At the beginning of December, I announced in these pages and in a letter sent to all of our parishes and missions that our diocese would welcome any input from the faithful as they might wish to the questions sent by the Holy See at the request of Pope Francis on marriage and family life in our day.
Over 6,800 people responded, taking time to fill out the survey, often taking significant additional time to add comments to the online version or by filling out the survey on paper and submitting it (written submissions were subsequently entered into the online survey). What Gallup, Pew or the other polling companies would give for nearly 7,000 participants in what was basically an opinion poll!
The timeline was short, too short, but all the responses were received, reviewed by members of the Diocesan Pastoral Council, results shared with the Presbyteral Council and then in mid-January forwarded by me to the appropriate office in Rome which is planning for the two synods which will discuss marriage and family life in our day in October of this year and October of 2015.
At the time, I promised to share the responses with all who took the time to respond. That is what I will attempt to do here, though in something of “shorthand” since the print-out of everything exceeded 3,000 printed pages. Therefore, what is impossible to share in a medium such as this is all of the “free-form” comments which I would characterize as serious, lacking in polemics, sincere, and reflecting little of the polarity which exists in the Church today. I am very proud of what was said, how it was said and who said it.
Before you start looking at the numbers, there are several things which you need to keep in mind. The survey responses generally reflect the “choir,” those people who faithfully attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, if not daily. They do not represent the feelings of those who have fallen away from the practice of their faith, are angry or frustrated or feel alienated by the Church. How I wish I could have heard from them as well, but given the short time line mandated by the Holy See for input, the only vehicle for informing God’s people of the survey was through those in church or some others who take the time to read this blog, the diocesan Facebook or Twitter, or our diocesan website.
Having said that, I think the thoughts of those who no longer practice their Catholic faith – particularly those concerning our pastoral practice on marriage – were well-represented by the people who did respond. Overall, the Church which I am privileged to lead has some real concerns about precisely the matters which the Holy Father wished tested. Our overall score as institutional Church calls for something of an overhaul of our “common core teachings” (couldn’t resist – sorry!).
Also, please keep in mind that we had to take the sometimes very foreign language of the incoming survey and translate it best as we could into words, terminology and concepts which educated American Catholics could understand. I would give our instrument a B+ or an A- in clarity. Please also note that the overwhelming majority of respondents are older-generation Catholics, most of whom are married and are regular church-goers. Young singles and married couples numerically are not as well-represented.
If you wish to see the statistical results from the survey in the diocese, simply click here.
Summarizing the free-form comments and responses was a more challenging exercise but I think I can do them justice with the following comments:
1. There was very strong support for the notion that marriage (which I believe they understood as sacramental marriage) is between one man and one woman.
2. Having said that, it was also clear that the respondents felt that the Church needed to be better prepared to respond to the reality of same-sex marriage. In addition, many respondents felt that the people involved in such relationships believe that the Church has turned its back on them.
3. The respondents generally tended to suggest that the Church needed to be kinder and gentler to those who identify themselves as gay and lesbian, be less judgmental and more welcoming.
4. Very clearly stated was the opinion that an adopted child of same-sex parents should be treated in the Church exactly the same as a child born of a traditional marriage between a man and a woman.
5. The respondents felt very strongly that something needs to be done to reconcile and welcome back the divorced and remarried beyond the present annulment process, about which there seems to be confusion. The mistaken notions that an annulment renders children of the first marriage illegitimate and that simply being divorced excludes one from the sacramental life of the Church indicates that as a local Church we need to do something soon to educate our people better on these two points.
6. The media takes a hammering in the survey results, largely because it is seen as the force majeure for challenging traditional concepts about marriage and family life. They render alternate lifestyles legitimate in the eyes of our respondents and perhaps are so strong that they will effectively negate anything done to support traditional notions of marriage and family life.
7. The respondents strongly said that the Church needs “to wake up and smell the coffee” on cohabitation. It is commonplace and there are some reasons for it which can not be summarily dismissed, such as economic realities.
8. Finally, on the matter of artificial contraception the responses might be characterized by the saying, “that train left the station long ago”. Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium suggests the rejection of Church teaching on this subject.
So, a natural question is “What next?” The survey results raised issues that can only be resolved by the universal church and ultimately by the Holy Father himself. I gather from what I read that our results are not markedly different from those being reported elsewhere around the world. I hope that the effort to canvas the thoughts of the People of God in this diocese, which was unique in Florida, will be helpful to those who will soon gather in synod with the Holy Father.
But there are pastoral results from the survey which we can attend to and I hope we will. I have made it known that I will not tolerate any discrimination or anything which smacks of the punitive to children of same-sex couples. I think all representatives of the Church’s many ministries can be kinder, gentler, more welcoming and less judgmental of those who find our praxis and preaching on marriage and family life to be at odds with their experiences. We need to address clearly that divorce itself is not something which bans a person from reception of the sacraments and that annulments do not illegitimize children born of previous marriages. Working with our diocesan Marriage and Family Life Office and with our priests and deacons, we can either begin or strengthen the process of healing for many in the Church.
Finally, if the “choir” is singing this anthem, imagine what we might have heard had we had the time and access to those alienated, fallen-away, hurt or frustrated. Pope Francis’ call to hightail it to the trenches, to the difficult and smelly parts of the people of God to bring the love and hope of Jesus Christ is not only a call to serve the economically impoverished but the spiritually impoverished, so often of our own making. God bless you and our efforts.