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An American priest answers the Vatican questionnaire

Last month, the Vatican sent around a questionnaire on "pastoral challenges to the family," in preparation for its big bishops' synod in Rome next October. One priest has answers that his bishop may not want to hear.

Roman collar

Roman collar

Last month, the Vatican sent around a questionnaire on “pastoral challenges to the family,” in preparation for its big bishops’ synod in Rome next October. The official in charge has made it clear that the guys at the top want to hear from the grass roots, and the American bishops have caught some flak for indicating that they’re mainly just soliciting answers from the clergy.

A glance at the actual questions suggests that most of the folks at the altar rail would be hard pressed to provide informed answers. Not to put too fine a point on it, but these are questions written for the pastors to answer, not the sheep. The real issue, so far as I can see, is whether the former will give honest answers or ones they think their bosses want to hear.

I therefore asked a thoughtful priest I know to respond to the questionnaire under a grant of anonymity. His answers, in italics, follow the questions reprinted ad litteram from the Vatican website. (He stopped at rubric 7, finding the last two repetitive.) It’s a lengthy read, but well worth the time for anyone interested in Catholicism’s grass roots in America today.

1. The Diffusion of the Teachings on the Family in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Magisterium

a) Describe how the Catholic Church’s teachings on the value of the family contained in the Bible, Gaudium et spesFamiliaris consortio and other documents of the post-conciliar Magisterium is understood by people today? What formation is given to our people on the Church’s teaching on family life?

There have been ample explanations of these texts in a variety of contexts: Catholic print media (newspapers, Catholic publishing houses, e.g. Paulist, Orbis, Daughters of St. Paul, Ignatius, etc.); Catholic electronic media (e.g. EWTN, Catholic radio outlets in a number of American cities); Videos, DVDs (Paulists, EWTN, Ignatius, other independent distributors), new Social Media (YouTube and Facebook); parish-based instructions (bulletin inserts, adult education series); Catholic college and university-based instruction (e.g. formal course work or information sessions via Newman Clubs); workshops and symposia organized during summer months by retreat and continuing education programs; diocesan-based programs (teacher education enrichment; catechetical congresses and teacher-training modules). There are many other venues where church teaching has been propagated, explained, defended, and advanced over the past generation. 

This process has been uneven. Some of the above-mentioned programs offer little historical context for these teachings or present them against the broader back-drop of the Catholic theology from which they emanate. Some are especially misleading on the question of the type of papal authority surrounding them. They claim a definitive even infallible status which is not true. 

Unfortunately, most American Catholics receive their information about these matters from the secular press (print and electronic) and now the Internet. These venues are almost always deficient in understanding Catholic doctrine, liturgy, or practice. They often distort or over-simplify these teachings.

b) In those cases where the Church’s teaching is known, is it accepted fully or are there difficulties in putting it into practice? If so, what are they?

Yes there are difficulties. From Humanae Vitae forward, one driving principle behind these teachings seems to be an argument from authority. The Church says it, you must believe it, that settles it. Any questioning – even by people of faith and sufficient scholarly credentials and long years of service to the Church – has been seen as some sort of disloyalty or bad faith. However, arguments framed with this authoritarian bent may produce little formal push-back but rather create indifference even from devout Catholics. Given the oft-stated (and repeatedly ignored) reality that Catholic couples do not regard birth control as central to their faith – and are not likely to do so in the future – cause Catholics to give short-shrift to this official teaching and to other church pronouncements. Common-sense realism is the operative framework for many Americans. Credible teaching has to be open to question and must offer cogent and defensible reasons in order to be taken seriously. If a teaching appears – even on its face – to contradict social and cultural realities, the lived experience of people of good will, and just plain common sense, it will produce puzzlement at first and then indifference if questions are not answered honestly or sincerely.

c) How widespread is the Church’s teaching in pastoral programmes at the national, diocesan and parish levels? What catechesis is done on the family?

As noted above, quite widespread. Most of the 197 American dioceses and eparchies have devoted offices, personnel, and financial resources to advancing these specific teachings. Although in recent times men have been selected for the office of bishop who have sworn fealty to these teachings (especially Humanae Vitae), these topics don’t appear to be regular source of episcopal teaching.

d ) 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?

This teaching is rejected in large part to some degree because of ignorance (the secular press had a role to play in this), but mostly because such rules and strictures seem to be imposed from without and are not offered with adequate rationale. It was a grave mistake to impose censures of theologians and other people of faith who questioned the assumptions and conclusions of these theological statements. This too has contributed to the rejection. No one sympathizes with bullies. These punishments – liberally handed out during the Wotyla pontificate – did great damage to the church’s standing with many. In the field of moral theology in particular, there must be the return of an open debate and scholarly interaction among people of varying views. Current institutes that study family life or moral theology in seminaries provide one acceptable viewpoint when in fact there are more ways of approaching these issues – within the context of the Catholic tradition – than are acknowledged. No priest who considers alternatives to certain of these teachings will be selected for the episcopate. This does not help the church and does not help the creation of a sound and realistic moral theology.

2. Marriage according to the Natural Law

a) 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?

It is hard to define the term “natural law” as understood by the church. Any exploration of the historical origin of this term and its use by Catholic theologians runs into serious problems. It relies heavily on an outdated and factually erroneous understanding of the nature of reality – which is dynamic, not static. “Truth” has evolved, it is not “perennial.” Only God’s love is constant. Church teachings have changed and must continue to change in order for the message of Jesus Christ to make sense to new generations.

b) Is the idea of the natural law in the union between a man and a woman commonly accepted as such by the baptized in general?

This is changing as acceptance of same-sex unions takes root in various global cultures. Natural law itself as understood by the church is not intelligible to anyone who has high school or college knowledge of physics, biology or human psychology.

c) How is the theory and practice of natural law in the union between man and woman challenged in light of the formation of a family? How is it proposed and developed in civil and Church institutions?

At least since the 19th century (and likely before), human unions are not seen primarily as units of family production. Rather they begin in affective love – which then blossoms into conjugal love. Affective love – the feeling of one heart for another – is the fons et origo of human relationship in our world. Although theologians and others insist on the primary and secondary “ends” of marriage – the lived reality of most couples do not make such  distinctions. For most children are a natural fruit of their loving relationship – but they reserve the right to limit the number of offspring they have. For others, because of intention or physical inability, children are not the primary end of marriage – but it does not diminish the quality of their relationship.

d) In cases where non-practicing Catholics or declared non-believers request the celebration of marriage, describe how this pastoral challenge is dealt with?

Lapsed Catholic are not a “problem to be solved” but a pastoral opportunity to be seized. Our era has its share of lapsi – but we are not historically unique. Every age going back to the dawn of Christianity has had those who have embraced the teachings of Jesus and then fallen away. The reasons run the spectrum from the significant to the absurd. For those who meet the lapsed –usually at a sacramental moment – the work of a patient, compassionate, and prayerful priest or deacon can make all the difference in the world. The church has no coercive power over individual believers – only suasive means. A kind word and reception can possibly (not always) open the door to further evangelization. Harsh, judgmental, and indifferent ministers of the Lord do more damage than good – even though some of them brag about “tough love” and a handful of people praise harsh words and “challenges” they receive from these types. For every one they may attract, however, they likely turn a dozen away for good. Mercy is valued over justice.

3. The Pastoral Care of the Family in Evangelization

a) What experiences have emerged in recent decades regarding marriage preparation? What efforts are there to stimulate the task of evangelization of the couple and of the family? How can an awareness of the family as the “domestic Church” be promoted?

Since the 1970s there has been significant attention given to adequate marriage preparation: psychological inventories; engaged encounters and retreats which draw in the talents of stable and well-ground married Catholics; creative use of wedding ceremonies to draw more on the rich understanding of “covenant” in marriage. Marriage as a loving, stable, and perpetual union is stressed. Indeed this enriched understanding is so prevalent that older concepts of marriage as “a legitimate remedy for concupiscence” are nearly forgotten. Yet these efforts, though a help, are not a panacea. Even good faith efforts by parishes and ministers to prepare couples adequately do not guarantee a long-lasting marriage. For some, they are just a “hoop” they must jump through to have a pretty wedding with lots of pictures and a blow-out reception. The church must stand up to stiff cultural head-winds with no-fault divorce and also the wedding “industry” which urges that weddings be lavish spectacles rather than encounters of faith. Some suggest that the church should withdraw from the marriage “business” altogether and allow the state to perform this function exclusively. People of faith could have their marriages celebrated in church in a more modest fashion.

b) How successful have you been in proposing a manner of praying within the family which can withstand life’s complexities and today’s culture?

Prayer is a difficult topic with many young people – sometimes drawing blank stares when it is brought up – or an uncomfortable silence since it’s apparently that this is the very last thing that should be discussed in a marriage ceremony. Yet in some instances, it is truly appreciated by at least one or maybe both of those preparing for marriage. A prayerful celebration of marriage and a sometimes unpopular effort to gear music and other ceremonies away from discordant or irreligious themes is worth the effort.

c) In the current generational crisis, how have Christian families been able to fulfill their vocation of transmitting the faith?

Young people are – from every survey I’ve read of Millenials, Gen Xers, Gen Yers or whatever term the social scientists give to the cohorts of young people 35 years old or younger – withdrawing from organized religion as soon as they get a chance. The reasons for this – as these surveys will tell you – are complex. To the frustration of church leaders, many young people distinguish between a spirituality and organized religion. The latter they view with disdain, not only because of the scandals of the past decade, but because religious teachings, particularly on sexuality are literally incredible. Others devote themselves to the religion of mass consumption and entertainment. Many find church services – especially the homilies – in Catholic communities to be “boring” and uninspiring. A minority of young people do find certain aspects of Catholic fundamentalism to be attractive – hearing from certain church leaders or Catholic colleges and universities a very one-sided presentation of Catholic thinking and pressing a sometimes unhealthy reliance on popular devotion. Youth masses (e.g. Life Teen) do some good, but the popular music and the sometimes simplistic theological themes of the music do not make it with young people in the long haul.

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

The so-called ecclesial movements endorsed by the previous two pontificates have been helpful to some. But others seem to have a poorly informed and even bizarre ecclesiology (e.g. the Neo-Catechumenate), retrograde theological opinions and misogynistic practices (e.g. Opus Dei), and cultish behavior which have brought great harm to the church (e.g. the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi). The hints and allegations of the large sums of money these groups turn into the Vatican has not helped their cause. Others, like Communione e Liberazione, are wrapped up in conservative politics. While there are good and very well-intentioned people in all of these movements, in the main their high standing within Vatican circles has not been good for the church or the cause of the Gospel.

e) What specific contribution can couples and families make to spreading a credible and holistic idea of the couple and the Christian family today?

The teachings on human sexuality are literally incredible to many – especially birth control but even abortion when the life of the mother is involved. Re-think and re-present these matters in a new and more positive way. Don’t just say you wish to do this (a la Benedict XVI), do it! Take note of the damage done by the minions of “orthodoxy”, e.g. Maciel et al., to the credibility of the church. Dissolve the cult-like groups that claim to teach and preach in the name of the church and apologize for the papal embrace of them. In the end, a message of mercy and understanding will pave the way for a fuller encounter with the Christ – the primary locus of authentic conversion.

4. Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations

a) Is cohabitation ad experimentum a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage?

It is not ad experimentum, it is in veritatem. A large percentage of American couples cohabit before marriage. Not all accept this but many do, including parents and relatives of the couples.

b) Do unions which are not recognized either religiously or civilly exist? Are reliable statistics available?

Yes. Not sure if there are reliable statistics. The U.S. Census Bureau may have some idea.

c) Are separated couples and those divorced and remarried a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage? How do you deal with this situation in appropriate pastoral programmes?

Many priests and ministers accept the fact that divorce and remarriage (sometimes repeatedly) is a fact of life in our society. Many themselves come from these backgrounds – especially younger priests. Because of this, most divorced/remarried folks are treated with respect. With regard to sacramental participation, many priests take a “don’t ask/don’t tell” pastoral approach when it comes to divorce and re-marriage. Others will use pastoral judgment when approached by people in second marriages. Most effective priests are reluctant to “weaponize” the Eucharist.

d) 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?

They live with it with ease – for many of them it involves relatives and close friends who had harrowing and unhappy and even violent first marriages. Most of the baptized are glad to see their friends and relatives at peace and content. While some may be skeptical about the ability of one partner or the other to truly bond with another human being in unselfish love, the operative principle – at least in America – is “live and let live.” Some divorced/remarried do feel marginalized – especially if they ask the “wrong” priest or deacon for his opinion on their access to the Eucharist. Many priests look at each case individually. If it is stable marriage that has lasted many years and if the conditions of the first marriage warranted a break, they give tacit permission to approach the communion line. No priest in his right mind would deny the children of these unions baptism, first Eucharist, or confirmation.

e) 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?

It’s hard to determine. The number seems relatively small, because those who still care about access will often just present themselves in communion lines and confessionals and make no mention of their previous marital status. They are wary of what they might hear from a priest. Or having heard of their exclusion from some other priest, they long ago decided that he was wrong and that he would not stand in the way of their participation in the Eucharist. Once again, many people do not take these church strictures seriously or view them as integral to their faith.

f ) 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?

A radical proposal: First a papal decree to sanate all existing re-marriages. All who are seeking annulments or are waiting for them are immediately free to marry or re-marry as Catholics. Give this amnesty a long period – five years to reach all whom it might affect – with efforts similar to those seeking victims of clerical sex abuse to sound them out (radio, TV, social media, billboards, etc.). Secondly, launch a thorough study of tribunal practices and procedures. Some dioceses regularly grant annulments. Others, on their own authority, exclude psychological reasons for questioning the validity of a previous union. These disparities are scandalous. The pope might even eliminate the mandatory review of “sentences” imposed by JP II. Likewise, there should be an immediate end to the use of fees for this “service”; it smacks of simony. Dioceses should offer a refund to all those who have active cases and who have paid. Third: there should be a total transformation of the existing tribunal procedure, replacing most canonists with counselors, social workers, and others in the helping professions to help those with troubled marriages. Tribunals often “sell” themselves and the annulment process as a way to “bring closure” to bad marriages of the past. Those offices should truly be transformed to do just that. This annulment business is a scandal and a racket. As we rethink the entire issue of divorce and remarriage as it applies to Catholic practice, these tribunals will need to be changed.

g) 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?

Good priests, deacons, lay and religious ministers assure people caught in these difficulties of God’s love for them all the time. This kind of “reparative” ministry is often quiet and unheralded but has saved many souls for the church. It is a huge underground source of vitality and credibility for the Catholic community. These folks keep the church alive and credible to many who would otherwise walk away.

5. On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex

a) Is there a law in your country recognizing civil unions for people of the same-sex and equating it in some way to marriage?

In a growing number of states in the United States – and eventually all of it except portions of the socially retrograde American South or where the Republican Party currently reigns – these laws are on the books or are mandated by judicial fiat.

b) What is the attitude of the local and particular Churches towards both the State as the promoter of civil unions between persons of the same sex and the people involved in this type of union?

Privately, among priests, religious and laity – compassion and understanding. Publicly, statements and actions that run the spectrum from the ridiculous to the scandalous. One cardinal attributes the “success” of these laws to poor “marketing” by the church. Another mean-spirited and theologically deficient bishop actually “exorcised” the state legislature for passing a same-sex marriage bill. The Holy Father needs to extend some public discipline for statements and actions like these which seriously erode the already flagging credibility of the Catholic Church in the USA. To work against same sex marriage, church leaders have entered into “alliances” with such groups as the Mormons, spent huge sums of diocesan money to alter political outcomes (i.e. state referenda), and even appointed a man of great insensitivity on this issue to head the cultural capital of Gay America: the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The cluelessness of the American hierarchy and their friends in the Vatican could not be more on display than it has been in these past few years over this issue.

c) What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?

Many already care for them as part of the “underground” ministry taking place in every American diocese.

d) In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?

The answer is clear cut: we care for the children, baptize them, love them, provide a community of caring and inclusion and try to approach the issue of their parents union with compassion, love, and respect.

6. The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages

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

Many, many children in the US are being raised by single parents or by their grandparents. Single parenthood has lost its social stigma. Parents and grandparents are supportive of children emotionally and financially. Divorce rates are very high here.

b) How do parents in these situations approach the Church? What do they ask? Do they request the sacraments only or do they also want catechesis and the general teaching of religion?

Many parents want their children to be at least minimally introduced to Catholic life. First Communion, Confirmation and Catholic marriage seem to be entry-points. They offer the same opportunities for evangelization as any other person of good will – although working parents may not have the opportunities or energy to be regular attendees at Mass. Income inequality in America is at record levels; both parents must work to remain afloat financially. This takes its toll on family life. 

c) How do the particular Churches attempt to meet the needs of the parents of these children to provide them with a Christian education?

Most parishes have very effective programs of religious education, which in fact reach a larger percentage of their parish youth than Catholic schools. The effectiveness of the catechesis in these programs and even in the schools is often a source of concern. A Catholic culture does not characterize the families of these children – and some just send their children to these lessons but rarely attend Mass themselves. This is also a growing problem in Catholic schools, thanks in some measure to accepting public funds. In fact, some Catholic schools have begun to function more as private elementary schools than religiously oriented schools. Children may hear religious lessons and even go to daily Mass but the extent to which these schools truly create a Catholic soul in their young charges is not clear. Obviously, some places do better with this than others. Well-heeled parishes generally have better schools and catechetical programs than poorer ones.

d) What is the sacramental practice in these cases: preparation, administration of the sacrament and the accompaniment?

At a minimum, some component of verbal instruction, recitation, art work and other accepted pedagogy for communicating factual information to young people. Confirmation programs include service projects and retreats. Letters to bishops requesting confirmation and giving reasons are quite common and appear to be taken quite seriously by confirming bishops. The age of Confirmation is a delicate question. It should probably be restored it is original sequence as a part of the Sacraments of Initiation or at least removed to just prior to first communion.

7. The Openness of the Married Couple to Life

a) What knowledge do Christians have today of the teachings of Humanae vitae on responsible parenthood? Are they aware of how morally to evaluate the different methods of family planning? Could any insights be suggested in this regard pastorally?

The reception of Humanae Vitae in the United States was quite poor. Some of it had to do with its representation in the public secular media. However, after years and years of “turning up the volume” on this teaching by popes, bishops, and various media outlets, people do not really see a significant  difference between spacing out births by Natural Family Planning Methods (which are often “sold” as “more effective than ever”) and the use of various types of artificial contraception. The distinctions made in Humanae Vitae and “sold” by its advocates simply do not make sense – even to devout Catholics. Nor do many Catholic view obedience to this dictum (as on other topics as well) as central to their faith lives. This fight was over a long time ago. The preparation for the upcoming synod should involve a review of the majority report given to Pope Paul VI by his Birth Control Commission. It may be too late to recapture the lost credibility of the church by Pope Paul’s unfortunate decision to uphold the traditional ban on artificial contraception. But the wisdom of the majority report arguments deserve another airing before a Synod and the Holy Father. Likewise, theologians who were condemned for questioning this teaching should be invited to address the Synod Fathers and respond to honest questions about their petitions in public debate.

b) Is this moral teaching accepted? What aspects pose the most difficulties in a large majority of couple’s accepting this teaching?

 Addressed above. 

c) What natural methods are promoted by the particular Churches to help spouses put into practice the teachings of Humanae vitae?

Natural Family Planning – marketed by Family Life and Marriage Preparation programs in virtually every diocese. From superficial observation of those who frequent weekend Masses, it appears that many Catholic couples do not have large families.

d) What is your experience on this subject in the practice of the Sacrament of Penance and participation at the Eucharist?

One rarely hears a scruple expressed about the use of artificial contraception. It is, for the most part, not an issue – except for those stirred to its “intrinsic immorality” by preachers of such ilk as the now discredited John Corapi, the utterly clueless and pastorally inept priests of EWTN who unfortunately have a very wide audience, and the various and sundry lay persons, nuns, and others who make it the centerpiece of their public utterances. Likewise, various militant Catholic groups who refer to themselves as “orthodox” inject it into their rah-rah public gatherings, retreats and websites often inducing guilt into the lives of people where it may not have existed.

e) What differences are seen in this regard between the Church’s teaching and civic education?

This has become very nearly a totally Catholic confessional issue – we are virtually the only major Christian denomination which views artificial birth control as an “issue.” In recent months however, as part of heavily funded right-wing conservative efforts to deny access to health care to all Americans, some who heretofore have had no moral problem with artificial contraception have now become its opponents. The hypocrisy of such position is clear and of course there is a wink and a nod that contraceptives of all kinds (as well as access to legal abortion) will continue to be available to Americans who have enough money. The issue isn’t the morality of contraception but the nearly fanatical desire to further degrade the poor, who are not “entitled” to health care of any kind. The American bishops had the utter gall to spend millions of dollars (many of it from the unaccountable leadership of the Knights of Columbus) on a bogus “Religious Liberty Campaign” equating access to contraceptives in public health care with an assault on organized religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Their efforts were for naught and their accountability for this fiasco was zero. This money could have been used to shore up Catholic schools in poor communities or even to sustain the increasingly stressed Catholic ministries to the homeless and poor.

f) How can a more open attitude towards having children be fostered? How can an increase in births be promoted?

In America, individual choice is king as our society favors (and so does the church when it suits its purpose) a myth of rugged individualism. Some right-wing Catholic politicians – with the assistance of bishops and Catholic “intellectuals” – have hijacked the word “subsidiarity” as an excuse to destroy America’s weak social safety net. However, if we were as strong for a durable social safety net as we are to condemn gays and abortion, we could help create a genuine environment for life. This would involve not only opposition to abortion but also health care for all, decent funding of education, nutrition, and good jobs at decent wages. Instead, the plutocrats who disproportionately affect out public discourse scream about being “pro-life” but work to destroy what they derisively call the “nanny state,” which is their term for anything that helps the poorest and most vulnerable among us. There are American bishops who defend these rich people.