We Are Church Intl.

Synod on the Family

The Synod Survey and How I Read It: A Voice from the Pew


As a practicing Roman Catholic, I do intend to give the Vatican the courtesy of answering their survey. But first I should like to share some reflections on the questionnaire.  I live in England.


To jump to these sections please begin by clicking on the Read More button.


Reflections on the questionnaire 


To whom is the questionnaire really addressed?


It is obvious, from the way in which most questions are formulated, that it is addressed almost exclusively to parish priests, bishops, other administrative clergy, diocese and parish record-keepers/statisticians, catechists and perhaps lay church group leaders. The focus is predominantly on how these leaders fashion and structure their “top-down” efforts on ‘family formation’ for the faithful.


There are no questions here that actually ask lay individuals directly about their own detailed practical experience of family life in the Christian context, and about how they are helped with it by their own pastor in their individual parish.


This is very frustrating to an involved layperson who truly wishes to take part and have one’s voice heard. After all, we are the ones with hands-on experience of the subject matter of the survey: marriage and family life. The survey purports to be about us, then omits, in effect, to ask for our authentic voice. When the results are eventually put before the Synod, will they represent predominantly the views of the bishops, priests and other Church functionaries rather than Church grassroots?


Questionnaire format

In its format, the questionnaire does not meet the requirements of any valid type of survey, either qualitative or quantitative. Most of the questions will require narrative answers of some considerable length, or even whole essays. These cannot be expected to yield themselves easily to any meaningful analysis or useful statistical breakdown. And the questions asking for ‘statistical’ figures seem to invite guesses and approximations. It is a mess.


It also begs the question whether the Vatican actually commands the adequate numbers of experts who would be needed to analyse and evaluate the presumed wealth of varied and complex replies which may be expected from a survey that is addressed to the world’s billion-plus faithful – all in time for the Synod?

It is hard to understand why the questionnaire was not presented in a simpler, typical, traditionally accepted multiple-choice format, with some clear ‘yes/no/don’t know’ answers required when appropriate.


In the case of my own diocese, the deadline has been set, quite unrealistically, for the end of November – just a fortnight after it was announced from the pulpit.  How can anyone expect that the average layperson to whom the survey is ostensibly addressed - by definition a busy family member - will be able to spare the time to read and unravel the meaning of all questions, peruse all the relevant documents, and then sit down to write the exhaustive answers required if the response is to be truly meaningful?


Take just this, for example: Q 2a) What place does the idea of the natural law have in the cultural areas of society: in institutions, education, academic circles and among the people at large? What anthropological ideas underlie the discussion on the natural basis of the family?


To first comprehend and then answer this, one would need sound training in philosophy, science, sociology, anthropology, history of culture, and goodness knows how many other disciplines. I can easily see an academic degree dissertation developing from the reply to this one single question.


In any case, how exactly is this question relevant in a survey whose stated purpose is to ask the faithful about their practical experience of living in a Christian family today?


 Questionnaire language, phrasing and style


This is really disastrous. Most of the language will be hard to understand by a huge proportion of respondents, even if they are native English speakers, never mind poorly educated and immigrant parish populations which often form a high percentage of the faithful in urban areas. This means that the language and style alone is more than likely to discourage and exclude a large percentage of the faithful from attempting to complete the questionnaire, even if they start off with the best will in the world.

Just the one following example has me rolling my eyes in disbelief:


Q 4f) Could a simplification of canonical practice in recognizing a declaration of nullity of the marriage bond provide a positive contribution to solving the problems of the persons involved? If yes, what form would it take?


The phrasing is awkward and convoluted; the formality of the language is off-putting, and the second part of the question is not even within the capacity of the respondent to answer unless they are a canon lawyer.


Some expressions in the survey are not comprehensible even to people with reasonable educational levels ("cohabitatio ad experimentum"!) and some are downright stigmatising and hurtful, such as singling out children of parents who do not live in “regularly constituted families”.


 Questionnaire content


This is a minefield of potential misunderstandings, open to subjective interpretations. Certain concepts are presented as if they were generally understood and agreed on, when they are anything but. The most glaring of these is 'natural law'. This is a vague and disputed term about which most scientists and philosophers, let alone theologians, cannot come to an agreement. If the questionnaire’s authors wish to use it (since it apparently forms a part of the Magisterium), it should at least be very clearly defined according to their understanding. Then we could all know what they are referring to. As it is, its meaning is so vague that it positively invites any number of arbitrary and wildly varying interpretations. If we do not all talk about the same thing, how can our answers then be counted as valid in any analysis of the survey?


Some other baffling examples which could certainly benefit from a definition:


  • “holistic idea of the couple and the Christian family”?
  • “family spirituality"?
  • ”family formation”?
  • “the natural basis of the family”?


Certain questions in the survey are clearly loaded. They presuppose that respondents agree a priori with the premise the question is based on. This can make them impossible to answer. For example, even a practicing Catholic who takes his or her faith seriously, bases its source on the Gospels and expresses it in the Creed, may have difficulty replying to such questions as, for example, 3b) and 6b)-c).


Question 3b contains an idea that I think is very questionable:


How successful have you been in proposing a manner of praying within the family which can withstand life’s complexities and today’s culture?


Apart from being another exercise in vagueness, this presupposes that prayer and, by definition, spirituality (within family or otherwise), ought to be somehow providing protection against life’s complexities and modern culture.


The not-so-subtle suggestion is that the Church is a fortress against the modern world, which is seen intrinsically as an encroaching menace, a challenge that we must “withstand”. Such siege mentality is not likely to resonate with today’s youth, nor indeed with most Christians who think for themselves, as adults should, and are indeed called to, not least by Paul (1 Corinthians 13:11).


The Church does itself a huge disservice when it demonizes ‘the life outside’.  Its very body, made up of the faithful, is immersed in that life and in the culture that goes with it. Ought we not to encourage prayer as a spiritual exercise reflecting, woven into, and accompanying our way through life’s complexities and today’s culture?


Consequently, it is impossible for me, and I imagine for many other thinking Christians, to answer the question. How can one assess one’s ‘success’ in doing something one disagrees with in the first place?


This would be quite apart from the difficulty in quantifying such success – are we being asked to devise our own scale of perceived achievement, say from ‘very successful’ to ‘failed’? With how many gradations in between? What kind of survey asks you to set your own parameters?


So if we wish to answer the question at all seriously, we’d have, again, to write a mini-treatise setting out the difficulties we have with it, as I have just done. How many respondents will bother at all? And it will be a shame if they don’t, because the question of prayer within the family is actually crucially important in terms of the subject of the survey and, ultimately, for the Synod itself.


Question 6c) and d) seems to assume that children of parents who are not in “regularly constituted families” (another convoluted phrase!) require some special treatment as regards their Christian education and access to sacraments. Does the hierarchy believe that these children are somehow different or morally deficient? If so, why? The implication seems to be that they are deemed to be at moral or spiritual risk because of their parents’ ‘irregular’ situation. I find this idea very disturbing indeed. I should think it rather dubious (if not outright sinister) in terms of ‘theology of sin’, and I imagine it would be quite disastrous in terms of pastoral care.


The reality, at least in the Western world, is that children from variously broken, fragmented, ‘rearranged’ and/or incomplete families are now in large proportions in very many societies.  To see these families as automatically sinful, and to set their ‘tainted’ children apart as the question suggests would be an extremely dangerous short step to stigmatising them among their peers and almost certainly alienating them, and their parents, from the Church - quite possibly for life.


As regards, in particular, the crucial question of access to sacraments, there have already been cases, even in this post-conciliar day and age, where children were refused baptism if the parents were unmarried. To take this type of practice to its logical conclusion, are we perhaps in danger of slipping back to the times where certain individuals, deemed to have died not in the state of grace, would be also refused burial in ‘consecrated ground’?


Finally, here are my responses to Questions 5a), 4a) b), and c), and Question 7f).  My apologies for the somewhat lighter tone at times – it is meant as antidote to the depressing conclusions I reached by the time I went through the whole document!


5a): Is there a law in your country recognizing civil unions for people of the same-sex and equating it in some way to marriage? – does the Vatican really not know? It keeps diplomatic representation in most countries! Just ask your nuncios. Or Google for answers.

4a) Is cohabitatio ad experimentum a pastoral reality in your particular Church?

4b) Do unions which are not recognized either religiously or civilly exist?

4c) Are separated couples and those divorced and remarried a pastoral reality in your particular Church?


Really, Vatican, if you do not know the answers to these questions, what planet are you on? Do you not read the papers? Watch television? Talk to real people? Do your own clergy not report back from the field?


Yes, ‘irregular’ unions do exist, would you believe, and not just in the corrupt West - even in Poland, my ultra-traditional faithful Catholic homeland, the resounding answer to a, b, and c is YES, people do live together, and even have children, outside holy matrimony and/or without a piece of paper from the civil registry. Imagine! Yes, even church-going Catholics do that, it has always been so, and everyone knows it. Yes, it is a pastoral reality – it is called real life.


7 f) How can an increase in births be promoted?


This is such an unintentionally hilarious question that I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt, as the enquiry was clearly formulated by a chastely celibate person who is in the dark about facts of life and natural reproduction. Studying birds and bees might give you an idea!


Far more seriously now, the concept of encouraging an increase in births is both questionable and disturbing on many levels. It will be seen as hugely irresponsible when considering such massive Third World population growth and demographic control problems as malnutrition, lack of access to medical care, poor health and sanitation, inadequate housing, refugee migrations (think Lampedusa!), starvation and epidemics in the world’s poorest and war-torn regions. In the First World we also have to consider such problems as impact on maternal health, stresses placed on family budgets (and consequently on family relationships!), and the burden on the environment. We are currently, and for years to come, in the grip of a dramatic collapse of European economy across the continent. The insouciance – for want of a better word - of the question of “how to promote increase in births” is, frankly, breath-taking.


Historically, it has sinister ideological overtones linking it to some of the world’s worst authoritarian regimes like Nazism in Germany and fascism in Mussolini’s Italy, both of whom encouraged large families for the worst of political reasons. Even here in the wealthy West concerns are expressed, and ominous voices are being heard, about our economies being no longer adequate to support ‘population overcrowding’, especially with regard to the influx of immigrants.  The whole matter is surely too complex, too sensitive and potentially damaging to the Church’s interests to be even included for discussion in this survey.  Bad move!  


To go back to what is really the heart of the matter: The most important question that I, in turn, would like to ask is whether this survey is intended to be taken seriously at all, since it is obvious at a glance that - in its present format and content - it cannot be expected to provide any valid insights into the reality of marriage and family life as experienced by the faithful.


How can it, then, be of any use to the Synod?


A Personal Post scriptum:


I originally planned to start this post by introducing myself as briefly as possible. As I started going over my story, I realised that it contained plenty of material directly relevant to what the Synod is seeking from us. This is why I have expanded the introduction:


I am a 65-year old professional woman, a practicing Catholic, a mother, divorced and remarried.


I married my first husband in a Catholic church wedding. He was a non-practicing Anglican, I was a non-practicing Catholic, brought up in Poland in a family of committed and at the same time progressive Christians.


While still married, we had a child, now 35, who was baptised a Catholic.


The marriage broke down a few months later, when my husband left us for someone else.


When expecting my child, I re-kindled and rebuilt my faith, largely due to sudden realisation of the astounding miracle and privilege of being ‘God’s co-worker’ in bringing a new human being into the world.


I brought up my child alone for the first four years. In all the difficulties I experienced during that time, whether emotional, practical day-to-day living, or faith and religion-related, we were greatly helped by the local Anglican vicar and his family (which included two adopted children), who at the time took me under their wing – without trying in any way to convert me to their branch of Christianity, but providing a shining example of faith and charity in action. I considered converting, but in the end remained a Catholic. We had no help nor much encouragement from the few Catholic priests who knew of my circumstances. One of those instructed me to “suffer numbly, like an ox”.


After four years I met someone with whom I fell in love.  I got divorced in civil court from my first husband, but did not seek an annulment.


I spent most of the next 30 years together with my second partner and my child, later welcoming my elderly widowed father into the family unit. My partner is a non-believer, although he was baptised in the Orthodox rite.


Throughout that time, I continued to practice and be active in our parish and try to develop and deepen my own life of prayer as well as my child’s faith.


My child went to a Catholic primary school, received first communion, was confirmed and became an altar server in our parish. My partner has respected and supported me in my child’s religious upbringing all the time.


When my father died, we buried him in a Catholic ceremony. We buried my partner’s mother in an Orthodox ceremony.


Last year, we got married in a civil registry wedding. Some months later we had a public church blessing of the marriage at our parish church. The very unusual circumstances of my first marriage made it possible without a formal annulment. Other circumstances had allowed me over the years to receive the sacrament of Communion. This was all with the knowledge and spiritual advice of my parish priests at the time.


My child stopped practicing in the final years of secondary school. In my own informed conscience, I can no longer see eye to eye with certain aspects of the Church Magisterium.


I remain active in several capacities in the life of the parish.




If I were preparing a Synod questionnaire designed to look at marriage and family life in a Christian context, I would be interested in exploring the kind of events, milestones, stumbling blocks and day-to-day difficulties and experiences that I am describing above. I imagine there is plenty of material here that the Synod participants could be looking into. These, and many similar – and also very different – experiences are being lived daily by the lay faithful. But the survey is not asking us about them at all. I think it is a lost opportunity. 


In preparation for the Synods of 2014 and 2015

From the John Wijngaards Catholic Research Centre


When Vatican II drew up its document “On Fostering the Nobility of Marriage and the Family” (Gaudium et Spes, Part II, chapter 1, para. 47-52) the bishops invited and listened to the voices of married persons and were attentive to their personal experiences. The result was a renewed, more realistic teaching. However, when the 1980 Synod of Bishops “On the Role of the Family” was prepared and took place, only carefully hand-picked members of the laity were invited. They offered no critical voice and ignored abundant evidence that the teaching of the church on marriage and sexuality was not serving the needs of the faithful. It resulted in the Synod not producing anything pastorally helpful.


We therefore urge the Catholic faithful and any other interested parties to share their experience and knowledge with the leaders of the church and to make their thoughts and their concerns known.


Some of the following issues appear to merit special attention.


Read More

On-Line Questionnaire - UK

From the website of the Conference of English and Welsh Bishops.


A major part of our preparation for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family in 2014 is to encourage you to complete a Vatican questionnaire.

You can actively participate by visiting our questionnaire on SurveyMonkey:


But first, please take some time to prepare...

We would really value your responses to this questionnaire on family life but there are a few points to note before taking part.

To complete the survey in full could take 30 minutes or more so we'd strongly recommend you download and use the pro-forma word document, located below and in the right corner of this page, to prepare your responses before submitting your answers online.

Synod Response Pro Forma 91.50 kB

  • The survey has 46 questions/opportunities to give your feedback.
  • A few of the early questions are short answer, tick box or selections from a drop-down, however most allow for a full text response.
  • Please fill in the initial information fields as fully as possible - particularly 'diocese/ordinariate' field if applicable.
  • Although we'd encourage a full response, it's not necessary to answer every question, please skip questions you feel unable to answer.
  • You can also simply send a completed pro-forma directly to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The current deadline for submissions is Saturday, 30 November 2013.