WASHINGTON (CNS) — In the Diocese of Harrisburg, Catholics are being encouraged to do a little studying about church teaching and then weigh in on the preparation material for next year’s extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family.
The Harrisburg Diocese is one of a handful around the country that have online ways for everyday Catholics to put in their two cents’ worth about the discussions bishops from around the world will have with Pope Francis at the synod Oct. 5-19, 2014.
In other U.S. dioceses, bishops are consulting with pastoral councils or pastors. In Great Britain, Catholics in the entire country were invited to participate in an online survey.
Pope Francis this past October called for the third extraordinary synod to be held since Pope Paul VI reinstituted synods in 1965 to periodically advise him on specific topics. Extraordinary synods are defined in canon law as intended to “deal with matters which require a speedy solution.”
Participants will primarily be presidents of national bishops’ conferences, the heads of Eastern Catholic Churches and the heads of major Vatican offices, totaling about 150 people, according to Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
In preparation for the synod, its secretary-general, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, sent bishops’ conferences a preparatory document that included a 39-item questionnaire asking about the promotion and acceptance of Catholic teachings on marriage and the family, and cultural and social challenges to those teachings.
It asks about divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, same-sex unions and contraception.
On a flight back to Rome from Rio de Janeiro in July, the pope told reporters that the next synod would explore a “somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage,” including the question of the eligibility of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
Pope Francis added that church law governing marriage annulments also “has to be reviewed, because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this. It is complex, the problem of the pastoral care of marriage.”
Approaches to how the questionnaire is being used have stirred some debate.
In late October, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales put the questionnaire online, using the SurveyMonkey site. That led to news stories about “polling” Catholics for their opinions and suggestions.
At a Nov. 5 Vatican news conference in Rome, Archbishop Baldiserri was asked whether the British bishops’ approach should be emulated elsewhere. He said the “question answers itself” and was “not worth considering.” He said pastors were expected to provide summaries of the views and experiences of parishioners, and that their findings would be “channeled” in turn through national bishops’ conferences for ultimate consideration by the synod.
At the same Vatican news conference, Cardinal Peter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest, Hungary, who is the synod’s relator, said the synod’s work will be based on doctrine, not current public opinion.
“Certainly the doctrine of the magisterium must be the basis of the common reasoning of the synod,” he said. “It is not a question of public opinion.” As relator, Cardinal Erdo is charged with synthesizing the remarks and recommendations of his fellow bishops.
In the United States, there’s no one approach being taken to the preparatory material.
During a briefing about the synod Nov. 11 during the U.S. bishops’ annual fall general assembly in Baltimore, New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan explained that there are still some questions about how the information gathered will be used for the synod. He said he was awaiting clarification from the Vatican about how the data would be channeled.
The archdioceses of Baltimore and Chicago, the Iowa dioceses of Davenport, Dubuque and Des Moines and the Harrisburg Diocese are among those with links to an online survey on their Web pages. Though some ask different background questions — such as where the participants learned of the survey, where they live and whether they are active Catholics — those dioceses all use the questions as phrased by the Vatican.
Some provide the material in both English and Spanish. Some offer ways of submitting responses through postal mail.
Each includes the eight-page synod preparatory document, which explains its purposes and summarizes relevant church teaching.
The Philadelphia Archdiocese has a similar online survey, but rephrased the Vatican’s questions.
For example, the dioceses that posted the material straight from the Vatican document begin with a three-part question about church teaching on the family.
It starts: “Describe how the Catholic Church’s teachings on the value of the family contained in the Bible, ‘Gaudium et Spes,’ ‘Familiaris Consortio’ and other documents of the post-conciliar magisterium is understood by people today? What formation is given to our people on the church’s teaching on family life?”
Question 1b continues: “In those cases where the church’s teaching is known, is it accepted fully or are there difficulties in putting it into practice? If so, what are they?”
And 1c: “How widespread is the church’s teaching in pastoral programs at the national, diocesan and parish levels? What catechesis is done on the family?”
The Philadelphia version summarizes the three parts, asking:
“Is the church’s teaching on the nature and purpose of the family adequately understood by people today? Why? How well does the church form her members to live this teaching on the family? Is the church’s teaching on the family effectively transmitted in her pastoral and catechetical programs? Why or why not?”
The introduction to the Philadelphia survey notes: “Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has authorized the use of an Internet-based instrument for local participation in this consultation in the broadest possible manner. This is not a poll or a survey on church teaching. Rather, this is a unique opportunity for the clergy and faithful of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to reflect and respond thoughtfully on serious challenges to family life and to marriage.”
In introducing Chicago’s survey page, Cardinal Francis E. George explained that for previous synods, he has always sent the preparatory questions to the various councils that advise him. “For this synod, a more ample consultation will be helpful and every Catholic in the archdiocese is therefore invited to reply to the questionnaire now available in English and Spanish.”
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori prefaced the survey by inviting active and inactive Catholics to participate “in this important conversation.”
His letter noted that the report is due Dec. 31, and asked for responses by Dec. 15, but said the document would remain on the website after that date.
“The purpose of this document is to help the church respond as effectively as possible to the impact which the social and spiritual crisis of today’s world has on family life,” Archbishop Lori’s letter said.
Other dioceses are using a more focused approach, soliciting responses from pastors and advisory boards such as presbyteral councils.
Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Ore., said at the bishops’ meeting that he was consulting with his archdiocesan pastoral council and the presbyteral council. The material was on the agenda for the Nov. 21 presbyteral council meeting.
Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz of Anchorage, Alaska, told the bishops he’d sent the survey to his pastors, asking them to consult with their pastoral councils before replying.
Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said the questionnaire was on the agenda for his recent bimonthly meeting with priests who’ve been ordained five years or less and to the archdiocesan pastoral council. He told the bishops that the priests were quite enthusiastic to participate.
They said they were “honored to be asked,” Cardinal O’Malley said.
Cindy Wooden and Francis X. Rocca in Rome contributed to this story.
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