In another unusual step under the guidance of Pope Francis, the Vatican is conducting a survey on Roman Catholic parishes across the globe to learn more about their views and policies on sensitive, controversial issues such as marriage equality, divorce, and birth control. The purpose of the survey is to gather data for an important meeting on family planned for 2014.
The survey was sent out in October to national conferences of bishops; according to a leaked copy from the National Catholic Reporter, the surveys came with a request from the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, asking that the bishops “share it immediately as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received,” with a deadline of “no later than December 31, 2013.”
Though a disconnect in values between the traditional, conservative Catholic leadership and its followers is not unusual, Vatican officials said that even if a majority of responses are in support of more liberal policies, quick changes in official church rules are unlikely.
At a news conference on November 5, Cardinal Peter Erdo stated, “We don’t have a desire to reopen all the discussion on Catholic doctrine. It is not a question of public opinion.” Instead, he explained, the meeting’s purpose was to find solutions to difficult issues “within the doctrine that we already have.” Still, the desire to collect such a wide range of opinions shows Pope Francis’ commitment to involve the leaders of individual churches in deciding official church policy more than in the past, rather than the current “Vatican-centric” approach.
The survey’s introductory pages address a long list of “concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago,” nearly all having to do with marriage and family, such as “same-sex unions between persons, who are, not infrequently, permitted to adopt children.”
While the issues addressed include “a culture of non-commitment and a presumption that the marriage bond can be temporary; forms of feminism hostile to the Church; migration and the reformation of the very concept of the family,” the concerns listed are not limited to new ideas; also included is mention of “polygamy; marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry, sometimes understood as the purchase price of the woman; [and]the caste system.”
It takes until Section III to get to the actual questions, which are under headers such as “Marriage According to the Natural Law,” “Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations,” and “The Openness of the Married Couple to Life.”
Part 5, “On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex,” lists the questions: a) Is there a law in your country recognizing civil unions for people of the same sex and equating it in some way to marriage? b) What is the attitude of the local and particular Churches towards both the State as the promoter of civil unions between persons of the same sex and the people involved in this type of union? c) What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union? d) In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in tight of transmitting the faith?
Questions in other sections regard topics such as how each church pastors to couples that are separated, divorced, remarried, or cohabitating, and if they think the heterosexual couples in their churches use artificial contraception. (Official church doctrine bans its use, but a study by the Guttmacher Institute showed that among “sexually active women who are not pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant,” 68 percent of women who self-identified as Catholic used a method of birth control considered “highly effective.”)
The Catholic church has historically been very slow to embrace anything new; Pope Francis has expressed disapproval of marriage equality, but also emphasized that churches should be welcoming and respectful to all, rather than focusing exclusively on what they condemn.
The survey also mentions that the topics discussed in the 2014 meeting will be brought up again in a conference scheduled for 2015.