By Barb Arland-Fye
Bishop Martin Amos, commenting about a survey of diocesan Catholics on pastoral challenges of the family, noted a “disconnect between the way our culture thinks and the way the Church has and does present and communicate itself. The Second Vatican Council called us to engage the culture — to be open to what we can learn from it as well as proclaiming what we have to offer. We need to listen better to our society and we need to proclaim better in terms that can be heard.”
The survey, conducted from mid-November to Dec. 1, was in response to a request from the Vatican, which seeks insight on marriage and family issues from bishops around the world for an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in October 2014 and a follow-up synod in 2015.
Catholics from at least 22 cities in and outside of the Diocese of Davenport participated in the survey, posted online and in The Catholic Messenger newspaper. Bishop Amos said that a few people from out of state who didn’t have access to a survey in their dioceses chose to complete the Davenport Diocese’s survey. All together, respondents represented less than 1 percent of the 95,727 Catholics in the diocese, but Bishop Amos attributes the low response rate to the Vatican survey’s tight deadline and complicated questions. “Once you got past the first couple of questions, it was very daunting.”
The questions, initially intended for bishops to answer, were extended to a wider audience of Catholics. While the Vatican provided a too-short deadline and questions that were not “user friendly for parishioners,” Bishop Amos said, “it was profitable to know what people are thinking.”
The nine multi-part questions addressed topics such as familiarity with Church teaching, theological documents and natural law; how well families transmit the faith; couples’ understanding of the sacrament of marriage; the impact of separation and divorce on participation in the sacraments; cohabitation; same-sex unions; contraception and natural family planning.
Bishop Amos selected nine diocesan staffers to analyze the submitted responses based on each one’s area of expertise. Deacon Frank Agnoli, Father Paul Appel, Father Corey Close, Terri Doran, IlaMae Hanisch, Father Thom Hennen, Deacon David Montgomery, Kay Temple and Mary Wieser formulated answers to the specific questions utilizing their knowledge, experience and the submitted responses. The bishop edited the answers into a 12-page report submitted at the end of December to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which will send all U.S. bishops’ reports to the Vatican in preparation for the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in October. The synod’s theme is “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” Bishop Amos’ report is available here.
Some respondents’ answers were insightful, while some others indicated a lack of familiarity with Church teaching. Still others used the survey to voice objections to Church teachings or to address concerns about society and marriage and sexuality issues. Those opinions were taken seriously, even if they didn’t help in formulating answers to the specific questions, Bishop Amos said.
“Many Catholics in the Diocese of Davenport are not familiar with the Church documents related to the Church’s teaching on the value of the family,” the bishop said in his report. “Most learn about these teachings from homilies given on the subject and from other sources such as marriage preparation and baptism preparation programs, from church and public media, and from their family of origin.”
Putting Church teaching into practice presents another obstacle. “Many teachings are not fully accepted because they appear contradictory to their personal experiences and/or are very painful for families,” the bishop observed. “Unfortunately, this has led to families leaving the Catholic Church. Issues of concern are: contraception use, divorce, remarriage without annulment, civil marriage preferred rather than sacramental marriage, increase in de facto unions, increase in same-sex unions, homosexuality.” The bishop identified other issues that families face, such as spousal abuse, addictions, societal trends that diminish the lifelong commitment in marriage and lack of and cost of professional therapy.
In a question focused on the place of natural law in society, Bishop Amos noted: “… Most people do not understand or recognize natural law. Even those who firmly agree with the idea of natural law state that it has been a long time since they heard about it from the pulpit, classroom, or in everyday discourse … There is a need to educate believers about natural law and its consequences for human life.”
In a related question, concerning natural law and marriage, the bishop observed that “The gender of the person is not as important to some as their capability to form a loving relationship with another. Current political movements are making same-sex unions widely accepted across the nation, meaning that the ‘typical’ understanding of a family among all peoples is changing. Modern developments in science have challenged the classical understanding of the human person. As a result, some feel that Church teaching is out of step with the current understanding of genetics, psychology, and other areas of human development.”
To questions about cohabitation, Bishop Amos responded that it “seems to be particularly common among young people, but is not limited to that age bracket. Based on the information contained in premarital investigations processed by the Davenport (Diocese) Tribunal, I would approximate that a significant majority of couples preparing for marriage cohabitate — perhaps even 85 percent or more.”
Responding to a question about separated couples and those divorced and remarried, Bishop Amos said that a few pastoral programs reach out to them, but “sadly this is an area of great need in the Church today. There still exists the notion of civil divorce as a ‘sin,’ and many divorced persons do not feel ‘welcome’ in the Church.”
In another question, regarding the annulment process, Bishop Amos said: “… The strongest sentiment is the opinion that a person divorced and remarried should be allowed to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, celebrate the marriage in the Catholic Church and then return to a full practice of the sacramental life in the Church. A form similar to that practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Churches.”
Addressing a question about attitudes concerning civil unions and same-sex marriages, Bishop Amos observed: “… Many of the laity within and outside of the Church view same sex marriage as a civil right. This has caused some confusion and opposition against the Church. …”
Bishop Amos said he found no surprises in the survey responses, but rather confirmation of what Catholics are thinking:
“Certainly there are those who have concerns and hoped-for change in the Church’s teaching and practice — remarriage after a divorce without annulment, married priesthood, full participation of women in the Church, family planning, and homosexual relationships.
“Some disciplines are not able to be changed, some might be adjustable, and others could be changed. There are also those who are concerned that the faith be passed on faithfully. Without abandoning the faith handed on to us we need to re-examine what is tradition with a “T” and what is tradition with a “t” and how we communicate both in a language that can be heard.”
Demographics of respondents
Most of the respondents who provided demographic information identified themselves as lay people (120), while eight respondents identified themselves as priests, six as deacons and five as professed religious. Among the lay people, some also identified themselves as catechists, public/private school teachers or both catechists and school teachers. Eight respondents who identified an age category were 25-34 years old; 14 were 35-44; 30 were 45-54; 41 were 55-64; 35 were 65-74; and one person was over 84. Concerning marital status, 91 respondents identified themselves as married; 18 as single, never married; 15 as divorced and married; 10 as widowed; and seven as divorced.