by Chuck Colbert
In yet another indication of a changing Catholic Church, the Vatican is asking members of the laity their views on marriage and family life — and a whole lot more.
News of Pope Francis’ wish to hear from the faithful on a variety of topics — including same-sex marriage, contraception, cohabitation, divorce and remarriage — broke recently in a recent story in the National Catholic Reporter.
From coast to coast, reaction from LGBTs among the faithful is, for the most part positive, but with concerns, even as some bishops continued to criticize sharply continuing advances of marriage equality in New Jersey, Hawaii and Illinois.
“First of all I think it is a good thing the Vatican is trying to gather information from the whole Church on some of the hot button issues that is tearing the Church apart,” said Joe Murray of Chicago’s Rainbow Sash Movement, in email correspondence.
“This is the first time in my lifetime I have seen such a survey conducted. I see it as another step in beginning the journey of reform in the church. The survey impressed me the most because it appeared to be going over the heads of the local bishops and going directly to God’s people.
“I am hoping the Pope will use the results of this survey as a reason to call for Vatican III Council of the World Wide Church. Such a Council would be able to review our doctrinal beliefs in light of new knowledge and lived experience of the Catholic Faithful.”
Phil Attey of Washington, D. C., former executive director of Catholics for Equality, agrees.
“This survey says, ‘This is a different church. This is your church,'” he said.
“And that’s something Catholics in the pews – and, more importantly, those who’ve left the pews – have been longing for,” he added.
Nonetheless, one local gay Catholic did not like the questionnaire even as he voiced praise for the new direction Pope Francis is taking the church.
“The survey was horrible,” said Glenn Crane of Grosse Pointe Farms. “I couldn’t get through it” as it “was way too philosophical. I consider myself a lay person and not a philosophy major.”
“Asking a lay person about natural law, “he said, “the common lay person doesn’t know what that means.”
Crane, who has an MBA degree and worships with the Detroit chapter of Dignity, drew an analogy: “It would be like asking the laity about tax policy: ‘What’s your take on Form 1040A, line 23,'”
Still, Crane in voicing praise for Francis in moving the church “away from the culture wars,” added, “It’s fantastic.”
Survey’s Origin In Rome
As NCR reported, the secretary general of the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops, Archbishop Lorenzo Bladisseri, on Oct. 18, asked various conferences globally to distribute a questionnaire to “deaneries and parishes” to solicit input from “local sources.”
One purpose of the survey is to prepare church leaders for a Vatican-led synod set for Oct. 5 -19, 2014. Its theme is “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”
At first it was not clear how the U.S. Catholic bishops would handle the request for lay input. An initial NCR report suggested that U.S. bishops would provide their own observations, but a subsequent story said the U.S. bishops would follow a “usual process” in soliciting lay input.
Already some U.S. dioceses have posted links to the survey on their website, including Iowa where three of the state’s four dioceses have posted the entire Vatican synod survey online.
In Detroit, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron asked the faithful earlier this month, in a separate survey from the papal synod questionnaire, the laity’s views on parish life and issues the church faces. But the Detroit survey sidesteps controversial topics such as contraception, same-sex marriage and women’s ordination and married clergy, among other hot-button issues.
In Baltimore, Md., Archbishop William E. Lori has provided a direct online link to the survey, seeking input from parishioners.
Apparently, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of the Boston archdiocese is limiting official survey responses to pastors, church officers, and parish council members,
Across the Atlantic Ocean, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales is seeking countrywide consultation. The conference has invited every diocese, parish, Catholic organization, and individual Catholic to give their input to conference and synod by responding to the nine sets of topics, spelled out in 39 questions.
Bishops Continue Anti-Gay Marriage Campaign
Even before Hawaii lawmakers and governor approved same-sex marriage, the local Catholic bishop in Honolulu warned in a letter to the faithful that gay marriage would open the door to incest, polygamy and lead to “juvenile suicides.”
On the same day Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation making same-sex marriages legal in Illinois, the Catholic bishop of Springfield, the state capital, offered prayers of exorcism in Latin during a worship service in opposition to the law.
And San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, at a recent meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on Nov. 11, continued to denounce equal-marriage rights.
“By advancing redefinition, the decisions harmed marriage and harmed our society,” Cordileone told the annual gathering of prelates, going on to say that say court decisions [and legislative actions] have produced “negative effects almost immediately,” according to a LifeSiteNews.com report, posted on the archdiocesan Web site.
Such U.S. bishops’ anti-gay marriage rhetoric remains out of step with Pope Francis’ call to down play contentious social issues and refocus church concerns on human suffering and poverty, emphasizing compassion.
Furthermore, surveying the laity signals yet another move away from culture-war combat toward collaboration through consultation with the faithful at the same time divisive social issues often present very real pastoral challenges and opportunities.
“I like the idea of consulting the faithful,” said Jesuit priest, the Reverend Thomas J. Reese, a policy analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.
“It’s always good for the clergy to listen to the people before they do things,” he added over the telephone.
“All you have to do is look at public opinion polls in the United States and predict what the response is going to be,” said Reese. “Most Catholics on gay marriage have no problem with it.
“On the other hand, there are people who have a problems with [gay marriage]. You’re going to get more responses from the activists opposed to it than the normal Catholic laity.”
“But the other part,” Reese went on to say, “Take gay marriage aside, what’s the pastoral response,” given same-sex marriage is a “reality pastorally for couples and their children.”
That’s a “discussion” needed in the Catholic Church, he said, referring to cases whereupon a clergy member learns of gay parents with school-aged children and then refuses to let them attend parochial schools.
In one sense, Reese said, the handwriting is on the wall. “There is this tsunami of young people coming,” he explained. “They just don’t get the fight over gay marriage.” For the bishops, he said, they “have already lost” and are going to have to “adapt.”
Based at Santa Clara University in California until the end of this year, Reese is the author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.
Meanwhile, U.S. Catholics in ministry with LGBTs, their families and friends were pleased with yet another positive step forward under Pope Francis’ leadership.
“It is important that lay Catholics take part in this consultation process,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which he added, “has been calling for such a process for decades. Now that we have a pope who is willing to listen, it is imperative that Catholics participate by offering their opinions. Who knows more about marriage and family life than lay Catholics who are living out these realities in light of their faith day in and day out?”
New Ways Ministry, along with a dozen progressive Catholic-reform-minded organizations, including DignityUSA, has made the survey accessible online at at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/SynodOnFamilyUS.
Already, “There has been a tremendous response,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, DignityUSA executive director, who also noted a Spanish-language version is available.
“It’s a pretty astonishing thing to get a document from the Vatican,” she said in a telephone interview, “that asks how many couples in your parish are cohabitating, without civil or religious recognition for their relationships; to what extent do you think people are following church teaching on birth control; what are the pastoral needs of those divorced and remarried; and do same-sex parents ask for pastoral services for their children.”
Overall, “There is a real grounding in reality and a sense of humility and not a place of knowing every thing,” Duddy-Burke said, referring to the questionnaire, which is 18 pages and includes 49 questions.
Respondents may answer all questions, but are not required to answer all of them. Questions 29-37 pertain to marriage equality, same-sex couples and their children. The deadline is Dec. 15.
Duddy-Burke said once the results have been compiled, they will be sent to Boston’s O’Malley, a consultant to Pope Francis; the Apostolic Nuncio, Bishop Carlo Maria Vigano; Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bladisseri, the upcoming Vatican synod’s secretary general.
And while nobody expects the pope to change church doctrine, dogma or policy, concerns remain.
“I am not all that hopeful that something will come out of the synod,” said Father Reese, referring to the October 2014 pastoral challenge synod. “Remember, this is not just about responses from the United States” but also “Latin America and Africa.”
In Africa, he noted, government officials and evangelical religious activists “are talking about making [homosexuality] illegal and a crime, arresting people and executing them.”
New Ways Ministry’s DeBernardo voiced concerns about the USCCB’s lack of encouragement to distribute questions to local churches. That he said, “Is an indicator the U.S. hierarchy is unwilling to ask the laity their opinion.”
“I hope the hierarchy will recognize,” said DeBernardo, “that many faithful Catholics have strong disagreements with church teaching about marriage, family, gender and sexuality.”
“I hope, too,” he added, “that the hierarchy will realize the laity’s disagreements are inspired by their core Catholic faith and values, not by influences from secular society.”
Asked about the LGBT-specific questions DeBernardo replied, “Less emphasis on the question of same-gender unions” and “more emphasis on the pastoral responses that local churches are making to LGBT people generally.”
“The biggest church problem around LGBT issues is not the expansion of marriage equality,” he added.
Rather, “The biggest church problem is homophobia, particularly among many of the hierarchy and other pastoral leaders, which prevents good outreach from happening,” DeBernardo said. “A good question about the extent of homophobia and how to combat it would have helped.”