I was in Rome when news arrived that a questionnaire was being distributed to all Bishops in preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family. Every Synod begins with working documents, lineamentas, and questionnaires. The difference this time? The Bishops are encouraged to open wide the doors to a greater dialogue among all the faithful. This was received with much jubilation and excitement. Obviously this is the work of Pope Francis, we thought. FINALLY, we will have an opportunity to speak out and be heard. We soon found out that the request was being interpreted differently around the world.
The Bishops of England and Wales gained much support by swiftly posting the questionnaire as an online survey, inviting all the faithful to respond.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops dragged their heels, arguing that this questionnaire was no different from previous Synod working documents. Therefore they would proceed as usual, leaving the onus on each bishop to decide how representative his response would be. Three dioceses in Iowa eventually put the survey online in its entirety. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia posted an edited version. But, there was no united effort by the USCCB to produce a national survey response.
Here in Canada, the Bishops are encouraged to consult with pastors and laity in their diocese and forward the diocesan responses to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is the same process used in past Synods.
Joshua J. McElwee, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, provides an insightful summary of previous attempts at collecting insights from the laity as well as the many challenges with this present attempt.
A quick read of the introductory preparatory document and actual questionnaire shows that this is no simple, multiple choice survey. This is a heavy weight document that reads more like an essay based exam. In fact, you need a certain level of education and theological know-how to even understand the questions. And, some of the questions have several questions hidden within them. Which do you answer?
Also, how in heaven’s name are they going to collect, read, and summarize all these long essay answers within the short time frame? Much time is needed to process a simple, multiple choice survey. Experts are needed to not only add up the check marks, but to interpret their meaning based on demographics. And, with a world-wide questionnaire, those demographics are going to be formidable indeed.
Optimistic souls are urging us to look beyond the clumsiness of the effort to the positive message it brings. An honest attempt is being made to listen to the voice of the faithful. The method may be imperfect, but we should work with what is given at this moment.
Is there a better way? Of course there is. News of this questionnaire wouldn’t be such a gob-smacking surprise if we were used to being asked for our opinion on matters concerning faith, family and church life. Bishops and priests wouldn’t have to be scrambling to collect our opinions if the lines of communication were already open. Dialogue would be a given, and genuine collaboration would be the modus operandi; not merely an interesting experiment to try out.
If a survey is used, the questions should be less of a theological exercise and more a pastoral and personal reflection. If you want to know what women and men think, ask us the questions that we are already asking; for we have many questions…and answers, too. You may not like the answers, but at least you will know what we are thinking.