input for the next synod for the family

Roman Catholic bishops are preparing for the second of two consecutive synods on the family. The first, the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, took place in October 2014 and addressed the topic, “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”. The document from that synod has become the working document (lineamenta) for the October 2015 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops titled “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world”.

The lineamenta for the first synod included a questionnaire. Unlike past questionnaires, this one was meant for all the people of God not just bishops. Sadly, the questionnaire was criticized for its lack of clarity and simplicity. Also, there was a lack of consistency in the solicitation of responses from lay women and men. Some bishops welcomed input from all. Some didn’t.

Enter lineamenta and questionnaire #2. I first read about it on our Archdiocesan web-site last week. There was a letter of introduction from our Archbishop dated January 28th. The online publication date was February 3rd. It was also announced in our Archdiocesan newspaper (received in our parish yesterday – Sunday, February 15th).

The deadline for submissions? February 16, 2015!

How easy is this set of questions? Here are the original questions, included in the last section of the lineamenta. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has published an edited version (eight pages!) to be distributed to dioceses across the country. This is the questionnaire that Canadian Catholics were invited to respond to.

I wanted to shake my head in disbelief, but it would have worsened the headache I got after reading both sets of questions. Keen Vatican watchers could have found the document on the Vatican web-site weeks ago and taken the necessary time to reflect and ponder on the questions in order to give a thoughtful response.

Granted, no one was expected to answer all the questions. In our archdiocese it was suggested that we answer three questions. The CCCB also left it to the discretion of each bishop whom to invite to respond to the survey, and which questions to address. There is also the option to respond to an “open question” at the end of each section.

An honest survey must be attentive to the day to day life of the average Catholic; those same women and men who form the many and varied families that the bishops are attempting to study.  I wonder how many responses will be received? How inclusive will these voices be? Will we hear from those on the fringes of church life? What about those who have already exited her doors because their family was no longer welcomed to the table?

A rhetorical question is one to which you do not expect a response. Is this merely a rhetorical survey?

More to come….

synod for the family questionnaire – do we finally have a voice?


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.