Earlier this week the National Catholic Reporter did a story on the surveys being conducted by all the dioceses of the United States in prepartion for October’s Synod on the Family. Again, this is all part of the two year consultation process that Pope Francis began over a year ago to discuss the pastoral concerns and needs of families.
To be honest, NCR’s story was the first I had heard of what the dioceses were doing. It hasn’t been major news item out here. I don’t think Los Angeles had even announced its survey until this week.
And I was surprised to discover that deadlines were already looming. L.A. wants responses by March 9—that’s nine days from now. Some California dioceses have already finished what consultation they’re going to do. And all dioceses of the country must have their responses to the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops by March 20.
Which seems crazy, no? The Synod isn’t until next October. The dioceses weren’t even given the preparatory materials until right before Christmas. As Liz Lemon would say, What the what?
Curious, I started to look into the whole survey process, particularly in the state of California where I work, but more generally as well. Over the course of the next week I’m going to offer some posts on what I’ve learned, starting on Monday with the two hours I’ll never get back as I tried to do the Los Angeles Archdiocese's survey. (It wasn’t pretty.)
But here are three general observations:
1) Despite what I take to be the very best of intentions, in many places throughout the country this process seems to be kind of a mess, with questions that are at best offputting and/or unfortunately judgmental, and at worst so complicated as to be incomprehensible. Whether it’s because they haven’t been given enough time, they don’t have the resources or they didn’t understand the process, a number of dioceses have done nothing more than offer their parishioners the very technical questions that the bishops have been asked by Rome to answer. I fear that the number of responses in many places may be quite low—perhaps even just in the low hundreds.
All of which is to say, as a church we’ve got a lot to learn about how to consult with our people. Which isn’t new information—in many places we don’t have a lot of practice. Hopefully this experience can lead to growth.
2) Based on the survey, I wonder if the biggest issue the hierarchy faces right now is a sort of crisis of faith about whether or not we really do believe that it is God who saves us. Many questions on most of the surveys that I’ve seen end up sounding less like the words of a pastor trying to learn from and support his people, and more like your grandmother after she finds out you’ve stopped going to Mass. They could be summarized, “How can we get people to do the things we know are good for them?”
There’s a very good intention there; these questions are offered out of concern. But there’s no acknowledgement of the role of God in all of this. And that’s a problem, not only because God is the one who does the saving, but because without him at the center of our discernment and pastoral care, we can very easily end up substituting His needs and desires for our own.
So for instance, do we really think that God has trouble with the messiness of human life, with its surprising variety of relationships and its sometime pain and often irresolvability? Because the story of Scripture time and again shows God entering precisely into those kinds of messes, and bringing good things to life there.
No, discomfort with messiness, with ambiguity, with things not fitting in their right boxes—that sounds much more like our issue, our struggle. To the extent we don’t see things like that, we end up placing burdens on people that have nothing to do with God’s will or their happiness.
3) Lastly, there are glimmers of real hope within all this, too. For instance, in the midst of our church’s struggle to really engage in a meaningful conversation on the issues of family life, the diocese of San Jose has produced an online gem, a concise survey consisting of 31 single sentence questions like “Living with a partner in a committed relationship without getting married is sinful”, to which one is asked Strongly Agree-Agree-Neutral-Disagree-Strongly Disagree, and with room for comment. The approach gets right to the heart of where people’s feelings are on different issues, which also means the process is useful not only to Rome but to San Jose. In fact, they hope to use the results of this survey as a jumping off point for an upcoming diocesan synod.
Really, it’s worth looking at what they’re doing just to see what else is possible. (Also, like many of the online surveys, San Jose does not ask for proof that you are a member of a San Jose parish to fill theirs out. So conceivably any Catholic who wanted to participate and be heard could answer their questions. Their deadline isn’t until March 12. Brooklyn has a similar kind of survey; their deadline is March 11.)
On Monday: What It’s Like When You’ve Had 40 Years of Education and You Still Can’t Understand What a Church Survey is Asking, or Why The Church Needs Taylor Swift.