The Surveys for the Synod on the Family, Part III: How Did We Get Here?

When you first see the full, 46-question survey from Rome, you can’t help but wonder whether the leaders of the church actually want to hear from anyone. And I mean anyone—people in the pews, professional church folk, clergy, religious, even other bishops. Because as we talked about yesterday, the full or “original” version is poorly worded, and overworded and long-worded; and just when you think they’ve finally run out of words, you have to read nine thousand more from a whole other complicated church document to even know what the heck this one is asking. 

And each question demands its own short essay from you to boot. No multiple-choice scantronning for the Catholic Church, thank you very much.


Which is what led reader Lucy Strausbaugh to comment – and forgive me if I paraphrase, Lucy—THIS ISN’T ROCKET SCIENCE, PEOPLE. WHAT IS WITH ALL THE CRAZY?

So here’s the first possible answer to that question. And Father forgive me, but it’s a wee bit dark: The survey is exactly what it seems, an incredibly cynical exercise in frustration.

If it looks like they don’t want to hear from you, and it reads like they don’t want to hear from you, they may not want to hear from you.

The timeline of the survey process does little to dispute this point. The U.S. dioceses were given their translation of the original Italian documents in mid-December; between the holidays and trying to figure out how they want to solicit feedback, that meant that most dioceses weren’t able to get a survey instrument up and going until late January at the very earliest—and most a few weeks later.

But at the same time Rome wants all its responses back by the end of March. Given that any diocese using a fill in the blank format (which seems to be most of them) will have to try and pull coherent themes from potentially thousands of individual comments on up to 46 different questions, this leaves little time to actually solicit the opinions themselves.

And so while some dioceses have kept their surveys open a full month, others have given the listening process just two weeks. Which means, if you missed Mass the wrong weekend or didn’t catch the right issue of the diocesan newspaper, you could very well have missed hearing about this process. Parishioners from a number of major dioceses have told me that they have yet to hear anything about the survey process. These are people who are active in their parishes and in the church; and in some such cases it turns out their diocesan process is already complete.

Put all this together, and yes, one possible conclusion is that it’s all just a cynical bit of propaganda meant to make us feel like we’ve been consulted when we actually haven’t.

But here’s the thing—the process has in fact varied from diocese to diocese. Yes, there are major dioceses that have been content to simply reproduce the 46 questions as their questions of their survey, including Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis, Galveston-Houston, Indianapolis and Louisville, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

But a lot of other dioceses have done a lot more than that. Over the last few days I’ve spoken with staff at four California sees—San Jose, San Bernardino, Oakland and Los Angeles. None of them simply reproduced the 46 questions. In fact in the entire state very few of our dioceses have gone that way. Most either offered the option of the Roman questions or a much shorter, simplified set; or they only offered a simplified version; or they did interviews in group settings; or, in the case of San Jose (and taken up by San Francisco), they came up with a completely different paradigm, offering single sentence statements with multiple choice answers.

Each of the dioceses I consulted proceeded in the way that through a collaborative effort that was hoping to actually reach people. So in Oakland the 22 questions they used were developed by the Faith Formation and Evangelization team working in conjunction with one of the diocese’s most senior retired priests. In San Jose three priests each wrote their own set of possible questions, then compared them and narrowed them down. Before putting up their suvey they also ran their questions by a retired priest who was a sociologist, to make sure their queries were properly worded and apt.  And their hope is that the information they gather can not only serve the broader church, but also provide the basis for a diocesan Synod in 2016.

San Bernardino, too, gave a team the task of creating a version of the survey that would be more easily understood. Intriguingly, this group first developed a version of the questions that was a radical rewrite of the original. But then they backed away from that version, because they worried that it strayed too far from the content of the original 46. Their final text—which ended up being used by a number of California dioceses—offered instead a simpler, shorter version of the original questions.

San Bernardino’s process points to a second possible reason how some dioceses ended up with the surveys they did: In addition to being pastoral, dioceses felt they had to be faithful to the initial text. These were the questions Rome gave us, and therefore these (or something very similar to them) are the questions we have to present. Even if they are really kind of impossible.

As it turns out, this may actually be a significant misunderstanding of the purpose of the original text. As a staffer at one diocese explained to me, the questions Rome sent were for the bishops to answer based on the surveys they conduct, rather than being the survey the faithful themselves must address.

Not everyone would agree with such an interpretation. But it certainly would explain the original questions’ strange and off-putting tendency to keep referring back to documents that most people haven’t read and would have trouble reading. Because unlike most of us, the bishops are already very familiar with these documents.

So that’s a third possibilityPerhaps some dioceses offered only the questions from Rome, or the questions that they did, because they misunderstood who those questions were for.

A final interpretation of the church’s choice of surveys looks to something completely different: resources. Some dioceses have more resources than others, both in terms of money and personnel. And that meant that their surveys could be more innovative or at the least user-friendly.

The surveys of the diocese of Monterey are a case in point. (You can check them out here.) Their webpage designer made a number of useful choices, like putting a counter at the top of every screen, that tells us how close we are to completing the process. Or dividing up the text in such a way that there’s never more too much information on any one page, with (in the case of the shorter survey) rarely more than an inch and a half of space used in total. Even the simple choice of putting the questions in bold against a white background becomes pastorally significant, insofar as it makes the words more apt to stand out, rather than to blur together.

Having the right people to shepherd this process—their value is undeniable. But not every diocese has access to such people. At some point, you just have to settle.

For as much as we in the United States are used to surveys, having our opinions solicited, town halls, etc., our church is not.  So mistakes, glitches, wrong turns are bound to happen. The best that we can hope for is that we learn from them.

And also, of course, that our opinions will be sought once again.

TOMORROW: What’s the rest of the world doing?

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Jack Rakosky
3 years 10 months ago
All of this seems to a part of the “mess” involved in upgrading the quality of synods. For previous synods bishops were sent questionnaires which were obviously written in bishop-speak. And bishops consulted as they felt they needed to consult to answer the questions. What happened this time was the strong encouragement to take the consultation not simply to the diocesan but the deanery and parish level. All this without the staffing present in Rome, the bishops conferences, and dioceses to actually carry that out. That means that whatever the results of the synod there will be complaints about the consultation process. Fortunately Francis likes “messes’ and is not afraid of making mistakes. I guess we are all going to have to adopt that attitude too if we are to improve synods.
Jack Rakosky
3 years 10 months ago
The Diocese of Cleveland just posted the survey with a due date of noon March 13th! The cover letter of the bishop expresses well the difficulty the bishops are having blending the old way of doing things with the desires of the Pope for broad consultation. "I am pleased to share with you the Lineamenta for the XIV Ordinary Synod of Bishops which is to take place this coming October on the theme of “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World.” Our Holy Father has asked for a broad consultation from the faithful, which will assist the Church in its deliberations. Please access the document and read it with special attention to instructions as to how you may send your remarks about the questions you wish to comment on. Feel comfortable responding with your comments, as you participate in this important exercise which will impact the process itself and the quality of all of our contributions from the faithful of Cleveland. After I review the responses I receive from you and those from other parishioners, I am to send a single overall summary report on the results of the consultation to Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The report sent by each bishop will also be sent to the Holy See. Thank you very much for your participation."
Jack Rakosky
3 years 10 months ago
In deciding what to do about the survey, I found the Vatican Website copy of the document with the questions at the end very helpful. I simply copied it into my computer and highlighted things as I read with green (good) and yellow (bad) marker. Rather than trying to respond to the whole survey I have decided to limit myself to responding to Question 1 and tell the bishop, Krutz and Rome briefly and succinctly what I see that needs to be rethought in the whole document. I will probably send a separate copy to Krutz, and perhaps to the Roman Office that deals with the Synod. Does anyone have e-mail and/or snail mail addresses for them?
John Barbieri
3 years 10 months ago
Obfuscation and confusion allow the hierarchy to dismiss whatever opinions the laity may express. On one hand, forgive me for being cynical for thinking: this is "too clever by half." On the other hand, 'bungling" the survey may just be more episcopal incompetence.
Martin Eble
3 years 10 months ago
The forty-six question document from Rome was not intended or designed to seek input from people in the pews, professional church folk, clergy, religious, even other bishops. 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 National Catholic Reporter of February 23 left the impression this was survey, but it is not. The Grand Rapids, Michigan diocese provides an example of use of the questions consistent with this intention. The diocese stated the lineamenta questionnaire "has been provided to those in the diocese serving in roles involving pastoral care and leadership." .
Joe Zammit
3 years 10 months ago
Will the answers to the current 46 questions be different from the feedback the bishops had from the previous questionnaire? I doubt it.
Nicholas Clifford
3 years 10 months ago
I filled out the "official" survey, having first read the Lineamenta. I did so because, though I'd received one or two different versions, I thought filling out the "orthodox" one, presented to us from On High was the most likely to be read. Obviously the writers need to go to a good How to Write a Survey School. But putting that aside, I did my best to be helpful. In many cases, however, that means pointing out the questions the Survey Fathers should have asked, and didn't. For instance, I think it's important to make the point that when it comes to discussing marriage, family, childrearing, and so forth,those who have actually experienced it can speak with a certain authority that's denied to those who, for whatever reason, have chosen to opt out of such experiences, and at best can give only second hand, or worse yet, textbook answers. For instance again, it's important to face the conclusions of Humanae Vitae, and to ask why they have been so massively ignored by the laity (at least in the West). So I referred the Survey Fathers to, for instance, the findings of the Swiss and German bishops, among others, that were made public last fall. Why, for instance, is a reconsideration and rethinking of Humane Vitae considered to be out of bounds -- when the magisterial teachings of the Church on such a subject as religious freedom have, in the late twentieth century, been entirely at odds with what the magisterium was saying in the 19th century? One could go on. But I do think that we owe our help to the leaders of the Church when it is evident they don't quite know how to ask for it.


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