NCR Editorial Raises Questions, Expresses Hope Amid Synod Survey Results

As international bishops continue releasing survey results for the Synod on Bishops on marriage & family life this fall, the National Catholic Reporter is raising questions about why more American prelates did not participate.

Last fall, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops announced it would follow the ‘usual process’ for the Vatican’s unusual request to consult with Catholics “immediately” and “as widely as possible.” Michael O’Loughlin, on behalf of NCR, explored what this meant in reality for synod preparations by US dioceses.

It appears 78 dioceses made survey information easily available to the public, using a combination of online data gathering, direct consultations, and reports from parishes or diocesan offices. Only about a dozen released the results, including an extremely honest article from Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg. In a blog post on how NCR put together O’Loughlin’s article, editor Dennis Coday notes of the bishops’ lackluster participation:

“We are reporting that 76 dioceses out of nearly 200 publicly and actively sought some kind consultation with their people…

“Now, certainly, more than 76 dioceses could have turned in reports to the Vatican — it doesn’t seem logical that nearly two-thirds of U.S. dioceses wouldn’t respond to a Vatican request for information — but we don’t know what that number would be. We also have no idea whom they consulted, let alone what they reported.

“That not knowing is the story behind the story of the questionnaire.”

In a follow-up post a week later, Coday promised an updated report based upon reader input, adding a few diocese and also speaking to the incredible dismay Catholics expressed when their dioceses were missing. He writes as well of a “shadow category” for when it was unclear whether the diocese responded or not:

“And most of the people I heard from are engaged, practicing Catholics: ‘I didn’t hear anything about the questionnaire even though I am on my parish’s pastoral council,’ a woman from a Western state wrote me.

“This woman’s diocese — and still the vast majority of dioceses — falls into what I call the ‘shadow category,’ where we can’t figure out what the diocese did. This doesn’t mean that the bishop did not consult broadly or that he didn’t report back to the people he consulted what he heard, but we can’t find any easily, publicly available information that describes the process he used or what he did with the data.”

And what of those diocese which did release results? O’Loughlin concludes that the data shows “American Catholics have questions about the church’s teachings on a range of family-related issues.” You can read his full breakdown of several diocese’s reports here. Also of interest is that Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore were among the bishops calling for professional research organizations to conduct the consultations next time. There have also been voices of the small, eight-week timeline dioceses had for information collection.

Noting that Pope Francis urged participants at last summer’s World Youth Day to ‘make a mess,’ National Catholic Reporter’s editorial on this issue claims messiness is truly the pope’s modus operandi and this  is most evident by how he has handled preparations for the Synod. From there, NCR writes about the American response to these preparations:

“The story of how bishops responded or didn’t respond to the sharing of the questionnaire in the United States and beyond has been described in nearly every issue of this newspaper since…

“The bishops in this country approached the questionnaire in a variety of ways. Those who did their best to consult with the widest possible cross section of their dioceses and then tried even in limited ways to respond to or report back what they had heard deserve a good deal of praise. It’s exciting to see bishops reaching out like this. Our hope is that it portends a return to the consultations the bishops conducted in the 1980s around their peace and economic pastoral letters. Those exercises created national conversations that brought the church together if ‘not in unanimity’ at least in ‘unity in the richness of diversity.’ “

Now, the office charged with organizing the synod will collate the survey results into a working paper for bishops and NCR expresses their hope that there will be “more creative messiness” as a result. The editorial makes two conclusions from the data available so far:

“We think it is important to bring up two points: First, the majority of responses that have been reported publicly are coming only from the Western world. One of the few exceptions is the report from the Japanese bishops, which actually closely matched what we are hearing from North America and Europe. We have yet to hear from the developing world, where Catholicism is growing, and which we suspect will have unique perspectives that the universal church cannot ignore…

“The second thing to remember is that the responses about rejected church teaching are only half the story. It is especially important that bishops and clergy remember this. The other half of the story is the eagerness that Catholics felt when given the chance to participate in this survey of Catholic family life. Certain teachings or aspects of certain teachings have been rejected, but what shines through is the desire to be part of the church community.”

The editorial expresses hope that Catholics’ enthusiasm to participate and express their views on family life is a foundation for improved pastoral responses amid new realities. It specifically cites the spread of marriage equality as an example of where pastoral responses can grow, even where there is disagreement:

“A number of the U.S. bishops report among their respondents the ambiguity Catholics feel toward same-sex marriage that mirrors public opinion surveys and election polls. Many Catholics haven’t accepted same-sex marriage as valid, but in places as different as St. Petersburg, Fla., Stockton, Calif., and Davenport, Iowa, respondents say that individuals in same-sex relationships should have pastoral care and be made to feel welcome, and children in whatever family configuration they are in deserve to be accepted and nurtured.”

You can read the full editorial from the National Catholic Reporter by clicking here. You can read Bondings 2.0‘s continuing coverage of this Synod of Bishops by accessing the ‘Synod 2014‘ category to the right or by clicking here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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