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
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
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,"
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
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.