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Synod on the Family Survey

I am currently at home in West Virginia for the holiday weekend, and my parents took the survey on family life that was made available to them online by the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. They, along with their fellow parishoners, were encouraged to take it by their pastor. The New York Times recently reported on this survey, which was made available to bishops worldwide for the purpose of gathering information from laity in preparation for the upcoming Synod on the Family. Bishops in the United States, however, seem to have been pretty quiet about it, and not all of them are even making it available through their diocesan websites. The USCCB director of media relations Sr. Mary Ann Walsh told the Times that those bishops who do not make the survey available on their websites will "get information in other ways" (whatever that means). Neither the survey nor the upcoming synod is mentioned on the website of my own diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

The survey can be found here, however, and I would encourage everyone to take it by December 15, when they are supposed to start compiling the data. There are a lot of interesting, open-ended questions, and it seems that those who wrote the survey are looking for substantive feedback. This is both good and bad, insofar as it forces people to take time thinking about and articulating their answers, but it also means that fewer people will actually take the time to make their way through all of the questions. Also, a number of the early questions ask specifically about "natural law" without spelling out exactly what is meant. So, I'm not sure how effective it is as a tool for getting the most informed feedback from the most Catholics.

I'd be interested in hearing what others think of it, though. Has it been made available or publicized in your parishes and diocese? Did you take it? Did you find it helpful? Do you think it will have any impact?

About the Author

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.



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The British version of the survey was put online by the bishops there and there have laready been some interesting results reported at The Tablet ...

I think the bishops here are afraid to officially put the survey online for everyone to respond to.

My diocese (Trenton, NJ) put it online, and I just took it this morning. I received an invitation to take it because I'm a deacon, but I don't think there has been a particularly big marketing effort to encourage wide participation.

I can't imagine how they are going to take all these open-ended answers and turn them into usable data or conclusions. Who is actually going to read all these answers and try to summarize them in each diocese, and then who will try to pull a national or global picture together? It's a huge undertaking....and since the survey is completely unquantitative in nature, with a very unscientific sample to say the least, it seems as if the whole process of interpreting and summarizing what people said will be highly subjective. 

But still - even the fact that the survey exists at all is something unprecedented.

This is really a cruel hoax.  Very few people that I have asked about the survey have even heard of it.  And these are not people who don't attend church regularly.  The Archdiocese in which I worship has had virtually no public information about this.  The diocese in which I live has done a better job, but basically by word of mouth and/or via the MONTHLY diocesan newspaper.

The fact that outside "heterodox" agencies who sponsored the version appended by Eric had to put a readable, sensible version together tells volumes about the USCCB's attitude toward the entire process.

But, that being what it may, the following questions need answering for ANY credibility of this process to be had:

1.  Why such a short period of time to gather the information?

2.  Who will collect the data from the various sources of input?

3.  Who will systhesize and group the answers?

4.  Who will write a final report to (individual dioceses?)(USCCB?)(whomever?)

5.  Who will determine if the results are "sanitized" to reflect the opinions of the bishop/USCCB as opposed to the actual input?

6.  How, if at all, with the overall results by (diocese)(USCCB) reported to the US church at large?


In other words, color me verrrrrrrrrrry skeptical about this entire process.

The survey was included in our diocesan weekly newspaper which is available free at all the Masses.

I went on the site linked above and looked the survey over.  Going to have to go back and complete it when I have A LOT of time.  Seems as if the questions could have been formatted in a more user-friendly way.

The diocese of Rockville Centre has set a deadline of December 2, 2013, for the replies!

Please see

Given the unrepresentativeness of the sponsoring organizations, how can anyone think for a second the survey responses will be a representative sample?    Seriously,  what's the objective of this survey?   To make a fringe element appear mainstream?

The Archdiocese of Baltimore had it on its web site.

The survey does not look very useful.

A better way would have been to have a sociological survey with questions such as

Do you accept the teaching that artificial contraception is always wrong? Yes or No.

Have you ever used artificial contraception? Yes or No.

Do you think that same sex marriages should be recognized by the state? Yes or No. By the Church? Yes or No.

and ask questions about age, amount of Catholic education, practice etc.

Internet surveys would tend to be based toward a younger, prosperous, and probably more male population.

This would have given the Vatican a better sense of what people think, as opposed to what the Vatican hopes they are thinking.

I thought some of the open-ended questions were really looking for advice, such as how to handle the sacramental preparation of children in same-sex marriages.

I think that bishops know that many of their teachings are not accepted by the laity. A good survey would help them get a grasp of the situation. Surveys should not determine doctrine. I am almost certain that a large majority of Catholics approve of capital punishment – but it always helps to know what peopel are thinking, especially if you want to change their minds.

The diocese of San Diego has not posted this survey online, nor has my parish priest mentioned it. Two weeks ago I asked him about the survey, but he said he has heard nothing yet. This is indeed perplexing and points to a profound inconsistency in the administration of this most important survey in the U.S.

It would be a disgrace to the RCC if the results of this survey did not accurately reflect the opinions of the laity, as Pope Francis expected.




Nothing doing in the Diocese of Brooklyn, as far as I can tell. There is a lot of concern, as expressed in an editorial in this week's diocesan newspaper, about the pope's "very direct, unfiltered communication style which ironically leaves him more liable to being misquoted or misunderstood."

Paul =

Well, if that isn't the cleverest way of saying the Pope can't possibly mean what he obviously says -- kinda like an 'Are you gonna believe your lyin' eyes?' interpretation.

Filtered communication is the responsibility, I believe, of the Congregation for Sacred Obscurantism.

My archdiocese (Chicago) has had it on its website for a couple of weeks now.  An email blast also went out to all the pastors in the archdiocese, inviting them to get the word out to their parishioners.   I've glanced at the survey but haven't completed it, and quite likely will not have time to.

I think it's important to keep in mind that this survey is meant to prepare bishops for a synod.  This is not a case of the Holy Father commissioning CARA or a similar organization to scientifically collect views and opinions on behalf of the Holy See.  I see this process as an attempt by Francis to get the bishops to listen to what their people are saying and thinking, before they assemble and discuss and deliberate.  Unsurprisingly, some bishops are reaching out more vigorously than others.  I think it is up to the bishop of each diocese to sort through the responses and make some sense of them.  I'd guess that some bishops will look at some or all of the raw data - will actually read at least some of the actual responses.  Perhaps some others will ask staff members to summarize it for them.  And perhaps some others won't reach out via the survey at all.  How would that last category of bishops get a sense of what their people are thinking about these issues?  I suppose, the same ways they would typically do so.  

One thing that (I think) we've learned about Francis is that he's relatively un-untra-montane.  I think he is going to trust the bishops more than some of his predecessors.  In this case, I think he's looking to the bishops to do some preparation prior to coming to the synod: to listen to their people.  Of course, what a bishop does with that feedback from the grass roots is anyone's guess.


Maybe the survey isn't primarily about the laity, it's about the bishops.  Maybe Pope Francis wants to see who in the hierarchy really takes his initiatives seriously.

Our new bishop put the survey online at least a week ago, with copies  available in the church vestibule.  We were given a deadline of December 11.  

While there are many flaws in the survey, I am with those who think that this is a hopeful step in the right direction. It felt awfully good to express my opinions on all the hot button issues, and it took considerable time to complete the entire survey.  I was amused at the way were were asked to designate ourselves, beyond age and gender: married, married with children, single, divorced, clergy,religious.  What about single or divorced folks with children?  What are we, chopped liver?

I think Les Podles' suggestion that some of the questions be "yes" or "no" is an excellent one; it would be a relatively easy way to garner critical information and perhaps deliver a powerful message on the reality of what parishioners think .  And I do think that Francis wants to know, God bless him.

It is appalling and irresponsible for some bishops to be reaching out and asking Catholics to complete the survey....and many other bishops doing nothing, not even mentiioning one word about it. 

The instruction from the Vatican was directed to the Conferences of Bishops. They inturn were to disseminate it widely. Then, the U.S. Conference of Cathoic Bishops, as well as other worldwide Conferences of Bishops, are to summarize the responses to the questions and send them on to the Vatican. 

The survey method choosen has all the earmarks of a train-wreck. 




Ann and Jim,

I wonder if the pope will use this like a required reading for a class. He's not going to force them to do it, but those who do it will be better prepared for the Synod and get his attention.

Ryan --

Sometimes I wonder if he says some ambiguous things just to make the bishops think outside the box.  Then again, sometimes he seems to be talking so fast that he doesn't finish expressing one thought before he begins another.    

YouGov has done a survey of Catholics in Great Britain. They may believe in God, but when in comes to conduct they recognize no religious authority:

When asked where they look for guidance in living their life and making decisions, over half of Catholics say their own reason, judgement, intuition or feelings, and another fifth say family or friends. Over-60s are twice as likely as under-50s to take authority from religious sources, but official religious sources of authority are unpopular among churchgoers of all ages. The most cited is “tradition and teachings of the Church” (8%), followed by God (7%), the Bible (2%), the religious group to which a person belongs (2%), and religious leaders, local or national (0%).

Unless you think that Catholicism has nothing to say about conduct (sexual, economic, medical, or otherwise), this in not a good situation.

The instruction from the Vatican was directed to the Conferences of Bishops. They inturn were to disseminate it widely. Then, the U.S. Conference of Cathoic Bishops, as well as other worldwide Conferences of Bishops, are to summarize the responses to the questions and send them on to the Vatican. 

Michael - in my view, one of the more remarkable passages of  Francis' new apostolic exhortation is found in paragraph 32:

The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”.  Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated.  Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.

My reading of that passage is that Francis is going to allow the episcopal conferences to spread their wings again, after those wings were clipped a couple of papacies ago.  Of course, that also puts the onus on episcopal conferences to take on any additional responsibilities wisely and well.






Jim P. ==

Sharing power and authority lower government levels does seem to be a necessity in an organization the size of theRCC, but I wonder just what their functions are going to be.  Advisory, that's for certain.  But how much authority will they have in doctrinal matters or at least in the *expression* of doctrine?  It seems to me that, as with the relationship between the U. S. federal government and the states, there is a lot of room for conflict not only between the over-goverment but also among the smaller organizations themselves.  

One big question will be:  Shall there still be mainly Church-wide laws,  or will the bishops conferences also have some legisltative powers?  I'm thinking specifically of the possibility that bishops conferences might make local laws concerning the liturgy and possibly even married priests.  I've read that it seems clear already that final decisions concerning problems of individual marriages will probably be left to the bishops, not Rome.

Jim P.

A great quote that does indeed speak to the need for collegiaty and subsidiarity. Those are principles of a good and just democracy. What we have now is a totalitarian autocratice ecclesial structure with the pope calling all the shots. It is the Pope as decision maker along with the Curia, a few selected bishops and theologians (those with the same philosopy as the pope) as advisors with little power, with the rest of the theological community and the entire laity with no voice.


I assme you mean that bishops will be given the final decision-making power regarding some individiual marriage issues based on new explicit guidelines and critieria. Rigid doctrines and teachings need better guiding principles that would provide flexibility for judgments and conclusions. This would be a political and philosophical way out of the iron-clad and controversial teachings of popes over the past 50 years. I would hope such changes will be on the issues of divorce and remarriage and contraception. I doubt there will be any changes on the issues of same-sex unions and abortion (e.g., the differences between direct and indirect abortion). Nevertheless, it is very possible that better guidelines may be issued on the pastoral treatment of lesbian and gay people. The issue of artificial reproductive technologies and frozen embryo adoption will likely not be changed, but I could be surprised.




I urge all readers and responders to complete the survey. It will help to reveal and particularize your own thinking and may actually influence discussions at the diocesesan and synod levels. I agree with Ann, this is a test - how bishops respond will tell a lot about their ability to listen to their people.

Michael B. --

I'm just wondering out loud about which sorts of powers the bishops and bishop conferences will have.  The German bishops so far have been the loudest in proclaiming their *right* to make certain decisions.  They claim, for instance, that they have the right/duty to decide who shall and shall not receive Communion.  But will the new Church structure allow that?  

It seems to me that Church history/tradition so far just hasn't been all that clear about which sorts of authority lie where. Certainly, in the last few hundred years, Rome has claimed to be an absolute monarchy.  But has the history of the Church confirmed that out? I suspect not.  Further, haven't the cardinals, by their election of Bergoglio, shown that they want to be rid of the absolute monarchy? (And God bless them!)  

The most basic problem is:  what sort of government should replace the absolute monarchy?  Surely, Peter has a special, unique function in the Church.  But what exactly is it?  And what are its limits?

I am curious to know where in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston the survey has been shared.  This is my home diocese and I have heard nothing locally.  There doesn't appear to be a link on the diocesan website or the websites of the co-cathedrals. 


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