The Surveys for the Synod on the Bishops, Pt 1: Initial Observations

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

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jack Rakosky
3 years 2 months ago
Parishes can do their own surveys relatively easily and relatively inexpensively with SurveyMonkey. In the lead up to the first Synod, a local parish simplified the Vatican Survey, and gave it on its website. The pastor posted the results of the survey with a cover letter to the bishop interpreting the survey as being representative of his pastoral experience. In other words, this is one way of pastors getting the smell of the sheep! The only disadvantage to the SurveyMonkey process was that it had a built in feature that limits responses from one computer, so husbands and wives and children could not separately answer the questionnaire from the same computer. I guess that is to prevent someone from biasing the results by answering the survey many times. Perhaps the vendor has a way around this for those who buy their more expensive options. So begin the survey process locally, share with other parishes, and with diocesan offices. No matter what takes place at the synod, eventually everything has to come back to the parish, so why not begin now?
Robert Killoren
3 years 2 months ago
I have heard that our diocese is conducting smaller focus group sessions with the bishop. I believe this is an ineffective way to gather the sense of the faithful. It is not a big enough net. It can also be manipulated by those conducting it. People can feel very uncomfortable telling a bishop what they really think, even clerics would think twice about sharing their true beliefs for fear of reprisals. It sounds as if only a couple dioceses have got it right. Finally, I think there are some bishops who do not want input. They believe the rules are there if only people would submit to them. To them the problem IS the people.
Joseph Howe
3 years 2 months ago
Focus groups can certainly be vulnerable to manipulation but so are surveys absent good protocols for conducting them. If the diocese has some good people guiding them it could be a good instrument, and, at the least, you'll know the bishop was involved at some level in the actual listening process.
Robert Killoren
3 years 2 months ago
Sorry for some reason it appeared twice. I've taken off the duplication.
Joseph Howe
3 years 2 months ago
The survey instrument my diocese was using... it certainly gave you room to produce thoughtful and cogent answers in direct engagement with the relevant text, but barring the diocese hiring a substantial portion of the local population of adjuncts to grade these mid-terms I can't understand how it could produce useful information on the far end. Also, woof, it predicted 45 - 90 minutes to complete the survey and that was a drastic underestimate for anyone who had any distractions or cared to read through the accompanying materials and many of the questions seemed to be oriented to a specialist audience without make it clear who that was. It was... surely there were professionals who could have been tapped for this? If not social scientists than at least people with some experience in Mar-Comm? This long form survey could still have been made available to the curious, but the very length of it made it seem as though it needed to be broken up into multiple instruments.
Winni Veils
3 years 2 months ago
That, sadly, assumes good feedback is the goal. I'm not sure it was.
lucy strausbaugh
3 years 2 months ago
I took the survey that my Archdiocese made available, which was the 39-question document written by Vatican officials. I have a B.A. in Theology, an M.S. in Pastoral Counseling, am a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, and have been a teacher of high school Religious Studies (with all the 'keeping up on Theology' that implies) for 38 years. I found many of the questions to be incomprehensible. If someone with my background could not understand what these questions were asking I can't imagine that many who started this survey would have bothered to put in the 2 hours I did trying to figure it out and finish it. 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. I plan to take the Diocese of San Jose survey referenced in this article. Why didn't more dioceses make this kind of an effort to create and offer a survey that would produce usable results?
Rita Rings
3 years 2 months ago
One day, the survey appeared on the Archdiocesan website. I had my hopes built up that it would actually be an analytical tool that could quantify opinions and bring about reform of the downright offensive exclusivity practiced by some in our church. I graduated from college with honors but had to look up the meaning of some words. I felt like crying, I was so disappointed. I spent 5 hours doing the survey (due Mar 1) because it meant so much to me. I did my best but am counting more on the Holy Spirit to breathe love into our approach to families.
Winni Veils
3 years 2 months ago
I felt that the way this survey was done was unhelpful and sneaky and, just as described, all done with the aim of claiming to have received feedback from the broader laity without really soliciting true feedback from the laity. I feel any answers that do not agree with what they want to hear can be quickly discarded because 'obviously they didn't understand the question'...not that the question was clear or really relevant to the true crises in the church. Still, I spent 5 hours on it too, in the hopes that it can go with my prayers to create a better and healthier approach of the church to the challenges of family life.


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