Catholic News Service
Pope Francis visits a family in a Rio de Janiero slum.
Catholic News Service
Pope Francis visits a family in a Rio de Janiero slum.
Pope Francis wants families to thrive in the 21st century. That’s why he’s convened a Vatican gathering of bishops for this fall, with a larger decision-making synod set for 2015.

To prepare with broad input, the pope took the unprecedented step of surveying the world’s dioceses. Priests, parish staff, parishioners and organizations weighed in on nine questions about the challenges families face and their grasp of Catholic teaching. The input is summarized in a working document for the Oct. 5-19 synod.

The 85-page paper, called the instrumentum laboris, indicates that the bishops will retain the content of what the church says, but will discuss better ways to propose it. The overarching conviction is that church teaching is beneficial and healthful to families, even if it’s sometimes difficult to practice.

The document says the “primary task of the Church is to proclaim the beauty of the vocation to love which holds great potential for society and the Church.”
Respondents worldwide blamed ineffective education and a relativistic culture for the unenthused reception of church teaching. Modern people have trouble making permanent choices, survey-takers said.  

On the other hand, the document expresses a need for mercy when families have trouble assenting on matters like contraception or divorce and remarriage.
The draft committee said the church must “support her children on the path of reconciliation.”

“Pope Francis is saying, ‘Let’s help people in the concrete circumstances of their lives,’” says Father Matt Libra, pastor of St. Rose Parish in Northeast Portland.

Father Libra holds an advanced degree in marriage and family life. He was one of those in the Archdiocese of Portland to fill out a survey, keeping his parishioners in mind as he wrote.

On a tight Vatican timeline, Archbishop Alexander Sample encouraged all priests to offer their input and consult with their congregations. He also got answers from the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, a mostly lay advisory group. Some parishes in western Oregon held meetings to gather information and other parishes conducted surveys via the internet. Northwest Family Services and the marriage tribunal also gave comments.

At the end of last year, the archbishop received surveys from hundreds of western Oregon Catholics and prepared a 19-page report that went to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops where it was summarized along with answers from other U.S. dioceses. U.S. data was then sent to the Vatican, which in turn encapsulated the world’s replies.

The survey asked about  teachings on family, natural law, the pastoral care of families, evangelization, co-habitation, divorce and attempted remarriage, same-sex unions, openness to life among married couples, contraception and natural family planning.

“They are very helpful questions,” says Father Libra. “Because of them, there will be clarity of principles that the church articulates. It is going to bring us health and better understanding.”

Some people want changes in church teaching. But some parts of human life, like marriage, are designed by divine and natural law and the church has no authority to change them, Father Libra says.

“People are trying to follow the teachings of the church, but they don’t know what the teachings of the church are, or the arguments against church teaching are so emotional that it’s hard to say anything,” he explains.

On an issue like marriage among same-sex couples, the pastor often hears parishioners agonizing. Almost everyone seems to know a gay pair that is kind and good and heterosexual couples who are deeply troubled.

“They say, ‘You are asking me to say this is bad and that is good?’” Father Libra says.   

It’s human nature to oppose what we don’t understand, the priest says. He does think that families, if they get a good grasp of church teaching and its foundations, will see its logic and ultimate value, even if they aren’t yet ready to assent.

“A good number of episcopal conferences mention that, when the teaching of the Church is clearly communicated in its authentic, human and Christian beauty, it is enthusiastically received for the most part by the faithful,” the instrumentum laboris says.

Father Libra predicts a revival of St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body after the two synods.   

“Human love in the divine plan is what is going to make us happy, not drugs or bungee jumping,” the priest says, citing principles of Theology of the Body, a set of teachings put forward by St. John Paul. “What God has given us is so much deeper than a particular use at a particular time.”

In the end, what will emerge is a better understanding of the issues, says Father Libra. From the synod will come an apostolic exhortation with information from the gathering but ultimately shaped and signed by the pope.

Laypeople are getting more of a chance to discuss the survey questions. The Northwest Jesuits reworded the survey for common consumption and offered it to parishes as a centerpiece of reflection groups. Father Libra will use that version in his parish during September and October.   

Rose Fuller, executive director of Portland-based Northwest Family Services, also filled out the pope’s survey, based on decades of serving couples and families, including parenting classes and instruction in natural family planning.

“Many Catholics don’t know what’s there or they are very confused,” says Fuller. “We have a big job ahead. They need to know what the church teaches and we need to invite them into it.”

She takes a cue from Pope Francis, saying the church ought to teach in a way that is not threatening and is related to everyday life. She says it’s possible to do this without “watering down” the teaching.

“But it will be difficult,” Fuller says. “Culture is not pointed that way.”