Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The worst survey in the world

The survey in preparation for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which we are all invited to fill in, contains no fewer than forty questions. I started to fill it in but ran out of time; others have said it has taken them an hour and a half or two hours. It is the worst-designed survey I have ever seen. Someone should learn something from its deficiencies, so here are a few. Taking for granted, obviously, that it is absurdly long, to the point that very few people are going to be able to plough through it.

Total number of Catholic marriages taking place in England and Wales. The peak is 1968.
There are fewer Catholic marriages today than at the eve of the Great War a century ago.

It is not exactly an opinion poll; complaints about bringing democracy into doctrinal matters are not quite right. Many questions are factual.

1. Question 4a: Is cohabitation ad experimentum a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage?

Other questions ask for an analysis of a problem, or a proposed solution.

5. Question 3e: What specific contribution can couples and families make to spreading a credible and holistic idea of the couple and the Christian family today?

Both categories of question are problematic, however, since both call for types of expertise which the person filling in the form is unlikely to have. Parish priests filling it in might be expected to have something useful to say about pastoral strategies, and parents about raising children in the Faith, but some questions are appropriate only for a social scientist, or someone who has done a study of diocesan initiatives.

3. Question 1c: How widespread is the Church's teaching in pastoral programmes at the national, diocesan and parish levels? What catechesis is done on the family?

Frankly, I don't have a clue. I could try to find out on the internet, but what would be the point of that? Presumably the people writing the survey can do that for themselves. 'Pastoral programmes' are something the ordinary Faithful are not involved with. If they are any good, they would have some beneficial effect without drawing attention to themselves. If they are bad, they will absorb the energies of the parish busybodies in endless meetings. What I do know is that Church teaching on the family is not preached, it is not taught in Catholic schools, and it is not found (much) in the kind of educational materials I sometimes browse in St Paul's bookshop. That's what I know as a layman, but that's not what they've asked.

Some questions are factual to the point that it is absurd to be asking them at all.

2. Question 4b: Do unions which are not recognized either religiously or civilly exist? Are reliable statistics available?

1. Question 6a: What is the estimated proportion of children and adolescents in these cases, as regards children who are born and raised in regularly constituted families?

Why are they asking us? Can't they look it up for themselves? What happens when they get varying answers: are they going to take an average, or just find out what the truth is?

Then there are the questions with pretensions to philosophical profundity.

1. Question 2a: What place does the idea of the natural law have in the cultural areas of society: in institutions, education, academic circles and among the people at large? What anthropological ideas underlie the discussion on the natural basis of the family?

Try asking that down the pub. Here, mate, you're a non-Catholic, what anthropological ideas underlie your discussions on the natural basis of the family? I don't say: ordinary Catholic are too stupid or uneducated to answer this question. I say: as someone with a DPhil in philosophy, I couldn't begin to answer it, certainly not in the comment box of an on-line survey, and I struggle to comprehend even what they are asking. (I think it must be a loaded question: what if people don't think the family is 'natural'?) I don't think many bishops or theologians would be able to give a useful response, and I am quite sure the people collating the results won't understand the question or the attempted answers. In fact, I don't think the people asking the question knew what they really meant. The question is a monumental waste of energy.

There are lots and lots of very open-ended questions about what is or could be done, pastorally.

3. Question 3c: In the current generational crisis, how have Christian families been able to fulfil their vocation of transmitting the faith?

4. Question 3d: In what way have the local Churches and movements on family spirituality been able to create ways of acting which are exemplary?

1. Question 8a: Jesus Christ reveals the mystery and vocation of the human person. How can the family be a privileged place for this to happen?
Catholic marriages per 1000 of the Catholic population.
After a post-war rush, the rapid collapse began in 1968.
Well, how long have you got? Someone filling this in could write a whole essay, or indeed book, on any of these questions, and I wonder whether anything short of a book-length treatment is going to be any use. The problem is that there are no widely accepted categories of answers for people to choose between; it's not like a question about whether there should be more tax and government spending or less, or whether immigrants make a contribution to the community or something. The person filling in the form would need to find words to describe the different things going on, before giving an assessment of them. More helpful questions might be: Does using the Penny Catechism lead to a tick-box attitude to the Faith? Does the Neo-Catechumenate strategy of separating age groups undermine the family? Is the love of parents for each other an education for the children in Christ's love of the Church? But then you'd have to ask many more such questions to explore all the things going on, and whether they were helpful or not.

Most worrying of course are the questions which seem to be aimed at getting people to say that the teaching and discipline of the Church needs to be loosened somehow.

4. Question 1d: To what extent — and what aspects in particular — is this teaching actually known, accepted, rejected and/or criticized in areas outside the Church? What are the cultural factors which hinder the full reception of the Church’s teaching on the family?

4. Question 4d: In all the above cases, how do the baptized live in this irregular situation? Are they aware of it? Are they simply indifferent? Do they feel marginalized or suffer from the impossibility of receiving the sacraments?

5. Question 4e: What questions do divorced and remarried people pose to the Church concerning the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation? Among those persons who find themselves in these situations, how many ask for these sacraments?

6. Question 4f: Could a simplification of canonical practice in recognizing a declaration of nullity of the marriage bond provide a positive contribution to solving the problems of the persons involved? If yes, what form would it take?

7. Question 4g: Does a ministry exist to attend to these cases? Describe this pastoral ministry? Do such programmes exist on the national and diocesan levels? How is God’s mercy proclaimed to separated couples and those divorced and remarried and how does the Church put into practice her support for them in their journey of faith?

These questions all present divorced and remarried couples as a problem for the Church, a problem created and sustained by all this rigid teaching and discipline. At one level, of course, this is true. But it is also true that the existence of such couples, not being able to receive the sacraments, is the flip side of a positive and attractive teaching which helps to sustain Catholic families.

Catholic marriages as a percentage of all marriages in England and Wales.
The peak is 1960, the eve of the campaign against the Church's
teaching on birth control.

Furthermore, it is the only kind of testimony to the seriousness of the Church's attitude to marriage which is ever going to be noticed by the secular world. It is a form of witness, a form which, like most effective forms, is given only at the cost of great sacrifice, a witness to the indissolubility of marriage, to a world which rejects this. The world knows that the Catholic Church, in spite of everything, joins men and women in an indissoluble bond of marriage, that it is not just talk when we say 'What God has joined, let not man put assunder'. Catholic couples know that they have something precious which they will lose if they go off with someone else. Remarried couples know that they need to get themselves right with God, however difficult this may be.

So this is a real problem with the survey. It could ask:

Would super-fast marriage tribunals rubber-stamping annulments cause scandal and undermine the teaching of the Church? Would this have a disastrous effect on couples struggling to maintain their marriages in a hostile environment?

Would turning a blind eye to divorced and remarried couples receiving Communion send the signal that the Church has given up on sexual morality? Would this have a disastrous effect on young people struggling to live in light of the Church's teaching in a hostile environment?

But it doesn't.

Pictures: statistics from the Latin Mass Society's research into Catholic Directory statistics.


  1. Having been though an annulment process and come out the other end, I can tell you it is a long and difficult process. Long may it remain so! My fear was that it WOULD be rubber stamped and therefore displeasing to God. I was greatly reassured by the process at the time. Had I not been given the annulment, I would have accosted that fact and tried, in single blessedness, to live according to the Church's teaching. For this of us who have been through these things and tried to live Catholic lives, often with much sacrifice, to reduce this to "Catholic divorce" would be a betrayal. Don't make it easier. Also, though I was not remarried, I experienced no hostility at all from my parish. Just support.


  2. Ha! That should be accepted not accosted! Sorry!


  3. Thanks!

    Of course no one would object improving the process if the problem is that the tribunals are under-resourced or lack qualified canonists. But getting complex legal questions straightened out is always going to take time.

  4. Thanks for this. I could not have expressed my feelings about this survey any better.

  5. This is really frightening. If the competence of the survey-design reflects the competence of the synod, then help us God (literally, of course)! I was under the impression that the priesthood attracts bright people, and that the brightest then trickle up the hierarchy. There goes that theory.

  6. The survey is laughable. I think Joseph has hit the nail on the head with a lot of the points here. The questions seem to combine the worst aspects of the prissiness, vagueness and pretension of modern clericalism and seem to have been thought up by a committee that has no concept of the reality of the family.

    On another point, the priesthood often does not attract the brightest. On the contrary, I'm afraid.

  7. I fancy this survey was thought up by a bunch of clerical bureaucrats who've been sent to Rome to get them out of their home dioceses...

  8. It would appear from
    that the survey questions were directed at the bishops, and that someone (in E&W, at least) has decided that the simplest way to involve the faithful was to send out the same survey verbatim, without making the alterations necesssary fro a] clercal and b] lay participants to respond intelligently.
    Kind regards

  9. Thank you for this post.

    I also laboured with this survey.

    I echo all your comments.

  10. This is sickening, a total joke! This new pope needs to find his way back to Argentina!

  11. This is sickening, a total joke! This new pope needs to find his way back to Argentina!

  12. I trust that all you people who are disatisfied with this survey and are busy complaining to each other are also complaining in writing, specifically and in detail, to your respective bishops with copy to Rome. Trouble is I'm not sure what office there. Perhaps someone could help?

  13. Anonymous9:34 am

    The bubble has popped, I totally agree with you, and so has a load of people over on the Catholic Herald site for the questionnaire. Someone posted the Laymans version on the comment box (reposted for convenience):
    What do you think of that version?

    1. Terrible. A mixture of loaded questions and rather dubious theological assumptions.

  14. I have also just struggled through the survey - took me about 40 minutes - but only because I answered 'No idea', 'Don't know' or 'Don't understand the question' to quite a few. This seems to me a classic example of the kind of pseudo-academic theological/anthropological psycho-babble we get in a lot of church documents nowadays - and which to the ordinary man or woman in the pew is incomprehensible - and worse, boring and actively off-putting

  15. The sheer lack of professionalism of the survey is one of its most worrying aspects.

  16. There is no mention that the questionnaire is for laypeople, unless I have missed something? 'Parishes and deaneries' Presumably this means deaneries in terms of priests of particular deaneries discussing it. I'm at a loss as to what is meant by 'Parishes'; but the Church usually states 'Laypeople' when it is talking about laypeople..

  17. At the beginning you select from a drop-down list to indicate whether you are a bishop, priest. Or layman etc..

  18. I disagree with the criticisms. The survey is clearly designed for those with pastoral knowledge and experience (bishops, priests, possibly catechists). It was sent to our bishops, they have published it - ok it's useful for information. As an individual laymen, I can't answer any of the questions - so what? I don't see any reason to feel aggrieved unless it is from a misunderstanding of its purpose or a sense of amour propre. I am rather relieved that it does not allow an opportunity for the expression of personal opinions - how tiresome it would be to give vocal dissenting lobbies a channel for their energies.

  19. So it's a survey that was intended to provided the answers considered correct, by those correctly placed to answer? Rather than a meaningful attempt to communicate with lay people.

    At the beginning of the survey it clearly states that lay people are included.

  20. Thank you for such an accurate critique of this ridiculous survey. I couldn't have put it better (or anywhere near as well!) myself.

  21. Amen! As I worked through it, all I could think was that I was probably just wasting my time … will anyone really read my responses much less be able to take my answers into account? How will they quantify so many qualitative responses?

  22. A very accurate critique! It emphasizes the chasm between the clegy and the layperson.