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Mary Ann WalshDecember 23, 2014

Preparation for the October 2015 Synod on the Family may help the U.S. church face pressing problems.

The church faces a challenge of disunity, some of it from polarization. Threats to unity have crept into the church from adversarial politics that permeate cultural warfare and political skirmishes related to religious liberty, gay rights and the definition of marriage. At times one feels meanness within our walls.

Concentration on the family, a topic of deep concern to those who care more about the church’s pastoral life than its political life, can unite us. No matter what their political persuasion, most people care more for family concerns than for political issues.

Among the issues:

In a divided society, what gives children the security that roots them in God and others? How do families pass on the faith when the church itself is riven with disagreements?

How do family members support one another even when some choose lifestyles at variance from the norm? Norms change.

How do families support children of divorce? How are divorced family members helped to feel whole despite the pain that accompanies divorce?

How can children of gay couples feel welcomed by families and neighbors that are not configured as theirs?

Do single family members have special needs for lack of one special person in their lives? Do they have obligations, such as financial ones, based on their ability to offer support to others?

The church needs a plan to gather data. Should it be through parish surveys? This is basic data collection, but if associated with discussion programs, surveys could lead people to a new understanding of one another. Many people can be reached only through parishes if they do not participate in church groups. How do we reach singles, for example?

Should data gathering come through organizations? This has pros because the groups already exist. Family life groups can examine what young couples who struggle to establish families want. They can study how people can develop a religious life alongside career development.

Religious ed groups can study family life at various stages. Do grandparents have something to give? For many families, the older generation can offer children and grandchildren wisdom acquired over decades.

Vocation groups have data that tells how family life affects career choices. Catholic school educators are well placed to show the effects of educational development on family life.

The Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, led by Bishop Richard Pates, already is immersed in a year of the family. Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago had begun preparation for the synod in his previous diocese, Spokane, Wash., before going to Chicago. Both may have programs other dioceses can imitate.

Issues like poverty are pertinent, but we need to watch politically oriented groups that would use church pastoral issues to promote political causes as we go into the next presidential election campaign. Use of the church for political purposes has been no small problem of late.

A whole new approach to synod preparation may lie in seeking what each can do individually to promote healthy families. Should I view what I do this year through a family filter? How can I help my own family as I consider the younger generation, grandparents, newlyweds and singles—who mean so much to me?

A critical U.S. family issue includes immigrants in the shadows. At work, they fear they might not return home one day because of something as scary as an immigration raid. Their undocumented children educated in this country have a tenuous guarantee of a permanent home, thanks to an executive order by President Obama. Their parents do not have a similar guarantee, not even a tenuous one.

The Synod on the Family offers challenges and opportunities. Time is moving rapidly as the church considers Pope Francis’ request for input. If the U.S. church can change the conversation to what we can do to empower families, we will have made a needed statement on unity and what it means to be Catholic today.

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Jack Rakosky
8 years 3 months ago
As a retired social scientist, I think asking the right questions is very important. Some recent research suggests we might be in for some pleasant surprises if we do. Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations by Vern L. Bengtson with Norrella M Putney and Susan C. Harris is a rare longitudinal study. They found the correlations between parents and their children’s religious attitudes were just as strong in 2005 as they were in 1970, averaging around 0.5, very high for any survey. Parents were particularly good at transmitting broad attitudes such the intensity of their faith and their level of religious participation. If they were warm and non-coercive they also tended to transmit their specific tradition, however if they were demanding that often produced religious offspring but of another denomination! Grandparents were found to be very important family transmitters, sometimes more important than the parents! American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell showed that the very positive effects of church attendance (health, happiness, and helping behavior) occurred only for those with religious networks of families, close friends, and small groups. These studies suggest, as Pope Francis has, that if we focus upon rules and doctrines we are likely to find that religion is not very helpful to people and may even be a source of conflict and unhappiness. On the other hand if we focus upon creating religious networks and encounters that are respectful, caring and merciful the picture looks much better.
Mike Evans
8 years 3 months ago
Be careful about the questions you ask and then be willing to accept answers that don't fit your preconceived notions of what they should have said. More importantly, recognize the pain the church now suffers when so many are or feel excluded from the sacraments and its support. The Gospel is supposed to be "good news" not a series of shibboleths fired from curial cannons.
Nicholas Clifford
8 years 3 months ago
Time is indeed moving rapidly, as Mary Ann Walsh points out. The Church has called on episcopal conferences "to choose a suitable manner of involving all components of the particular churches and academic institutions, organizations, lay movements and other ecclesial associations" to make up their responses. (The Lineamenta for the October Synod can be found at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_doc_20141209_lineamenta-xiv-assembly_en.html I would be very interested in knowing what action the USCCB, as well as individual bishops, have taken or plan to take to collect the information called for. I couldn't find anything on the USCCB website, but maybe it's there somewhere. At present the only way there suggested in which the faithful can support the Synod appears to be in praying for its success. As others have commented, drawing up an intelligent questionnaire will not be easy, and will need a good deal of thought and energy. Based on what happened last fall, I suspect some bishops will be more interested than others in meeting the Vatican's requests and, as teachers, explain to their diocesan faithful how they can contribute (in my diocese, there was virtually no information about the 2014 gathering, and absolutely no information as to how the bishop collected the material that he submitted). Though the Synod itself is not until October 2015, I believe that the preparatory information gathered is to be submitted at some point this spring. Sleepers, Wake! as the great Advent hymn has it.
Jack Rakosky
8 years 3 months ago

Why wait for the bishops to do something about the survey?

Parishes, groups, and anyone with a website can design and collect their own data using SurveyMonkey.com. In the 2014 survey the bishop of our diocese asked priests to respond to the questions. Several local parishes did their own surveys tailoring them to the needs of the parish using Survey Monkey. In my parish, the priest summarized the results and sent them to the bishop with a cover letter talking about them in terms of his own priestly ministry, and published everything on the parish web pages.

If parishes begin to design their own studies, and share them on the web, some are likely come up with very good questions and very interesting data. Social scientists always pretest their questions, especially if as in this case there is not a long history of previous data for comparison purposes.

In order to get CARA to do a national study that showed the majority of us clergy and lay leaders rejected the new Roman Missal, http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2014/04/08/cara-study-majority-of…
the PrayTellblog started with its own survey
As I commented at that time “The substantial number of dioceses (32), the large size of the sample (1536) and the high response rate (42%) in combination with the fact that the results are not very lopsided (39% liked the Missal) make this study very credible, a benchmark for the future.” which is exactly what it became in the CARA study.

Janean Stallman
8 years 2 months ago
On the issue of immigration, I think a lot of people don't realize how difficult life is for the undocumented family. I was a teacher in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, and taught many undocumented children. One experience I had was when a high school girl came to school in terrible pain with a tooth ache. She needed to go to a dentist, but her parents were afraid to take her because they would have to give their names and identity. They had no insurance, and very little money. I alerted the school nurse about the situation, and he found a dentist in Phoenix who was willing to take the child, and the whole family with no questions asked. I've never seen a girl so happy to go to the dentist, but she came back the next day, all smiles, telling me that she was going to get her teeth fixed and so were her siblings. There were many other cases of this thing where children needed care and parents didn't know how to get it because they were afraid. I also had very good students who were ready to graduate, but didn't know if they could get into a college or get student loans and aid because their parents were undocumented and couldn't fill out paperwork. In some cases, the children had come to this country as babies, and we not citizens, either, but they had lived all their lives here. It's a very sad situation and needs to be fixed, so that these people can live freely and have a future in this country.

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