Imagine the pope is coming to dinner.
He’ll be taking the bus, and he doesn’t want you to make a big fuss. It’s Francis, after all, the “world’s parish priest.”
There’s a bit of an agenda to his visit. He wants to ask how you feel about some of the most confounding teachings of the faith. He wonders how what you hear in the pews squares with what occurs in your life, and in the lives of your loved ones. What do you think about birth control? About same sex couples raising children? About people living together before marriage, or about divorce and remarriage?
No, really. This isn’t just some parlor game. Something like this is happening.
Pope Francis is indicating yet again that he wants to sit among and listen to his flock, in ways that are unprecedented for the papacy. He’s soliciting opinions on the very moral teachings that are driving Catholics from the church. One in 10 adults in the United States is an ex-Catholic. The figures in Europe and Latin America may vary but add up to a similar story: People are voting on Catholicism with their feet.
At Francis’ urging, the Vatican has produced a questionnaire asking a series of questions about Catholic teaching. In October it was sent to the world’s bishop conferences. It’s to gather input in preparation for an October 2014 Synod of Bishops in Rome.
The National Catholic Reporter, an influential Catholic newsweekly, broke this story after a copy of the papal survey was sent to them last month.
“I think this is the biggest story of the year,” said Editor Dennis Coday. “It’s a monumental change.”
The letter from the Vatican instructed the bishops to distribute the document to the dioceses “and ask them to share it immediately as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received regarding the themes and responses to the questionnaire.”
That certainly sounds like the Vatican is seeking replies from the faithful, not the gatekeepers.
But what happened next is nearly as interesting. The bishops of England and Wales posted the survey online. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wasn’t quite so eager. The cover letter it sent to dioceses with the questionnaire implied that it was the bishops whose “observations” Rome should receive.
There is a growing debate over what exactly this effort means, whether the hierarchy will try to stand in its way, and what its outcome may be. No one expects a change in doctrine, an about-face on long held moral teachings, or a loosening of the patriarchal hold of the leadership. And yet the fact that the questions are being broached at all is significant.
“This is unprecedented, but it is typical of the new pope,” Bishop Michael Putney of Australia has been quoted saying.
Coday notes the wording within the document solicits feedback on how the church is currently managing these aspects of the faith at the pastoral level.
Here’s an example relating to gay couples: “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?”
Here’s another question, related to Humanae Vitae, an encyclical of Paul VI prohibiting artificial contraception. “Is this moral teaching accepted?” it asks. “What aspects pose the most difficulties in a large majority of couples accepting this teaching?”
What’s especially encouraging about the effort is that it signals the possibility that the church (or at least the pope) is preparing to come to terms with the Roman Catholic Church’s historic bugbear: modernity.
For centuries the church has gone through stages of resisting and accommodating itself to new realities in science, philosophy, politics and everyday life. For decades after the liberalizing effects of Vatican II, it has staked out a conservative and traditional position in the culture wars. And it has been losing.
Most damaging has been the clerical sexual abuse scandals, which conservative Catholics blamed on liberalism. The reality is that the most egregious offenders — and enablers in the hierarchy — were often priests and prelates of the old school.
In Francis we see a pope not inclined to blame the church’s problems on modern society. Francis is captivating to both Catholics and non-Catholics alike because he appears to be optimistic, pragmatic and democratic — modern.
And that in no way contradicts his wish to evangelize the Good News of Jesus. He knows that the salvific power of Christ has real meaning to modern people, and that the moral policing of the clergy is too often getting in the way.