Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good has set up an online surveyto elicit the feedback from lay Catholics across the country, in response to the Vatican’s request for feedback from the laity on a variety of marriage and family topics, including same-sex marriage. The Vatican made the request for bishops around the world to gather such information in anticipation of a world synod on marriage and family in 2014. yet, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has already expressed reluctance to encourage individual bishops to do so.
Joshua McElwee of The National Catholic Reporter has noted that Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a Catholic non-profit organization, is filling the gap. In a blog post, McElwee noted:
“The nonprofit, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, has made a survey based on the Vatican’s questionnaire available online.
“Christopher Hale, a senior fellow with the group, said in an email that his organization sent a link to the survey via email to its some 30,000 members Friday morning. Within two hours, Hale said, the group had seen more than 300 responses.”
He also quoted Hale’s reaction to some of the messages people were sending. Hale stated:
“Dozens of separated and divorced Catholics noted that they don’t feel welcomed in their Church communities because they don’t have access to the sacraments. Once again, dozens of gay and lesbian Catholics expressed the same sentiment. One noted how she felt like her treatment in her parish was [similar] to the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”
David Gibson of Religion News Service noted in a news article that some U.S. bishops are annoyed with how the Vatican’s request has been handled by the USCCB. Gibson wrote:
“. . . some American bishops privately expressed frustration that they had not been notified sooner about the Vatican request and that there was as yet no national plan for soliciting input from U.S. Catholics.”
In contrast, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have set up an online survey site to gather information, and Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of that bishops’ conference, has sent a message to lay Catholics saying, “Your participation is important.”
The new process reflects the new administration at the Vatican, Gibson observed:
“. . . [Pope] Francis and his top aides have said that they want to overhaul the synod to turn it into a truly consultative meeting that will be shorter in duration — two weeks instead of nearly a month — and encourage debate and input from all Catholics.
“Next October’s meeting will be the first major test for Francis’ pledge to develop a more ‘horizontal’ church.”
Jesuit Father James Martin, the noted spiritual author and church commentator, noted the importance of the Vatican’s request for information in a blog post on the America magazine website:
“First off, this is indeed new. While in the past bishops were encouraged to promote discussion in their dioceses in preparation for a synod, there were never any outright polls conducted, and certainly nothing on a worldwide basis. Second, needless to say, the questions are not going to ask, ‘Should we overturn this church teaching?’ Nonetheless, the Vatican will surely get a better sense of how the teachings are being ‘received,’ to use a theological term, by the faithful. “
The Vatican’s request has amazing significance for Martin, who writes:
“. . . the news makes me smile, because for years when some people would speak about the sensus fidelium (that is, the ‘sense of the faithful’) as an important part of the way that the church lives and grows, a few people would protest, ‘But the church is not a democracy! And we don’t do polls!’“People often forget the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on this matter in ‘Lumen Gentium': “They [the laity] are, by [reason of] knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church.’ ““Finally, it’s a sign, in case we needed to be reminded, that the Holy Spirit is at work in everybody. From the Pope, to the local bishop, to your pastor, to the sister teaching in your school, to the director of religious education at your parish, to the mother of three, to the man who holds out the collection basket on Sundays, to the college student struggling with her faith, to the fellow who cleans the church bathrooms, to the Catholic baptized just last Easter.“The Holy Spirit is at work in her church and in her people. And she will let her voice be heard, this time through these polls, because she desires to speak.”
For Michael O’Loughlin, who blogs for Religion News Service, the change that the Vatican’s request indicates goes even beyond data collection. O’Loughlin writes:
“Vatican officials want to know, from those living and working and worshipping in Catholic parishes, how to offer pastoral care for married gays and lesbians, and how to serve their children. I could not have imagined that the church would recognize gays as human beings even a few months ago, never mind ask for ideas on how to serve them, and their children, better. It’s truly revolutionary.
“And what’s not there in those questions is just as amazing as what is. There’s no mention of sin. Nothing about intrinsically disordered desires. The children aren’t called illegitimate.
“Instead, there’s language that recognizes gay and lesbian Catholics as human beings, as people who long for lives of faith and meaning.”
I couldn’t agree more with O’Loughlin. Though the USCCB may not yet be “on board” with Pope Francis’ new approach to Catholic issues, it’s obvious that a new wind is blowing in the Vatican. This request for information from the laity indicates a willingness to listen on the part of church leaders–something that has been absent from the Vatican hierarchy for decades. As I’ve said before, it’s now up to the laity to offer their opinions, whether a bishops encourages them to do so or not. The only opportunity for failure here is silence.