On Nov. 5, officials of the Holy See released an official preparatory document for the October 2014 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, which has as its theme “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.”
The preparatory document establishes many of the key topics for deliberations by the bishops, including “The Church and the Gospel on the Family”; “The Plan of God, Creator and Redeemer”; and “The Church’s Teaching on the Family.” The attention of the media, however, was understandably more focused on the last part of the document — a questionnaire on the main challenges facing the family today.
Some media outlets presented the 39 questions as a way for the Vatican to poll Catholics on whether the Church should change its teachings on divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception. Such unfounded speculation was dismissed immediately by the Vatican, but it also demonstrated a failure on the part of many reporters and commentators to read the actual questions.
The questionnaire seeks to assess the current levels of knowledge and acceptance of the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family and various cultural obstacles to their adherence. The questions are intended to allow “the particular Churches to participate actively in the preparation of the Extraordinary Synod, whose purpose is to proclaim the Gospel in the context of the pastoral challenges facing the family today.”
The questions are divided into several pastoral categories, such as “The Diffusion of the Teachings on the Family in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Magisterium”; “Marriage according to the Natural Law”; “Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations”; “On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex”; and “The Openness of the Married Couple to Life.” A final section asks about other challenges and proposals that should be discussed.
Catholics are not asked whether the Church should change its teachings. For example, on the issue of couples being open to life, the questions ask, “What knowledge do Christians have today of the teachings of Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”) on responsible parenthood? Are they aware of how morally to evaluate the different methods of family planning? Could any insights be suggested in this regard pastorally?” The follow-up asks, “Is this moral teaching accepted? What aspects pose the most difficulties in a large majority of couple’s accepting this teaching?”
Sending out questions in preparation for an upcoming synod is also hardly unprecedented. In the lead up to the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, 30 questions were distributed to the world’s bishops on all phases of evangelization in the modern world.
Cardinal Peter Erdö, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest in Hungary, who was appointed by Pope Francis in September as the relator of the upcoming synod, stressed at a Nov. 5 press conference that the questions seek simply to provide a better understanding of current levels of knowledge and attitudes as the bishops do their work.
There is no plan, he declared, to make decisions based on public opinion. “Certainly the doctrine of the magisterium must be the basis of the common reasoning of the synod,” Cardinal Erdö said.
The Hungarian cardinal will help guide the synod in its deliberations, working closely with the synod’s new general secretary, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, who was appointed last month. They noted that the questionnaire would be distributed to the world’s episcopal conferences, which will then be free to disseminate them as they see fit, including distributing them to parishes. Individual Catholics are also encouraged to respond on their own and send the questionnaire to the Vatican, if they wish.
The episcopal conferences are expected to organize the collected data from individual dioceses and archdioceses and present summaries to the Synod Secretariat, the commission in charge of the preparations for the synod. The secretariat will then incorporate the results in the working document, called the Instrumentum Laboris, for the synod itself. The bishop’s conferences were asked to submit their summaries to the General Secretariat by the end of January 2014.
Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.