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More on the Synod Questionnaire

19 May, 2015 0 Comments

I don’t really think that there are Vatican officials who get together over an espresso and say to one another “Let’s come up with a totally obscure document, and a questionnaire full of incomprehensible purple sentimentality, to discourage ordinary people from filling it out, and ensure that any answers we do get will be impossible to analyse, so that we can control the agenda. Mwahaha”. But I do think there’s an agenda here, which is to subvert the church’s traditional teaching on marriage.

by Lyle Dunne

After pleading with you all to complete the Synod questionnaire – thanks, to anyone who did; you deserve years off Purgatory – I completed it myself; there’s a copy below.

Before doing so, however, I began to have grave doubts (even graver than the ones I previously expressed) about the whole exercise.

Was it in fact an attempt to stifle public comment, or failing that, turn it into an incomprehensible welter of verbiage? Was it the result of a misunderstanding, whereby a document sent out to bishops as a basis for consultation was cut-and-pasted into an unanswerable questionnaire?

There certainly seems to have been a bit of the latter going on. As Patrick Kenny argues in the National Catholic Register, “the questions themselves were not designed for ordinary laypeople”.

(In fact many seem to be impossible for anyone to answer, as I think examples below show.)

He goes on to explain how this arose:

The idea of surveying laypeople seems to have arisen from a letter by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the synod, asking that the entire document be distributed to deaneries and parishes so that feedback could be gathered from local sources. Somehow or other, this normal consultation process transformed into a rather haphazard series of diocesan “opinion polls” accompanied by potentially unreliable statistical analysis.

(Here he’s speaking of the first Synod document and questionnaire; it seems the second is a perpetuation of the same error.)

I struggled through the version on the website of the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese. It’s since become clear that numerous Dioceses around the world have produced their own versions, based on the “Questions Aimed at a Response to and an In-Depth Examination of the Relatio Synodi” at the end of the Lineamenta Synod Document sent out by the Vatican.

(See for example the post on the Dallas-area Catholic blog, Take the endless, painful, and frustrating survey for the 2015 Synod, which makes the point that our laboriously-drafted responses may not go anywhere.)

I was initially sceptical of the claim in my Diocesan Newspaper that

… this year the Australian Bishops have re-organised and simplified the Vatican’s 46 questions into 30 clear and concise questions, in an attempt to make them more user-friendly.

Rather than refer to Papal documents, the questions are more straightforward.

[My emphasis.]

But then I looked at the original.

Holy Toledo!

The Australian Bishops’ version is certainly not “clear and concise” – but the Vatican original is a great deal worse.

Not possible, you say? Well cop this:

Looking at Jesus and the Divine Pedagogy in the History of Salvation (ns. 12 – 14)

Accepting the invitation of Pope Francis, the Church looks to Christ in his enduring truth and inexhaustible newness, which also sheds light on the family. “Christ is the ‘eternal Gospel’ (Rev 14:6); he ‘is the same yesterday and today and forever’ (Heb 13:8), yet his riches and beauty are inexhaustible. He is for ever young and a constant source of newness” (Gaudium Evangelii, 11).

7. A fixed gaze on Christ opens up new possibilities. “Indeed, every time we return to the source of the Christian experience, new paths and undreamed of possibilities open up” (n. 12). How is the teaching from Sacred Scripture utilized in pastoral activity on behalf of families. To what extent does “fixing our gaze on Christ” nourish a pastoral care of the family which is courageous and faithful?

(Incidentally, I suspect some people will be frowning a little at this point: is it right to be so critical of writings on sacred subjects? This is akin to the view that criticising particular liturgy is tantamount to criticising the sacrament. My own view is the opposite: the very fact that Christ is really present in the Mass, and mentioned in Vatican documents like this, makes it all the more important that we get it right, so as to present Him in the most fitting way possible.)

The Australian version (see Q17 below) dispenses with the preamble, Divine Pedagogy and Inexhaustible Newness; it keeps the scripture question almost verbatim, and replaces  “fixing our gaze on Christ” with “the encounter with Christ”, and “nourish” with “shape”. That is, they’ve made the language a bit less florid, less mystical, less figurative, less wet.

But we still have an unanswerable question. If it’s a question at all – and not just a statement, along the lines of “We know about this stuff; we operate at a level of piety and mystical understanding you can’t even begin to imagine…” – then it’s a question about the mind and souls of pastoral carers.

No-one this side of Heaven can say whether pastoral care is Shaped by the Encounter with Christ, or Nourished by Gazing on His Face. I might’ve had a stab at saying whether it was courageous, or at least faithful, but that bit ended on the cutting-room floor. But the truth is, even if you could see not only the content of all the pastoral care in your city, or state, or nation, but the motivations and spiritual state of those responsible – how could you begin to generalise about it?

Synod Agenda

Now, I don’t really think that there are Vatican officials who get together over an espresso and say to one another “Let’s come up with a totally obscure document, and a questionnaire full of incomprehensible purple sentimentality, to discourage ordinary people from filling it out, and ensure that any answers we do get will be impossible to analyse, so that we can control the agenda. Mwahaha”.

But I do think there’s an agenda here, which is to subvert the church’s traditional teaching on marriage. This I think is what the Synod, and its documents, are really about. The rest is padding, or PR.

(You may feel I exaggerate. Below I have a link to an article by Sandro Magister which may change your mind.)

And I think the people pushing that agenda, and perhaps those who are sympathetic to it, think or at least instinctively feel that their cause is not served by clear statements, but by ambiguity and obfuscation.

My own view on the central questions, for example, is naively syllogistic: sacramental marriage is forever; any other form of sexual activity is a mortal sin; for people in mortal sin to come to communion is sacrilegious; people in public, objective mortal sin should be refused communion. QED.

Now many of the synod radicals reject all or part of this position – but they’re not generally going to say so. As I said in an earlier articleinstead of arguing against this position they use weasel words to try to convey the impression that this view, and – this is important – the words and logic used, are old-fashioned, narrow-minded, and uncharitable. (The last, of course, is a category mistake.)

This questionnaire is a good example of a new language called Advanced Vatican Weasel. It resists any attempt at clarification, because it’s designed to be ambiguous, portentous and off-putting.

Before I share with you my response, however, here are some highlights from the Sandro Magister article, which suggest that the forces of darkness are getting bolder.

Look into the abyss:

In Germany, Munich archbishop Reinhard Marx, who is also one of the nine cardinals on the pope’s council… said that communion for the divorced and remarried is only a first step, because it is the doctrine of marriage that must be addressed and updated, and the same must be done with homosexual relations:

In Belgium, Antwerp bishop Johan Bonny [has demanded] the Church’s full approval of “relationality” between homosexuals…

From Japan a Spanish Jesuit, Juan Masiá, … demands… to change doctrine, including the dogma of the indissolubility of marriage. As for “Humanae Vitae,” … Masiá waves it away. He says it is useless to take it into consideration. It is simply “to be forgotten.”

The deputy prior of Bose, Luciano Manicardi… calls upon the Catholic Church… to admit the dissolution of a marriage and therefore the possibility of a second marriage not only because of the death of one of the spouses but also simply because of the “death of love”

My Response

Here is the substantive part of my response, with additional comments in italics. (Q1-9 were about the respondent.)

Words in italics are commentary on my responses, which I didn’t include at the time for reasons of tact, length, or because I hadn’t thought of them.



10. Does the final Synod Document offer an adequate account of marriage and the family or does more need to be said?

No. It’s very verbose, and the language almost incomprehensible. No responsible guide would refer a person seeking such an account to this document. The best that can be said is it avoids some of the pitfalls of its predecessors. But in truth, the entire Synod process has done huge damage to the faith, presenting eternal truths as politicised and changeable – not least through published numbers of votes for individual paragraphs, giving the impression that the content of the synod document reflected lobbying to ‘get the numbers”.

Moreover, giving people in sinful relationships the impression that repentance is unnecessary and the teaching changeable (not the message of the document, but a clear thread in the Synod and especially its coverage) is playing with their souls.

This is a difficult document even for educated people accustomed to longish tedious documents produced by committees. I was tempted to say say simply “no and no”: no, it doesn’t offer an adequate account, but no, no more needs to be said.


Less, if anything.


11. What is being done to help families cope in the midst of great social changes? What more could be done, especially in helping them to understand those changes?

This question is too broad to be answered sensibly. It’s unclear whether it’s asking about “coping” financially, socially, morally or spiritually. Insofar as it’s about the role of the Church, catechesis and preaching could be improved. But this is unlikely with the current generation of priests and teachers.


12. What is being done to ensure that governments support marriage and the family in every way possible? What more could be done?

A limited amount, in Australia. Incentives in tax and welfare systems etc create incentives for young people to leave the family home, couples not to marry, or to separate. These could be reversed. In particular, an income tax system truly based on capacity to pay would take greater account of the need to provide for dependant family members – as a prior obligation to contributing to the cost of government.

“in every way possible” seems absurd here.


13. What is being done to support strong families? What more could be done?

By whom? The Church might refrain from making statements undermining (I don’t say contradicting) traditional teachings on homosexuality, divorce and premarital sex, which make it much harder for parents to transmit those teachings. In fact a few sermons in support of traditional teachings would help.

This is one of many questions which intentionally or otherwise blurs the role of the institutional Church, the laity, government, making it very hard to answer. (Surely it’s weak families who need the support?)


14. What is being done to help families in trouble? How might troubles be prevented? How effectively is pastoral care being offered to families “on the periphery”?

This question is so broad that it seems DESIGNED to be unanswerable, especially the second part. The third part is merely beyond the knowledge of the faithful.

What kind of mind comes up with questions like “how might troubles be prevented”?


15. How can we help individuals and couples grow in affective or emotional maturity?

Not much, in truth. Though I’m not really sure what “affective maturity” means – the synod document channels a bit much Freud and Kohlberg for my liking. Frankly we’d be better advised to put our efforts into teaching them about God and their moral duty.

The original version had “growth of a life of sentiment” instead of “affective maturity” – which may be even worse. “Affective”, which almost no-one understands and most will read as “effective”, is probably less harmful than “sentiment”, which has huge negative connotations in English.


16. What needs to be done to equip ordained ministers and others to work effectively in the area of marriage and the family?

First of all they need to understand (and accept) the Church’s teaching, and be prepared to proclaim it: 2011 research published by the Bishops’ Conference Pastoral Research Office indicates 60% of Mass-attending Catholics reject the Church’s teaching that premarital sex is wrong. This indicates a radical failure of catechesis.


17. Does the encounter with Christ shape pastoral care in the area of marriage and the family? How well is Scripture used in the pastoral care of couples and families?

The first of these questions is almost impossible to understand, and certainly impossible to assess. The second I have no experience of. However the data suggests “not well”. In reality, I suspect there is little to no pastoral care in the area of marriage and the family, apart from marriage preparation, and amateur psychology in the confessional for those few who attend.

Original: “To what extent does fixing our gaze on Christ’ nourish a pastoral care of the family which is courageous and faithful?”



18. What values are in fact most important in the area of marriage and the family in the eyes of young people and married couples? What counter-values are evident?

Re the eyes of young people, you’d have to ask them. It’s very hard to understand what’s sought here, but if the first part is about actual important values, and not perceptions as it appears, then such values would include generosity of spirit, responsibility for children, a willingness to set aside one’s own wishes in general – and “counter-values” might include a focus on the material, personal emotional/sexual gratification.

There’s a conflict here between “in fact” and “in the eyes of young people…”; the first sentence seems to be about subjective perceptions but the second suggests it was about actual values. In all, a hopeless muddle. (Counter to what? Evident to whom, how?) Heaven help anyone trying to interpret the results.



19. How can couples living together before marriage or in de facto relationships be encouraged to choose marriage?

They could have the Church’s teachings explained to them. Parents could offer support and advice (though this has to be done delicately). In the ideal world, popular culture wouldn’t be antithetical to the Church’s values.


20. What is being done to help people understand the greatness and beauty of the indissolubility of marriage? What more could be done?

Not a sensible question to ask of the laity. Personally I’d start with trying to communicate the FACT of the indissolubility of marriage (rather than undermining it as the synod process has done) and worry about its beauty once this is done.

There’s some evidence, eg from survey results, that we have a long way to go in this area.


21. How can we help people understand better the power of a relationship with God in marriage and of the grace of the Sacrament in their lives?

“Power” seems to be missing the point, or at best misleading: people entering matrimony seeking power may have the wrong idea. People could be told that they will receive the grace to resist any temptation, but in general I’m not sure that conditioning people to expect the palpable action of grace in their lives is a good idea.


22. How can we help people understand better that marriage is a key part of God’s original plan and is therefore a way of fulfilment, not confinement, joy not sorrow?

Subjectively speaking any marriage will contain both joy and sorrow. My impression is that expectations are too rosy, rather than the reverse. So I reject the premise of this question.


23. How can the family be helped to become “the domestic Church” with a missionary vocation? How can we help develop a family spirituality?

The first part is a mishmash of jargon to which no answerable meaning can be attached. Re the second, pray together.


24. What can be done to provide an effective and comprehensive catechesis of marriage and the family, starting in early life and involving life-long formation?

A comprehensive, root-and-branch reform of catechesis, involving a cleaning out of seminaries, teaching faculties and Diocesan education bureaucracies. This is a work of generations, and is unlikely to be commenced until most of my generation have died and/or apostasised.


25. Do we need to shape a new language in the area of marriage and the family? If so, how?

In general, no. However if the task were to be given to the people who write questionnaires like this, the answer should be “ABSOLUTELY no”.

If the synod process is any indication, the purpose of new language would be obfuscation rather than clarity. We need to hear more old language: terms like “mortal sin”, “sacrilegious communion”, “repentance” and the like.


26. How effective is the marriage preparation that is being offered? How might it be more effective?

No member of the faithful is in a position to generalise on this, but statistics on belief and practice indicative “not very”. For constructive advice see previous answer.


27. Do we need to do more to support couples in the early years of married life? If so, what?

Parents should provide spiritual and psychological as well as material support. Incentives for divorce, infidelity, selfish materialism in popular culture and public policy should be removed or reversed – for practical as well as spiritual reasons.


28. What place do marriage and the family have in the RCIA?

I’ve never done RCIA, not being a convert. If the question is what place they SHOULD have, then marriage should be covered along with other sacraments – but RCIA should not be confused with marriage preparation.


And if it’s really trying to find out what’s going on with RCIA, this doesn’t seem like a good way.


29. What movements and associations are there in the area of marriage and the family? Can these contribute more broadly and effectively?

This is not a sensible way to obtain this information.

This is so broad as to be almost meaningless. Do they mean pro-family organisations at the political level, such as the AFA, of the Australian Christian Lobby? Do they mean “marriage guidance” bodies?


30. What are the challenges of mixed marriages and interreligious marriages? How can we meet them more effectively?

Humanly speaking, conflicting expectations and beliefs. Even if the non-Catholic partner supports the children practising & being taught the faith, his or her remaining outside implicitly calls all this into question. It’s hard enough for two parents to transmit the faith, let alone one, unsupported.


31. Apart from sacramental marriage, what can be done to foster appreciation of “natural marriage”?

Again, education and preaching – preferably before young people confront the issue at a personal level. In particular, the notion that Catholics’ legitimate  interest in marriage is restricted to sacramental marriages needs to be countered.


32. How can we respond compassionately to people in irregular unions while remaining faithful to the teaching of Christ and the Church?

The most compassionate approach is honesty, and perhaps the least compassionate to hold out false hopes that there’s any chance on the Church changing its fundamental teaching on marriage and sexuality. Sacramental marriage is permanent, adultery and other sexual acts outside marriage are gravely sinful and thus obstacles to communion, and these facts can’t change.



33. Does the process of declaring nullity need to be simpler, less difficult and less costly?

No – it mainly needs to be more careful about evidence, and less credulous. A decree of nullity is not infallible, and if based on false evidence it is itself null. Allowing people to go through the forms of remarriage while they’re still in fact married in the eyes of God is doing them no favours: God is not fooled. Even when working properly, the process risks being seen as a loophole for the rich and powerful. The presumption in favour of the bond needs to be retained.


34. How can we respond better to people of same-sex attraction and their families?

Primarily through honesty: we have to make the Church’s teaching clear. We should avoid prejudice and unfair discrimination, but we have to make clear the distinction between loving the sinner and hating the sin. (Same-sex attraction is not in itself a sin, but it is disordered, and an occasion of sin.)


35. How can we communicate more effectively the Church’s vision of married love and the beauty and dignity of parenthood as presented, for example, in Humanae Vitae?

Preach and teach – starting with the loving and dignified removal of dissenters from key positions.

36. What more can be done to promote a sense of parenthood as divine vocation? What more can be done to help parents in their educational mission, especially in transmitting the faith to their children?

Preach and teach. Reform popular culture. Provide solid RE in schools, and materials to parents.


37. How can we encourage adoption and foster-parenting as signs of fruitful generosity?

The obstacles to adoption and fostering are social and legal-political, arising partly out of concerns about past abuses (legitimate and otherwise), and partly out of a desire to present abortion as the ideal, painless solution to unwanted pregnancy. Catholics must combat these prejudices, while supporting justice for past victims, and exercising determination that abuses do not recur (in schools etc as well as adoption/fostering).


38. What more can we do to prevent abortion and foster a genuine culture of life?

Preach and teach; refrain from voting for candidates or parties who support abortion, and (for bishops and clergy) preach this as duty of all Catholics. Support women with problem pregnancies emotionally, financially, materially.


39. How can we help all people see that no-one is beyond God’s mercy?

Preach and teach, yet again – but in truth the besetting sin of the age seems to be presumption rather than despair.  Christians, including Catholics, seem more inclined to assume God won’t condemn anyone than to fear He can’t or won’t save them. This presumption pervades modern Catholic liturgy, especially funeral services, which are typically described (accurately) as a “celebration of the life” of the deceased, on the assumption that prayers for the dead are needless. We are not taught that Hell is empty – let alone Purgatory. We ARE taught that “fire” is not a metaphor.


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