The Surveys for the Synod on the Family, Part IV: What's Everyone Else Up To?

When it comes to the Synod questionnaire, there’s one more question to consider: What’s everyone else in the rest of the world doing? What other treasures (or long-abandoned mine shafts) are out there to find?

I spent the last few days looking around. Here’s what I found.


The Pacific

The New Zealand bishops offered Catholics the chance to respond online to the original 46 questions sent by the Vatican.

But they also very graciously acknowledged the difficulty of the language used, explaining that “the wording of these questions has come directly from the Holy See” (via a blender). And rather than suggesting we just buck up and push through, they said not to worry, just answer the questions that seem meaningful to them. Which is a nice way to eliminate any frustration or anxiety that respondents might have when they start hearing about Relatio Synodis.  

What really jumped out at me, though, was the direct appeal the bishops’ introduction made to people who find themselves on the margins of the church. “We are acutely aware of the many people who in their hearts consider themselves Catholic but are not regularly at Church. Please encourage these family members and friends to participate. Also of particular interest to us are those who see themselves as beyond the Church: perhaps some divorced and remarried, or gay women and men. We urge you to share your experiences through the questionnaire. No-one walks beyond the reach of the Good Shepherd.”

It sets a great tone, doesn’t it? I almost feel like I could sit with that paragraph and have a nice little prayer time about life and a loving God.

Meanwhile in Australia (which is by the way either the title of my autobiography or glam rock band), the bishops put aside the original Vatican text in favor of their own 30 questions. A couple examples:

7. What needs to be done to equip ordained ministers and others to work effectively in the area of marriage and the family?

18. Do we need to do more to support couples in the early years of married life? If so, what?

25. How can we better respond to people of same-sex attraction and their families?

28. How can we encourage adoption and fosterparenting as signs of fruitful generosity?

30. How can we help all people see that no-one is beyond God’s mercy?

Clearly, the language is much more accessible that the Vatican document. But I think what’s really striking is that each question looks at the respondents like consultants. We’ve got this issue or situation, the church says. What do you guys think we should do about it? That is to say, we’re viewed as people with wisdom to share, insights. We are an asset the leadership needs and also clearly values. Or, to put a more business school spin on it, we're not just tenants. We're stakeholders. 

If we could scrape away all the layers of verbal sediment lacquered on the Vatican document, I think this is what we would find at the heart of a lot of it. But as we’ve seen, there are lots o’ layers.

There was one serious downside to the Australian survey. Rome asked them to complete it between Christmas and early February, which in Australia is the summer holiday, when everyone is away.

Maybe that choice was just the result of Rome not remembering everything is a wee bit different on the other side of the equator; whatever the reason, you can be reasonably certain it adversely affected the number of people who answered the questionnaire (let alone heard about it).



In Europe I found information on five communities—the dioceses of Paris, Dublin and St. Andrew’s & Ediburgh; and the bishops’ conferences in Switzerland and England & Wales.

Having had many of its respondents from last year’s survey comment on how difficult it was, the diocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh looked around for something that worked better than the Vatican version, and is using the Australian form.

(As a person of Scottish descent myself, my grandfather having been born in Scotland, I am now obliged to make a personal address to my brothers and sisters in Edinburgh.

My dear Edinburgers, Edinburghers, Edinburghians. Greetings from another one of your long lost and yet always seeming to call you looking for a place to stay when we’re on vacation kin in America. I spoke today with someone from your diocesan office. She says they haven’t gotten that many responses from you yet. Come on now, you cannie lads and lasses. Your church needs you. So put down your wee bairns and big bevvies and take a few minutes to give this survey a go. I’m telling you, it’s pure barry.)

In three of the other four places in Europe (Paris, Dublin and Switzerland), rather than conduct an online survey the bishops have asked for every parish to have its own discussion. In his letter to the parishes Dublin Archbishop Diarmiud Martin noted that they can do this in whatever method they think best, including adjusting the language of the original text (within reason); and like the bishops of New Zealand, Martin advised his people that they don’t need to answer all the questions.

In Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois has suggested that each pastor put together a small group of 6 to 12 who will meet over the course of a few months to discuss the main issues raised by the 46 questions posed. (Paris’ answers, by the way, aren’t due until the end of May). Vingt-Trois makes a special point of the fact that these groups can include “people living very different realities of family: married couples, single parents, widowed, single, divorced...” There also seems to be a provision for these groups leading bigger conversations in the parishes.

And in Switzerland, rather than questions the bishops gave the parishes 10 topics that they felt were central to the Synod documents, including the realities of marriage and family life; marriage preparation; divorce; remarriage; homosexuality; and the passing on of the faith. They suggested that each parish pick a couple of these topics and have conversations about them during the course of their normal meetings. The bishops also offered an instrument on how they can structure those conversations, but otherwise, that’s it. No laundry list, no online survey. Just the top 10.  

But even that was not the simplest version. In England and Wales, the bishops asked just six questions:

1)   What are your joys and hopes of marriage and family life today?

2)   What are your struggles and fears of marriage and family life today?

3)   How can we better understand marriage as a vocation?

4)   How does your marriage enrich you?

5)   How does your family life enrich those around you?

6)   In what way, through the abiding presence of God, is your family “salt of the earth and light to the world,” and a place of and for handing on our faith?

Take a second to digest that.

Now tell me if you don’t feel like you should do this:

And also like the bishops of England & Wales didn’t just do this: 

Because even though it’s just six questions, this survey really does seem like it could generate just as much useful information as other formats.

And what’s more, it puts the focus on giving people an opportunity to reflect on their own lives. “What’s it been like being married?”, “How are you making the world a better place?”—these are not your typical survey questions. They will yield data, but that’s not what they’re about. They’re the kinds of questions that invite real reflection and prayer.

The Americas

I tried very hard to any information about what’s been going on in the Americas. In Latin America I found nothing except for a reference to a meeting of 300 people from all over the Talca diocese in Chile; they seemed to be delegates, and that meeting was the diocese’s data gathering mechanism.

The fact that I found nothing else might be a result of my disastrous Google Spanish/Portuguese (Based on the strength of Google’s translation software, I’m pretty sure in the near future it’s going to be used an adjective in conversations on language skills, as in “Hey, how’s your French?” “Ah, you know, pretty Google.”)

But it could also be that most of those dioceses have yet to begin in the process, and so their questionnaires are still being developed.

Canada has done a survey, and it’s a really interesting one. Like a lot of other places, the bishops in Canada rewrote the Vatican questions into non-churchy vernacular.

But rather than fewer questions, they instead added about 20 new ones. No, seriously, they did. Click here and see for yourself.

Yeah, I know—it’s a bit busy. And intimidating. I can’t tell you what the first question means (if in fact it is a question at all). And the next four each have many so parts.... One could be forgiven for having an impulse to run away.

But if you can push through that initial “This looks like a final exam that I am about to fail” near death experience, there are some interesting things here. For instance, those initial questions with the oh so many parts are all about the currrent practices of the church.

2. In our pastoral activity, what are our best practices—practices that have had an impact and that could be examples to other communities—in our efforts towards:

a) Supporting and strengthening families of believers living in fidelity [3];

b) Reaching those who are distant from the church (or who feel that they are) [6];

c) Fostering and appreciating the “desire to form a family” planted by the Creator in the heart of every person, especially among young people, including those in family situations which do not correspond to the Christian vision [6]...

It’s exactly the sort of stuff the early Vatican 46 questions were trying to ask – basically, the Catholic version of the truck driver “How’s my driving?” bumper sticker.

But everything here is so extremely concrete—the church names very specific parts of its work, and seeks best practices. They’re the kinds of questions that could generate information that is immediately useful to those dioceses.

Here’s another one from the beginning:

4. How are our Christian communities...

a) Pastorally involved in the situations of couples living in irregular situations? [33]

b) Assisting in discerning the positive and the negative elements in the life of persons united in a civil marriage so as to guide and sustain them on a path of growth and conversion towards the Sacrament of Matrimony? [33]

c) Caring for wounded families so that they can experience the Father’s mercy? [35]...

Again, specific in query, concrete in request. Extremely useful.

In the sections that follow, the survey offers thoughtful introductions that well capture the spirit of the exercise. For instance:

Too often, the teaching of the Church is understood as a set of rules imposed from without or as a code of conduct considered by many to be out of touch with modern reality. The participants in the extraordinary Synod, on the other hand, saw in this teaching a source of personal fulfilment and a path of vitality and hope. But how can we concretely translate this conviction into a language that will reach men and women today? This reflection is behind the following questions.

Some of the questions themselves are not quite so great: “In keeping with divine pedagogy, what human pedagogy needs to be taken into account – so as to have a clearer perspective on what the Church’s pastoral ministry should be as a couple’s life together matures and could lead to marriage in the future? [9]”

(Dear Reality, Can we please ban the word “pedagogy” from any semi-normal conversation? It’s not that we don’t know what it means. It’s that it means a lot of things to a lot of people, and as a result using it is more likely to make me us stop paying attention and start wondering what we’re having for dinner.)

But then other questions are very rich: “How can people be helped to understand that no one is beyond the mercy of God? How can this truth be expressed in the Church’s pastoral activity towards families, especially those which are wounded and fragile? [20]”

I don’t know that there are any other places in the world where the reaction to being offered 46 questions is, “No, no, I think it should be more like 70.” But it’s an interesting experiment. And not without real value.   

The Rest of The World

I tried. I really tried. New Delhi. Bangalore. Manila. Zimbabwe. Thailand.  I even Google Tagalog’d and Google Hindi’d. But in each case, I could not find a single reference to a current or recently finished Synod process.

Again, that could mean they haven’t done anything yet. Or it means I wasn’t asking the right question. (I’m betting on the latter.)

But I did find one last approach I wanted to mention, an online survey from the bishops of South Africa. It’s 42 short, simple questions. Each considers the respondent as the church’s on the ground eyes and the ears. The questions are all about what’s going on in your neck of the woods, usually followed by the respondents’ own point of view on those matters.

So regarding marriage prep:

6. What preparation for Marriage is being done in the parish?

7. Do you believe that this is sufficient or not?

Or abortion:

14. Is abortion a significant pastoral concern?

15. What pastoral care is being offered to those who have participated in an abortion?

On occasion, it can start to seem a little nosey.

16. How many Roman Catholic couples are known to be cohabiting in the parish?

17. Do they intend to marry eventually?

18. What reasons do they give for not marrying?

Seriously, who’s writing this survey, the bishop or my mother?

But the survey never loses touch with the important pastoral questions. And like the Australian version, it sometimes turns to the respondents for advice. So after asking whether annulments needs to be simpler and cheaper, it asks: “How can this be done?” We’ve got this issue; you tell me, how do we go about solving it?

Likewise in talking about homosexuality, after asking how the church can respond better, it asks “What responses are not appropriate?” In other words, tell us how not to screw this up. A great way to root out blindspots.


At the end of the day, one way to look at all this is in terms of flaws amd failings. If you’re living in a place where you were expected to sit through the Vatican 46, frustration would certainly not be an inappropriate reaction. 

But stepping back, maybe we should try to think about all of these attempts as experiments. These last few days we’ve been wandering amidst Petri dishes, each growing a different strand and culture. Some of them aren’t so great. But some of them are. With any luck maybe we’ve learned some new tricks our dioceses and conferences might try the next time.  

And maybe we’ve learned a couple lessons, too. Like don’t ask people to fill out a survey in the midst of their summer vacation. Unless the survey is whether you’d prefer a Mai Tai or Margarita with your lunches, they’re not going to do it. Their brains may not even be able to do it.

Or don’t force dioceses to use language that their people won’t be able to understand. Or, dear Vatican, if you are comfortable with some adaptation, be abundantly clear about that. Never underestimate just how scrupulous we Catholics can be.

And always, always, always consider the page that you’re presenting. No one likes to walk into a hoarder’s house. In fact, very few will. So space things out. Add a picture, for goodness sake. Save the complicated-looking questions for the end.

And maybe, just maybe have a prayer. (Believe it or not, I can count on one finger the number of dioceses I looked at whose online surveys did.)

Speaking of which, let’s all say a prayer for the Synod. And if you haven’t filled out a survey yet and you still can, I hope you will. 

(And hey, if your diocesan process is already closed or it didn't really do it for you, you might check out the Strong Catholic Families Survey (deadline March 12th),  the CCRI Survey (mid-March), or if you're a priest, the Association of US Catholic Priests survey (March 15th). Each is being conducted privately. Each has a simple and very attractive format and set of questions. And I believe that all three groups are promising to send the results they get to Pope Francis.) 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jack Rakosky
3 years 10 months ago
Thanks very much to both NCR and this series in America for shining the light of day on this process. Francis has certainly put “the smell of the sheep” on the agenda of the bishops, the clergy, many Catholics, and the world’s media. So doing this consultation well is important. We still have six months before the Family meeting in Philadelphia followed by the Synod. There is still plenty of time to discuss all the issues.


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