Andrew and Diana Russell about to present the report to the Bishops' Conference  copyright: Sophie Stanes


ACTA’s contribution to the preparation for the Family Synod. A series of studies have documented a gap which has opened up between the teaching of the Catholic authorities on sexual and family ethics and the opinion and practice of many of the faithful. This is one of the challenges facing the Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome in October to discuss how best to strengthen and support modern family life.

In preparation for this Synod, Pope Francis has again authorised a wide-ranging Vatican questionnaire covering all aspects of family and sexual life and inviting local Churches to report back. The Catholic movement of laity and clergy ACTA (A Call To Action), which works to promote dialogue, welcomed the Vatican initiative. ACTA’s Chair, Eileen Fitzpatrick, says: “Pope Francis has given local Churches a wonderful opportunity to consult and report back their findings to the Synod, so that delegates can focus on how best to support families.”

In response to the Vatican request, the bishops of England and Wales issued six questions of their own in December last year for the laity to answer. These focused on how marriage and family life enrich individuals and society. ACTA wanted to supplement this with research dealing with the more specific issues raised in the Vatican questionnaire and therefore commissioned its own survey.

A full report has been presented to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and will shortly be sent to all the bishops.

The survey sample is small (342 responses), but another survey undertaken separately among parishioners in the Birmingham diocese (376 responses) came up with very similar results. (For details see Appendix 2 of the ACTA survey report.) Both sets of results are consistent with much larger independent YouGov survey results. All this underlines the scale of the challenge facing the Synod of Bishops this October.

A commentary and report on the ACTA survey by its lead author, Andrew Hornsby-Smith, a member of ACTA’s leadership team, follows, and then the report itself.

Eileen Fitzpatrick

ACTA Chair

Tel 01943 604451

(m) 07885 586198

John Wilkins


Tel 020 7834 6275

(m) 07986 087991



ACTA survey wants a kinder, more open Church and an end to rule-book driven policies on the family and sex 

The results of a 3-month study have been delivered to the Bishops’ Conference office in London, and will be sent to each bishop, as part of feedback from the Catholic movement ACTA (‘A Call To Action’) in preparation for the Synod of Bishops to be held in Rome in October this year. The synod’s task is to review how the Church relates to families in the modern world.

The ACTA study found that there was strong support for lifelong marriage. But most respondents do not accept the Church’s rules on contraception, divorce and remarriage, or cohabiting. They call for a more welcoming, family-friendly Church, less clerical and more open to lay involvement.

These findings are backed by the survey results of 342 Catholics from all the dioceses in England and Wales. This is a small sample, and the respondents were mainly white and older Catholics. But we consider their views to be informed and valuable. Each respondent was committed enough to spend at least an hour completing the detailed questionnaire. Ten per cent who did this were priests or religious. The findings are consistent with other survey results such as a 2013 YouGov survey, conducted by Lancaster University, which used a larger random sample, and the 2004 report for the Bishops’ Conference, Not Easy But Full of Meaning. As already noted in the introduction, they are also consistent with a separate survey initiated by parishioners in Birmingham diocese which drew 376 responses.

The main findings were:

1) There is a need for development in church policies

a) 85% of respondents rejected the Church’s ban on contraception. They saw it as a major obstacle that has caused a great deal of hurt and anger.

b) 88% rejected the Church’s policy of refusing access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried.

c) A small majority (55%) disagreed with the Church’s doctrine that same-sex marriage should be opposed. A surprisingly large 84% agreed with the statement that ‘Love is love, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual. We could learn a lot from homosexual couples.’

2) The institutional Church should be more welcoming, listen harder and be more humble

a) An overwhelming number (94%) agreed that the Church needed to be more welcoming to those in ‘irregular’ relationships (e.g., single parents, the divorced and remarried, and same-sex couples).

b) 93% felt the Church should be more tolerant of couples who cohabit before marriage.

c) Sermons about family life were singled out as not being very helpful (recorded by 174 respondents).

3) There needs to be a step change in the attitude of many clergy towards lay participation

a) 77% felt that the clergy were not sufficiently in touch with the laity. Many mentioned that they favoured abolishing the celibacy rule for priests.

b) Too often, the laity are not participating when they have skills to offer. For example, 95% support the idea that married couples should or should in some circumstances be involved in marriage preparation courses, but 39% of respondents reported there was no lay participation at all, with a further 26% not sure whether there was or not, and 13% who said there was little lay involvement.

c) There were some excellent examples of good services being offered by parishes (for instance bereavement care, Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust, parent and toddler groups, abortion and miscarriage counselling) but these were relatively few and far between. Of only 220 responses to this question, 42% said there was no lay involvement, or didn’t know.

4) The Church needs to take more account of the realities of modern family life

a) The most useful sources of family support came through shared meals (215 responses selected this choice), support from families and friends (190) and days out or holidays spent together (132). Family groups and prayer groups also scored highly (73), followed by prayer at home (59). With fast declining numbers of male celibate priests, new ways of supporting families on their faith journey need to be devised.

b) There are many obstacles that hinder families from taking part in church activities. Work patterns, with both partners working, were cited by 85 respondents, lack of time and the pace of life (83), and other family commitments (56). The lack of support from non-Catholic partners (30) and the diversions of social media, TV and the internet (20) were also significant.

c) The church needs to find its voice in working with other partners to take on issues of social justice such as work-life balance, lack of childcare, respite care and poverty. Only a minority of respondents (27%) offered suggestions about how to work with partner organisations to tackle these challenges.


Andrew Hornsby-Smith, lead author of the report, adds: ‘These issues are strangling the future of the Church at a time when the clergy is ageing and numbers are falling. There are some real opportunities, but the church leadership needs to modernise its policies, become more family friendly, and encourage lay involvement.’

Acknowledging that the study is small, ACTA calls for follow-up research, and presents its findings to, and prays for the success of, the Family Synod .

Editorial notes and contact details

Further details about ACTA can be found on the website:

ACTA mission statement

‘We are a group of Catholics, some of whom are ordained brought together by our love of Christ’s church and our anxiety about its future. Still inspired by the Second Vatican Council we want to contribute fully to the life of the church so that we may be a more effective sign of the Kingdom of God. To do this, we believe that an atmosphere of openness and dialogue both with each other and with our bishops needs developing. We desire to help create a climate of trust and respect for all, where this dialogue may be fostered.’

The Rome Synod on the family

There are two delegates from England and Wales attending October’s synod, the second of two meetings to consider how the Church can work better with families in today’s world. They are Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Bishop Peter Doyle. The Vatican sent out a programmatic document (lineamenta, or outlines) for detailed feedback on a range of issues. The ACTA study is based on the issues raised in the lineamenta, and the full report is available from the ACTA website.

Contact details

Andrew Hornsby-Smith (ACTA leadership team and lead author)

Mobile: 07917 845184

Jean Riordan (Contributor and ACTA Co-ordinator for Birmingham)

Tel. 0121 414 0466


Catholic opinion in England & Wales in preparation for the Synod on the Family, October 2015

A report for the Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales on behalf of the A Call To Action Leadership team: June 2015

The smell of the sheep ACTA feedback 30 6 15

Appendix 1        Appendix 2       Appendix 3

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