Last month, the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops sent out a preparatory document for next year's Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization. What has gotten this so much attention is the request that the dioceses "share it immediately and as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received regarding the themes and responses to the questionnaire, as well as any helpful statistics, for the preparation of the Instrumentum laboris."
What precise form this consultation may take in the United States remains yet to be seen. In the U.K., the bishops of England and Wales have actually set up a website for anyone to comment who belongs to a local diocese or ordinariate. I'm not personally familiar with how British Bishops conduct consultations. but I'm guessing that creating a website is a relatively novel approach. I went online yesterday just to look at it, and it does seem easy to navigate. How many responses it gets, what their quality will be, and how representative they actually are - all, of course, remain to be seen.
The questionnaire itself is quite interesting. The introduction situates the Church's mission to preach the Gospel to all in the context of contemporary pastoral challenges concerning the family, which it calls "the vital building-block of society and the ecclesial community." The document then goes on to pose a series of questions on how widely and well the teachings of Scripture and the Church's magisterium are known, natural law, the pastoral care of families both before and after marriage, cohabitation, the pastoral care of the separated and divorced, same-sex unions, the religious education of children in irregular marriages, and contraception and family planning.
Needless to say, none of these questions ask anyone's opinion of the validity - i.e., the truth - of magisterial teaching. But the document does ask important questions about what people really know about the Church's teachings, how well those teachings are actually understood, whether they are followed or not, and how local churches are responding to the pastoral challenge of ministering to people in these varied and complicated situations.
The usefulness of such data will depend in part on how it is collected, who is asked, and who responds. There is always the intensity factor. Some people are intensely ideologically committed one way or the other on certain issues, and their responses can skew a survey's result. How representative are such intense reactions? On the other hand, if there are many who do not feel intensely one way or the other, may that also be a symptom of a serious problem?
Underlying all this is the important reality that our culture has changed radically - and in a relatively short period of time. (I am old enough to remember when divorce, for example, was still widely frowned upon. It was legal, but in my home state - New York - it was possible only for very serious grounds. And it was taken for granted that a divorced man could never be elected President. All those things have changed dramatically in the space of my lifetime!) Of course, the Church is always challenged to proclaim the Gospel whether it is convenient or inconvenient (2 Timothy 4:2). At the same time, how the Church's teachings are actually received and lived is perennially a challenge for how the Church ministers effectively to people who, in fact, may be found to be all over the place.