Last week, the Bishops’ Conference published a summary of responses to The Call, the Mission, the Journey. This is the questionnaire issued by the Bishops’ Conference in preparation for this year’s Family Synod. It is a remarkable document. The Bishops compiled response to the Synod on the Family Questionnaire
In December, the bishops chose to ask the laity just six questions, compared to the Vatican’s request for feedback on 46 multi-layered questions. And of these six, on face value it seemed that half concerned testifying about the gifts your marriage brought to you, and those around you. The omens for providing feedback on the far wider range of issues raised by the Vatican – as diverse as marriage preparation, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, the role of the laity, the challenges of modern life, working with partner organisations, social justice, and priestly formation were not good. That is why ACTA decided to commission its own survey, drawing far more closely from the Vatican’s source document. From the start, we agreed that this should complement rather than compete with what the bishops were doing.
And in June we published our survey findings –The Smell of the Sheep. To our immense surprise and relief, we received positive feedback from a number of bishops we sent the report to, and last week’s report from the Bishops’ Conference has also breathed new life into the meaning of consultation because of its sheer honesty and openness. The report has not tried to hide from criticism, including criticism of the choice of the six questions in the questionnaire itself! It would appear that many of the respondents wrote down what they wanted to say through (or even despite) the questions, and, rather than ignoring these as irrelevant, the report’s authors have faithfully reported them and categorised them for ease of reading. It would seem that from something ostensibly not very auspicious, some of the key issues have been drawn out, and that is excellent news for all Catholics.
In the report, ACTA is recognized as a Catholic contributory group within the process. Our survey numbers are counted among the 2,000 who took part in some shape or form in the consultation. This acknowledgement and endorsement is welcome and contrasts with several disappointing experiences in some parts of the country. The inclusion of statistics and quotes from ACTA’s The Smell of the Sheep report is also welcome in the Bishops’ Conference document. These are the signs that real dialogue can happen. Though tentatively, the Bishops’ Conference has been courageous enough to air a wider range of issues such as women and married priests, contraception, cohabitation and economic pressures; these then become areas for further legitimate debate, and, who knows, perhaps even a national pastoral council.
As I found when analysing responses to our own survey, the testimonies selected for publication are often moving, profound and extremely poignant. They cannot fail to strike a chord of encouragement, demonstrating genuine spirituality and holiness. You can sense the Holy Spirit gently flowing through these words. We owe the bishops a debt of gratitude for making them publically available.
At the risk of casting a shadow over what is good news, the fact is that this report still leaves us with some way to go before we can really celebrate a free and frank exchange of views or success at setting up renewed ways of taking the life of the Church forward. It is enormously frustrating that the language used to quantify what is being said is incredibly vague. There are one or two instances where we get fairly clear-cut quantifiers such as ‘The vast majority’, but in the main we get the tame ‘some’, ‘many’, ‘a few’ or ‘frequently mentioned’ prefacing remarks about key points. The report provides little in the way of assessing the extent to which the selected quotes are representative.
For example, The Call, the Mission, the Journey says ‘Some mention a lack of confidence in the clergy and some point to difficulties in pastoral practice and with family ministry,
including inadequate marriage preparation.’ In The Smell of the Sheep we record the findings that 77% felt that the clergy were not in touch, and that 95% agreed that the laity should (conditionally) be involved in providing marriage preparation classes, with 39% reporting that there was currently no lay involvement.
This is where the ACTA report comes into its own, and the bishops have had the good grace to acknowledge this. For me, the key finding in The Smell of the Sheep is not that 85% of Catholics disagree with the policy on artificial contraception, that there is a shift in views towards same-sex relationships, or even the 88% support for granting access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried. It is the quantifiable findings about what families find most and least useful in bringing them closer together. If we can find ways of recreating an intimate church with shared meals, days out, the support of friends and time for prayer then we have a chance of allowing the Lord the opportunity to work with families in contexts that they find helpful and reaffirming. To do that, we’ll need a broader concept of ministry, one that is to be discussed. But that is the point, isn’t it? In publishing this report, the bishops have invited the laity in a genuine way to begin to participate meaningfully. In ACTA we have asked for openness and now we’re getting it.
Andrew is a member of the ACTA Leadership team, and lead author of The Smell of the Sheep.