Francis our Pope decided to call an Assembly of Bishops to look carefully at the state of marriage in the Church and, with it, family life. He wanted to know how the faithful people of God thought and felt about all these issues. The plan was that the dioceses, worldwide, were all to engage their people in a survey to find out.
We know most of the findings of the Dublin survey through Archbishop Martin's comments. He remarked that Dublin bore a striking likeness to other European cities, especially when it came to their feedback on family planning, divorce and the issues that we know are related to these matters.
He noted too that many said, 'the Church did not appear practical when it came to people's day to day struggles. At best, such teaching was more an unrealistic ideal. In other words, there appeared to be a gap between the theory that was spoken about and the practice that followed on afterwards.'
“The Christian people in these surveys were seeking instead, an attitude of openness and compassion from their Church, an outreach and a welcome, with less judgement and more listening to the actual Christian experience of marriage, family life, relationships, and other sexual matters."
Many Christians had spoken of how “those on the margins were suffering and how they felt guilty, excluded, hurt, even despised ". These were the findings of the German and Swiss surveys that Dr Martin drew on and were both published. (If you like, you can consult the website atholicireland.net for more of Dr Martin's reflections.)
The Diocese of Scranton in Philadelphia, USA, like many American dioceses, followed up on the request of Pope Francis for a survey on marriage and family life. There are 120 parishes in this diocese and both people's personal responses and their group responses were collated. The age range came within the 15-89 year-olds. Males came in at 43%, females at 55%. Both married and unmarried responded. One response is worth recording. "I took this survey as an encouragement that the Church was interested in my opinion and insight ".
We know too that 300 people in the Armagh archdiocese gave their replies: 102 individuals, eight Parish Councils; four groups and twelve couples. But even with this scant insight, we can spot a common pattern in the European cities and in this one American diocese. They give a flavour of many responses that have been gathered and sifted for the upcoming Assembly of Bishops in Rome.
Many responses made the remark that quite a few questions in the Survey were in a language that was familiar to moral theologians but not known to the people answering the Survey. This is the same language that couples are confronted with by the Church, a language that the Church speaks even in marriage preparation but is foreign to many couples. It would be helpful to have a translator present at these times, especially when moral theology is being used. It is a code that only those in the know are able to crack.
Families are also summoned in the context of annulments and some find the questions off-putting. It would be fair to note that not all who are present have a degree at Third Level English and find the language used both arcane and intrusive. This may mean that the whole family of the person seeking annulment is required to delve into their family background in front of priests. The family always understood that their family lives were private and are shocked at the questions thrown at them.
Another feature that puzzles people is the Church's emphasis on the ‘act’ in sexual areas rather than on the ‘relationship’ that they prize first in their own lives. They would be happier to see ‘relationship’ placed first. Many Christians would prefer to see the Church always placing the loving relationship as the strong foundation and everything flowing from that.
Yes, some people see women and men as merely objects of desire and seem to be only interested in sexual activity without any grasp of a loving relationship. This needs to be treated in a special category in Church documents rather than placed in the context of the positive teaching on marriage.
It would be a rare pastoral priest who does not hear the life experiences of married people, the highs of fulfilment at a personal level, the remarkable commitment of parents to their children and the sharing of their lives round the table of the home and the table of the church.
It would also be a rare pastoral experience for a priest not to work with marriage breakdown, annulments, violence in the home and a host of other experiences that form a daily diet in his life. The experience is there but it is not often funnelled upwards to the hearts and minds of the higher Church authorities. The request of Francis for a worldwide Survey will enable the Assembly of Bishops to hear the voice of Christians.
Alan Mowbray SJ