could. Then, hater player shake, I pulled the ripcord and went to the short version, woo-hoo-hoo, which turned out to be 15 fill in the blank questions, all on one page. The diocese of San Bernardino came up with the questions, based on the original 46, then shared them with the region. Many of the dioceses here in California have chosen to use it.

Here’s its first question:

1. How does the Church support and strengthen families in light of the changes and challenges posed by modern society?

Ahh. Words fit together, make sentence! It’s nice, right? I mean, it’s still sort of a weird starting point—hi, welcome to this survey, tell us what we’re doing right—but it’s able to be understood. And it is blessedly short.

Here’s a couple other questions from the shorter text:

3. How can people be made to understand that Christian marriage corresponds to the original plan of God and is the path to the greatest personal fulfillment? Name some values of marriage and family that should be highlighted for young people, marriage preparation and others.

9. How is marriage preparation proposed in order to highlight the vocation and mission of the family according to faith in Jesus Christ? How can it be renewed and improved?

11. How can those in civil marriage and those living together outside of marriage be accompanied and assisted so that they might seek a Sacramental Marriage?

Again, shorter statements, clearer language. Sometimes the formulations remain problematic, but that’s not the fault of the translators. No, many of the original questions proceed from the idea that the goal here is to try and get people in line with what the church sees as right. Which is less a pastoral approach than it is the thing your Grandma does when she finds out you’re not going to church on Sundays.

It still took a while—I’d say an hour—but I was able to get through it. And where it was clunky or confusing or wrongheaded I could say so. In fact, that’s maybe the most satisfying part of the anonymous essay answer surveys. You can say express whatever opinion you want, without fear or concern.

When I was done, I had two questions. First, was my experience shared? How did people in the pews feel about the surveys they took? So to find out, I got on the phone with two of those people in the pews, my mom and dad, and taped them going through the L.A. surveys and that of San Jose. We’re hoping to put it up as a little podcast in the next few days. It was a fascinating conversation. Stay tuned. (And in the meantime, please feel free to share your own experiences in the comments!)

Second, why would any diocese of the world offer that first version of the survey? Who could they possibly think is going to answer it—even is going to be able to answer it? As my 11-year-old nephew likes to tell me, I recently graduated from something like the 46th grade. (After which he usually adds, “Are you ever going to work, Uncle Jim?”) But even with all that supposed training, answering the full version would have taken me a week. And a lot more of this. And a litle of this for dance breaks. (And also none of this.)

I’m not the only one asking that question. Over the weekend, reader Lucy Strausbaugh commented, “What I find to be truly incomprehensible is the lack of concern by the writers of this survey for those they were addressing it to- lay men and women, about their experience of marriage and family....Why didn't more dioceses make this kind of an effort [made by the diocese of San Jose] to create and offer a survey that would produce usable results?”

Tomorrow, I try to answer Lucy’s question: Why have dioceses used the versions they have? How did they come up with them? And also, what are they doing with the material they gather?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Dianne Stelly
4 years ago
The second, shorter survey will be difficult to quantify for the purposes of statistics. Without numerals or letters answers cannot be placed into groups. For example: it will not be possible to say 33% of survey takers answered negatively or neutrally or positively to any specific issue. That is why surveys avoid subjective input. Those taking the second survey may think they are getting input, but it will be impossible for statisticians to reduce opinions and situations into groups in order to tell the bishops any meaningful numbers. The answers on the long survey will be broken down into, for example : 43% of respondents think the church is not responding as needed in question #10. These will provide quantitative info to those passing the results upstream.
Sandi Sinor
4 years ago
So, there are serious issues with both survey design and survey content, not to mention various biases, such as self-selection. Perhaps the bishops should simply hire CARA or Pew to do it for them, complete with random sampling - better chance of having a good survey that produces meaningful information.
Martin Eble
4 years ago
There is no reason to quantify responses for purposes of statistics. The survey was not intended to be used as a polling device for Catholic laity. It was designed to give the bishops who will participate in the Synod food for thought and for consultation within their dioceses, particularly with their priests, as to pastoral issues. The article in the National Catholic Reporter of February 23 left the impression this was survey, but it is not. It is a component of the lineamenta for the next Synod. An approach consistent with the intention of the document is that taken by the Grand Rapids, Michigan diocese which stated the lineamenta questionnaire "has been provided to those in the diocese serving in roles involving pastoral care and leadership." .
Jack Rakosky
4 years ago
Open ended questions are generally more valid and reliable than forced choice questions. Validity means consistency with the person’s other opinions and behavior. Reliability means the person is likely to interpret the same question in the same way each time they answer it. Open ended questions are generally more expensive to process. A common procedure is to have each answer coded into categories by two independent raters; if they fail to agree, a third person is asked to resolve the issues. In forced choice questions, the respondent is asked to code their opinions into the researcher’s categories. Usually there is some loss of validity and reliability as the respondent tries to guess what the researcher is asking. Many books have been written and many courses are offered each summer at the University of Michigan and elsewhere about how to ask questions that are likely to produce valid and reliable answers. The Vatican’s survey would probably take the prize for one of the least valid and less reliable instruments around. In doing research I always start with open ended questions that encourage the person to talk about their own experience. As long as people think you are interested in them (rather than in your questions or your institution) they will respond freely and at length. I keep forced choice questions for the end of the survey taking advantage of the good will of the respondent to get them to help me into coding into categories without losing the richness of the open ended answers. In the parish situation I have found that e-mailed questions can greatly facilitate this process. I send out a copy of the survey (10 question max) in the mail identity the purpose, e.g. help pastoral council, and giving the person the option of responding by e-mail or a phone interview. More than half the people chose the e-mail option. A pastoral council of twelve persons meeting monthly doing a phone call a week per person can process about fifty responses a month, which is about 500 a year. Nothing convinces people that the parish is listening than seeing their actual anonymous words in the summary report. It also gets around the reluctance of many parish members to voice their opinions in open forums.
Winni Veils
4 years ago
My archdiocese only offered the full version. It took 5 hours. Not only was it as incomprehensible as you describe, the numbering was off, so the paragraphs referred to in the Lineamenta referenced by the questions were not directly related to the the paragraph numbers from the Lineamenta itself. The only reason I can gather to choose to survey in this fashion is to allow the bishops 'claim' to have surveyed their people without actually doing so, or at least without surveying any but the most select and rarefied portion of their people, the ones most likely to agree with their own point of view. It's like surveying to find out who likes barbecue only among those who have been on a waiting list for weeks to get into an exclusive barbecue restaurant, and then declaring a love of barbecue is universal and only evil media manipulation makes it seem that any other kind of food could possibly be acceptable.
Cindy Coleman
4 years ago
Oy veh! Now I know why I have been putting off giving my input. Archdiocese of Philadelphia here and our only option is the online 46 question marathon. I believe the commenter who said it took 5 hrs (I printed out the hard copy as a preview, online version you can only go page-by-page). I have had a few theology courses and can find my way around a church document....but can we say totally insane and unrealistic? You illustrate admirably how dense the prose no less the theological concepts. How many lay Catholics in the pews have the background to navigate this, no less the will? Honestly, I am not sure I even want to attempt it. Amen to Lucy Strausbaugh's comment. This is ridiculous. I suppose pointing this out to my Archbishop Chaput will not have a positive outcome. Hooray for the bishops (and their staffs) who took action to make this accessible for the laity.


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