In yet another indication of a changing Catholic Church, the Vatican is asking members of the laity their views on marriage and family lifeand a whole lot more.
News of Pope Francis' wish to hear from the faithful on a variety of topicsincluding same-sex marriage, contraception, cohabitation, divorce and remarriage broke recently in a recent story in the National Catholic Reporter ( NCR ).
From coast to coast, reaction from LGBTs among the faithful is uniformly positive, but with concerns, even as some bishops continue to sharply criticizes continuing advances of marriage equality in New Jersey, Hawaii, and Illinois.
"First of all I think it is a good thing the Vatican is trying to gather information from the whole Church on some of the hot button issues that is tearing the Church apart," emailed Joe Murray of Chicago's Rainbow Sash Movement.
"This is the first time in my life time I have seen such a survey conducted. I see it as another step in beginning the journey of reform in the church. The survey impressed me the most because it appeared to be going over the heads of the local bishops and going directly to God's people.
"I am hoping the Pope will use the results of this survey as a reason to call for Vatican III Council of the World Wide Church. Such a Council would be able to review our doctrinal beliefs in light of new knowledge and lived experience of the Catholic Faithful."
Washington, D.C., resident Phil Atteya former executive director of Catholics for Equalityagrees.
"This survey says, 'This is a different church. This is your church,'" he said.
"And that's something Catholics in the pewsand, more importantly, those who've left the pewshave been longing for," he added.
Local Catholic gay-rights activist Rick Garcia offered his assessment.
"Pope Francis' desire to hear from the voices of the faithful is breath of fresh air in our Church which has been stagnating with old, out of touch, self-important bishops," said Garcia in an email.
"Our Holy Father really wants to know the sensus fideliumthe sense of the faithful. That can only bring us to a more pastoral and Gospel-centered response to a variety of issues," Garcia said, continuing, "I come into contact with beaten battered and bruised Catholics all the time. Many have been very hurt by the Church. Many of these same Catholics have said to me how much they love this pope. 'He seems to understand and he doesn't hate us' a 72-year-old gay man said to me just yesterday."
"What is disturbing is that while the pope wants input the American Catholic bishops are trying to circumvent thatno public hearings, a web site that is not navigable," Garcia said. "I am sure that this pontiff is giving bishops across the globe great agita."
Bishops continue anti-gay marriage campaign
Even before Hawaii lawmakers and governor approved same-sex marriage, the local Catholic bishop in Honolulu warned in a letter to the faithful that gay marriage would open the door to incest and polygamy and cause poverty and juvenile suicides.
On the same day Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation making same-sex marriages legal in Illinois, the Catholic bishop of Springfield offered prayers of exorcism in Latin during a worship service in opposition to the law.
And San Francisco's Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, at a recent meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops ( USCCB ) Nov. 11, continued to denounce equal-marriage rights.
"By advancing redefinition, the decisions harmed marriage and harmed our society," Cordileone told the annual gathering of prelates, going on to say that say court decisions [and legislative actions] have produced "negative effects almost immediately," according to a LifeSiteNews.com report, posted on the archdiocesan website.
Such U.S. bishops' anti-gay marriage rhetoric remains out of step with Pope Francis' call to down play contentious social issues and refocus church concerns on human suffering and poverty, emphasizing compassion.
Furthermore, surveying the laity signals yet another move away from culture-war combat toward collaboration through consultation with the faithful at the same time divisive social issues often present very real pastoral challenges and opportunities.
"I like the idea of consulting the faithful," said Jesuit priest, the Reverend Thomas J. Reese, a policy analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.
"It's always good for the clergy to listen to the people before they do things," he added over the telephone.
"All you have to do is look at public opinion polls in the United States and predict what the response is going to be," said Reese. "Most Catholics on gay marriage have no problem with it.
"On the other hand, there are people who have a problems with [gay marriage]. You're going to get more responses from the activists opposed to it than the normal Catholic laity."
"But the other part," Reese went on to say, "Take gay marriage aside, what's the pastoral response," given same-sex marriage is a "reality pastorally to couples and their children."
That's a "discussion" needed the Catholic Church, he said, referring to cases whereupon a clergy member learns of gay parents with school-aged children and then refuses to let them attend parochial schools.
In one sense, Reese said, the handwriting is on the wall. "There is this tsunami of young people coming," he explained. "They just don't get the fight over gay marriage." For the bishops, he said, they "have already lost" and are going to have to "adapt."
Based at Santa Clara University in California until the end of this year, Reese is the author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.
Survey's origin in Rome
As NCR reported, the secretary general of the Vatican's Synod of Bishops, Archbishop Lorenzo Bladisseri, on Oct. 18, asked various conferences globally to distribute a questionnaire to "deaneries and parishes" to solicit input from "local sources."
One purpose of the survey is to prepare church leaders for a Vatican-led synod set for Oct. 5-19, 2014. Its theme is "Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization."
At first it was not clear how the US Catholic bishops would handle the request for lay input. An initial NCR report suggested that US bishops would provide their own observations, but a subsequent story said the US bishops would follow a "usual process" in soliciting lay input.
Already, some U.S. dioceses have posted links to a survey on their Website, including Iowa where three of the state's four dioceses have posted the entire Vatican synod survey online.
In Baltimore, Md., Archbishop William E. Lori has provided a direct online link to the survey, seeking input from parishioners.
Apparently, Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of the Boston Archdiocese is limiting official survey responses to pastors, church officers, and parish council members:
"Bishop Robert Deeley, the Vicar General for the archdiocese, has sent the preparatory document and questionnaire to pastors for them to discuss with their Parish Pastoral Councils and parish leadership, after which they will collected by mid-December," reads a an archdiocesan Facebook posting. "If you have any questions about this process, please check with your pastor or ask us here, and we will do our best to answer them."
When asked for clarification of the archdiocesan approach to the survey, Terry Donilon, archdiocesan secretary of communications, said via email, "The cardinal has shown it to various councils for input It will be viewed by the presbyteral council. The Archdiocese very much supports the initiative and will of course comply. Dioceses are and will approach it differently but all will get to the same end game, which is to fulfill the wishes of the Vatican for the good of the universal church. No one is looking to control this process but more follow a process of consultation.
"In addition, in the Vicar General's letter he asks pastors to bring it to their parish councils and parish leadership. In essence to bring it to the parishthe people. Dioceses may approach it in different manners. No one way will be perfect. I believe this is a sound, thoughtful and reasonable approach."
O'Malley is one of a handful of cardinal consultants to the pope.
Closer to home, while the Chicago archdiocese has posted the survey online and invited interested Catholics to participate, respondents must send in a written copy of the questionnaire through the US mail, with a deadline of Dec. 16. Anyone who responds must also give a name, address, and identification by parish, along with a signature. ( Respondents can email their survey answers to email@example.com . )
Across the Atlantic Ocean, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales is seeking countrywide consultation. The conference has invited every diocese, parish, Catholic organization, and individual Catholic to give their input to conference and synod by responding to the nine sets of topics, spelled out in 39 questions.
LGBTs in ministry see opportunities
Meanwhile, U.S. Catholics in ministry with LGBTs, their families and friends were pleased with yet another positive step forward under Pope Francis' leadership.
"It is important that lay Catholics take part in this consultation process," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which he added, "has been calling for such a process for decades. Now that we have a pope who is willing to listen, it is imperative that Catholics participate by offering their opinions. Who knows more about marriage and family life than lay Catholics who are living out these realities in light of their faith day in and day out?"
New Ways Ministry, along with a dozen progressive Catholic-reform-minded organizations, including DignityUSA, has made the survey accessible on line at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/SynodOnFamilyUS.
Already, "There has been a tremendous response," said Marianne Duddy-Burke, DignityUSA's executive director, who also noted a Spanish-language version is available.
"It's a pretty astonishing thing to get a document from the Vatican," she said in a telephone interview, "that asks how many couples in your parish are cohabitating, without civil or religious recognition for their relationships; to what extent do you think people are following church teaching on birth control; what are the pastoral needs of those divorced and remarried; and do same-sex parents ask for pastoral services for their children."
Overall, "There is a real grounding in reality and a sense of humility and not a place of knowing every thing," Duddy-Burke said, referring to the questionnaire, which is 18 pages and includes 49 questions.
Respondents may answer all questions, but are not required to answer all of them. Questions 29-37 pertain to marriage equality, same-sex couples, and their children. The deadline is Dec. 15.
Duddy-Burke said once the results have been compiled, they will be sent to Boston's O'Malley, a consultant to Pope Francis; the Apostolic Nuncio, Bishop Carlo Maria Vigano; Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the newly elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops ( USCCB ), and Bladisseri, the upcoming Vatican synod's secretary general.
And while nobody expects the pope to change church doctrine, dogma, or policy, concerns remain.
"I am not all that hopeful that something will come out of the synod," said Father Reese, referring to the October 2014 pastoral challenge synod. "Remember, this is not just about responses from the United States" but also "Latin America and Africa."
In Africa, he noted, government officials and evangelical religious activists "are talking about making [homosexuality] illegal and a crime, arresting people, and executing them."
New Ways Ministry's DeBernardo voiced concern s about the USCCB's lack of encouragement to distribute questions to local churches. That, he said, "Is an indicator the U.S. hierarchy is unwilling to ask the laity their opinion."
"I hope the hierarchy will recognize," said DeBernardo, "that many faithful Catholics have strong disagreements with church teaching about marriage, family, gender, and sexuality."
"I hope, too," he added, "that the hierarchy will realize the laity's disagreements are inspired by their core Catholic faith and values, not by influences from secular society."
Asked about the LGBT-specific questions DeBernardo replied, "Less emphasis on the question of same-gender unions" and "more emphasis on the pastoral responses that local churches are making to LGBT people generally."
"The biggest church problem around LGBT issues is not the expansion of marriage equality," he added.
Rather, "The biggest church problem is homophobia, particularly among many of the hierarchy and other pastoral leaders, which prevents good outreach from happening," DeBernardo said. "A good question about the extent of homophobia and how to combat it would have helped."
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