Catholics have been invited to share the experiences and challenges of modern family life, with their responses expected to address same-sex marriage, divorce and openness to having children.
Last month the Vatican called for submissions to help develop the Church’s pastoral response to the needs of the family ahead of the Extraordinary Synod on the family in October next year.
The preparatory document sent to bishops included 38 questions about how Church teaching is promoted, how well it is accepted and ways in which modern people and societies challenge the Catholic view of marriage and family. Numerous bishops then invited their flocks to respond to the questions.
The Extraordinary Synod underscores the vital importance of the family unit in the eyes of the church.
Questions range from “Is co-habitation ad experimentum a pastoral reality in your particular church?” to “What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types [same-sex] of union?”
NSW and ACT bishops have followed the lead of their English and Welsh counterparts by making the questions available online in the hope of reaching as many Catholics as possible.
In a letter to priests, the Archbishop of Sydney, George Cardinal Pell, said he welcomed the “rare and important occasion … to seek input by as many of the faithful as possible, on pastoral challenges facing the family”. The Extraordinary Synod would be a pastoral gathering, he said, and stressed that “Catholic moral teaching on basic issues such as sexuality, marriage and family will remain in place”.
Chris Meney, the director of the Life, Marriage and Family Centre for the Sydney archdiocese, quashed rumours that the synod would herald changes to fundamental Church doctrine on the family.
“Those who have made suggestions that changes in Church teaching are in the wind will be disappointed,” he said.
The synod, with its focus on pastoral care, was convoked because “a lot of people are slipping through the cracks”, said Dr Adam Cooper, senior lecturer at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne.
“There is a good recognition from the leadership in Rome that the world has moved on … and that new kinds of pastoral care are called for.”
Mr Meney said the decision to call the synod indicated “a significant consideration of the pastoral realities of family life” by the Church.
“The Church’s profound body of teaching on marriage and the family is grounded in the truth about the human person and how we are called to live with one another.”
He said there is no doubt that some people face substantially greater challenges in the ordinary course of their life than others.
“It will be a wonderful opportunity for ordinary Catholics to express their concerns and hopes in regard to the pastoral challenges confronting marriage and the family.”
Dr Cooper said the content of the questionnaire was necessarily broad so as to have universal appeal and relevance.
“It’s a questionnaire not specific to Western concerns. One question has to be able to address people in Africa, people in South America and Asia and Australia and northern Europe.”
By asking about Mass attendance and other figures, the Vatican was also seeking statistics not otherwise available in poorer Catholic communities, he said.
“They’re trying to update their own understanding of what the Church looks like out there in the field.”
The questionnaire was also designed to gauge information about alienated Catholics, subjects of pastoral care not expected to respond to the survey.
“Many of the targets for evangelisation are Catholics who have an estranged relationship with the Church, Catholics who have been hurt, Catholics who don’t understand the Church’s teaching or don’t like it or feel it conflicts with their situation.
“I think the Church is recognising that evangelisation is not simply to be directed to non-Christians or non-Catholics [but also to] Catholics who have drifted.
“There is a real concern expressed through the questions that these are people we want to make a concerted effort to care about, both in terms of pastoral care and evangelisation.
“The questions don’t give the impression of being directed to alienated Catholics … but the topics of the questions very much do touch on those people.”
In his letter to clergy, Cardinal Pell called on Australians to contribute “to a conversation the Holy Father has invited us to enter”.
Due by 6 December, responses would then be collated by the Life, Marriage and Family Centre.
The findings would be used “to maintain Gospel truths, strengthen family life, and reach out and help all people caught up in difficult situations”, Cardinal Pell said.
That Pope Francis has called an Extraordinary Synod in 2014 to be followed by a General Assembly in 2015 to seek working guidelines on pastoral care of the family indicates “the importance of the subject”, according to the preparatory document for the 2014 synod Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of the Evangelisation.
Never before has proclaiming the Gospel on the Family in this context been more urgent and necessary, it said.
The social and spiritual crisis, so evident in today’s world, is becoming a pastoral challenge in the Church’s evangelising mission concerning the family, the vital building-block of society and the ecclesial community.”
The consultation process is a “stage in a longer term consideration of the pastoral challenges which confront the family” which will culminate in the full synod of bishops in 2015, Mr Meney said.