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Will the answers make a difference?

22 November 2013

Paul Vallely investigates the new RC questionnaire

HERE IS a measure of how far things have changed. In 1980, some 2000 Roman Catholic lay people, priests, and bishops gathered for a National Pastoral Congress in Liverpool. It offered a critique of Church policy on contraception, communion for remarried Catholics, married priests, and women's ordination. When Cardinal Basil Hume presented its findings to Blessed John Paul II, the pontiff very publicly rejected them.

Only three decades later - not a long time for an institution which famously thinks in centuries - a new pope takes a very different attitude. Pope Francis, who says he wants to move away from a "Vatican-centric" approach to decision-making, has sent out a questionnaire to elicit the views of ordinary Catholics on the very same issues, plus gay marriage and adoption. A synod on the family will consider the results in October 2014.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales has gone one step further, and put the questionnaire online, passing on the Pope's request that lay Catholics should say "openly and with all sincerity, what they really think". The Secretary-General of the Synod of Bishops, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, has said: "We don't just want the bishops sitting around a table and drawing up a report."

If the questionnaire is unprecedented, however, the questions - which the English bishops concede are "numerous and imperfectly phrased" - are loaded with presuppositions that a lawyer would describe as leading questions, such as: "What are the cultural factors which hinder the full reception of the Church's teaching on the family?"

Not all questions need be answered, we are told. And there is clear scope to point out problems: clerical teaching lacks an understanding of the complex reality of marriage as a relationship which changes profoundly throughout a couple's life together. The Church's anthropology of family largely neglects childless couples, single parents, and children who need the Church to offer human warmth rather than counsels of perfection. And clerics need to understand that Rome's linguistic genuflections to an inclusive attitude to gay people, which mask a thinly veiled psychology of distaste and hostility, appear to others to be at odds with gospel values of love, justice, and inclusion.

Will saying this make any difference? The synod's Relator-General, Cardinal Peter Erdo, told reporters that responses to the questionnaire would not prompt a change in the Church's Magisterium. "We don't want to reopen a discussion on Catholic doctrine, but look at all situations based on a pastoral approach," he said.

But the synod is to include a "large number of women" and lay men as experts and observers. Another of its officials, Archbishop Bruno Forte, has said: "We must take a risk." Church teachings, he noted, can "develop" over time. And the Pope himself, in his press conference on the plane back from Rio, said on the subject: "I think this is the moment for mercy," and cited the different praxis of the Orthodox Church on the issue.

Precedent suggests that there are risks in raising expectations. When Blessed John XXIII in 1963 created a commission to study birth-control, the world assumed that a change in church teaching was imminent. Instead, Pope Paul VI affirmed the traditional ban in Humanae Vitae, in what was perhaps the single greatest blow to the credibility and authority of the Church in living memory. But the winds of change seem to be blowing through the Vatican.

The faithful have until 30 November to fill in their responses at www.catholic-ew.org.uk, under Family Questionnaire.

Paul Vallely's biography, Pope Francis - Untying the knots, is published by Bloomsbury.

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