A news channel rang me up over the weekend to ask me to go on the telly and comment on the online survey that the Bishops have put out which is part of the preparation for the forthcoming Synod on the family. I could not think of anything useful I could contribute on the matter, so declined the invitation. But as soon as I had put down the phone, a few thoughts did occur to me, which I can communicate the better, perhaps, in written form here.
First of all “the survey” or whatever it should be called. Synods are serious matters, and a survey that elicited one word or simplistic answers would be worse than useless; this means that any survey that is worth its salt is going to be quite complex, in that it is dealing with sophisticated concepts. This also means that any such survey is going to be challenging to say the least, in that its content is going to be at war with its form. And this survey certainly reflects this.
Just recently, Jonathan Freedland had this to say:
Recently, Francis told an interviewer the church had become “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception. He no longer wanted the Catholic hierarchy to be preoccupied with “small-minded rules”. Talking to reporters on a flight – an occurrence remarkable in itself – he said: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” His latest move is to send the world’s Catholics a questionnaire, seeking their attitude to those vexed questions of modern life. It’s bound to reveal a flock whose practices are, shall we say, at variance with Catholic teaching. In politics, you’d say Francis was preparing the ground for reform.
Mr Freedland is both right and wrong. He is wrong in seeing this survey as some sort of hunt for simplistic answers and evidence of dissent which will then be used to promote a change of “policy”. And he is right in that if the survey reflects what the practices and beliefs of Catholics actually are, then it will reveal strong divergence from Catholic teaching.
The Church, as all attentive readers of this paper will know by now, does not have policies, it has teachings. While political parties change their policies frequently, the Church’s teaching is based on the eternal verities that do not and indeed cannot change. So, it is simply not possible that the Pope is going to announce changes to the Church’s moral teaching on the back of this survey.
However, it is important to stress that this is not all. A survey can be of immense use. If it shows us what people actually believe, and what they actually practice, it will give the Church a far better idea of the audience which it seeks to address. Given that the Church is in the business of evangelisation, this is of crucial importance.
Let me give an example. A priest I know does about fifty baptisms a year. More than half of these baptisms are of children whose parents are not married. Usually they are living together, sometimes it is the child of single mother. How exactly is that priest to proclaim the good news of the Church’s teaching about marriage? Generally speaking, the Church’s teaching on marriage is couched in terms that make sense in a society where most people are married or hoping to get married. But in large parts of Britain today (and there are other places that are even worse off) hardly anyone is married, and marriage – the lifelong and stable partnership of a man and a woman – is an alien concept. It is hard to talk about marriage in a society where the phenomenon has all but died out. So what this survey should do, if it is successful, is help the Church reformulate its eternal teachings in a language that is understandable by the people of today. It should also enable the Church to adopt appropriate pastoral approaches in societies where, for example, hardly anyone is married. In some countries, priests refuse to baptise the children of unmarried couples. That sort of thing would go down like a lead balloon in most parts of the UK.
I have said above that moral teachings do not change, nor do they; but the way those moral teachings are expressed does change, indeed must change. We need not to update the Law of God, but the way we express that Law, and the way we live it. If this survey helps us do that, it will be a force for good in the renewal of the Church. At present we have a situation where the official discourse of the Church seems remote from experience and impenetrable to most people. This needs to change.