28 February 2014, The Tablet

Lessons in obedience for survey respondents

The clue should have been in the word: Cardinal Vincent Nichols promised a “reflection” on the responses to the Vatican survey’s on marriage and family life from Catholics in Westminster Diocese.

A “reflection” is not a summary of what respondents actually said – and we certainly haven’t got that. Instead what has been published is an analysis of why they those who competed the questionnaire have given views and observations that are contrary to the Church’s magisterium. In short, according to the document produced by Edmund Adamus, Director for Marriage and Family Life at Westminster Diocese, the findings represent a failure of formation.

“Clearly there is a great deal of confusion over what is meant by conscience. There is an urgent need to help people revisit what it means according to the Catechism, especially in the light of simple rules such as “One may never do evil so that good may result from it”, writes Mr Adamus in the document approved by Cardinal Nichols which appears in Westminster Record this weekend.

For “evil” in this context one might read a married couple using artificial contraception, a person remarrying after leaving an abusive husband or wife, or parents giving their blessing to a gay son or daughter who has entered into a civil partnership. We have to guess because we aren’t being told what people said in the questionnaire.

It seems that it is matters of this sort that Mr Adamus has in mind because he goes on to write: “Matters of conscience centre upon issues of responsible parenthood and regulation of fertility. Formation of the moral conscience, therefore, demands fresh efforts on many levels.”

His message therefore is that the Catholics who completed the questionnaire or those they wrote about – Mr Adamus does not distinguish between the two – have been seduced by secularism and need a refresher to become obedient Catholics. He advocates a closer reading of the Catechism, longer and more thorough marriage preparation and the imparting of sound instruction to children by their parents and teachers. His pious reflection is liberally sprinkled with quotations from Benedict XVI, John Paul II and Pope Francis (though it is noticeable that those remarks of Francis that call for a spirit of openness to reform are avoided).

The questionnaire is part of the preparation for October’s extraordinary synod and is essentially a listening exercise. Listening implies being open to change. The German bishops reported that their respondents want to see sweeping reforms in church teaching on family issues and sexual morality. It is highly likely that most of the respondents in England and Wales have done the same. These views will have been arrived at through the lived experience of family life, the love of children, the need for mercy and forgiveness, through much soul-searching, pain and disappointment. They should not so lightly be dismissed. The 16,500 Catholics who took the time to complete the 18-page questionnaire deserve an accurate report of what they said. Reflections, unlike this one from Westminster Diocese, come after their views have thoroughly aired and discussed.

Elena Curti is deputy editor of The Tablet

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User comments (11)

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 12/03/2014 17:06:26

Laying the strange response the the survey respondents got from the diocese, I am actually quite happy that the laity had an opportunity to voice views. Am I the only person to think that this is actually a bit of a historic breakthrough, and the 16,500 Catholics are actually doing something rather groundbreaking?

Of course, all of us have to learn. The Church needs to learn how to do survey better (I think there was a blog on this late last year and I commented on that too). There were all sorts of funny words that respondents would find strange and surveys should not really have them.

But I do pray that this would be the first of many elicitation of views - and I would be more than happy to play my little bit to answer and support it!

Comment by: gavinfrost
Posted: 12/03/2014 08:34:11

Why does Tina Beattie always say it so well!

Comment by: sara_tms_again
Posted: 08/03/2014 20:09:26

The important thing is that the Westminster Diocese was so open in inviting views, and they are there to be drawn on in the synod. It should be congratulated for that.

Feeding back to the public what was actually said is the wrong way to handle this, because it would simply leave the hierarchy on the defensive. What we need is for the clergy and hierarchy to have a sense of what the reality of Catholic family life today is, especially those (like Cardinal Nichols) who are going to synod on the Family.

The synod will have a deluge of what Pope Francis calls 'wounds' to contemplate- and I truly hope their weeping before these wounds and pleading to God for their people informs what they say and do.

Comment by: mlab
Posted: 08/03/2014 18:28:44

This was supposed to be a survey of people and therefore "research". This implies a duty of dissemination of the results, not just a reflection. I believe that this lacks intellectual honesty and transparency. So disappointing.

Comment by: Grainthorn
Posted: 07/03/2014 21:14:12

"Tell us what you think so we can correct it". Scarcely a constructive way to conduct a consultation. I foresee an Humanae Vitae repetition, from which the Church as a credible organisation is a long way from recovering. The Church may not be a democracy, but if it is unable to give convincing reasons for its moral teaching, the teaching will be rejected.

Comment by: B Shrewsbury
Posted: 05/03/2014 23:24:00

16,500 of us is not bad since there was so little enthusiasm for making Catholics aware of the survey, its language was archaic and the confidence that notice would be taken of our views was at best optimistic.
We must hope the Synod makes a difference.
One that promotes charity and evangelisation rather than an empty call to obedience.
At least Westminster communicates with its faithful.
The silence from my diocese is, as ever, deafening.

Comment by: MaryK
Posted: 05/03/2014 18:16:50

At least Westminster let people know about the survey. In my Parish there was no mention of it.
Divorced and remarried couples needn't worry though. The Cardinal seems to suggest that the Eucharist isn't that important. What about Easter Duty, or has that gone out? We are told lately of the importance of the grace of Confession. What about the grace of the Eucharist?

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 04/03/2014 19:14:17

I received an email Mr Adamus in November, telling me about SmartLoving, a course about marriage, after I have submitted my questionnaire response online. I am always open to ways to live my married life more fully: although it was a bit strange to have it sent right after questionnaire was received by the diocese. Did I write something in particular that gave the impression that somehow my marriage was in trouble?

It looks like I am not the only one... but the whole laity needs formation. I feel much better now.

Comment by: Tina Beattie
Posted: 03/03/2014 16:13:24

Those of us who tried to answer the questionnaire honestly and in a way that might be helpful to the synod on the family are misrepresented by Edmund Adamus’s ‘reflection’.

Like most other Catholics I know, I respect the Church’s teaching on marriage and parenthood. I also know from experience that marriage and family life can induce agonies of guilt over our inevitable failures and shortcomings. However, I do not experience guilt over deciding in good conscience to use contraception to limit the number of children we had. I do not feel ashamed of my adult children for cohabiting with partners who have enriched our lives by their friendship. I do not feel compelled to pass negative judgement on the loving relationships of my gay friends. I am glad that some of my divorced Catholic friends have found joy in second marriages, and I want to share the sacraments with them. In other words, I’m like the vast majority of Catholics whose answers to the questionnaire have been made public.

I seek from the Church the formation I know I need most – formation that has to do with love and generosity of spirit, with faithfulness and integrity, with wisdom and discretion, with prayer and discernment. The list is long, but it does not include learning to regard contraception, premarital sex and homosexuality as intrinsically evil, nor does it include regarding divorced and remarried Catholics as people uniquely barred from the forgiveness offered by Christ in the sacraments.

Comment by: AnnieS
Posted: 03/03/2014 13:08:41

Is it not possible that the Cardinal and Mr Adamus may be right and the majority in error? I know from personal experience how easy it is to be sincerely wrong in my misbeliefs - and how excruciatingly painful it is to let go of those opinions and repent: change my thinking. How we hate to be wrong!
The Catholic Church, by its nature, is not and never will be a democracy. But, in order to guide us on our spiritual journey, of course the Bishops need to know what Catholics really think and how we really behave. If we want them to listen to our sincerely held beliefs then we have also to listen to theirs.
I also have a feeling that some time ago I read that St Faustina et al have said that the Lord prefers our obedience to our being right.

Comment by: RecusantResistance
Posted: 28/02/2014 08:43:22

Given that it was Archbishop Nichols who promised a reflection and not his staff team it would be extraordinary if the new Cardinal had not authorised the content of this text published in his Diocesan newspaper. Either that or that he had authorised its delegation to one of his Auxillary Bishops.
Given the sensitivity of this subject not to have done so would either have not fulfilled a personal promise or to have consciously thrown a member of staff unprotected into a melee of predictable criticism across the Diocese as well as on your site. Of course if neither of those were true it would be a dereliction of competence in putting the staffer at risk without seeing the wall of criticism that would be directed at him. Neither of those two options would suggest a ground for hope for a Cardinal who has sought to position himself as courageous preacher on social policy topics.

Otherwise one can only be reminded of the US Priest who conducted a survey of observant Catholics and their attitude to the Church's teachings. Upon finding that 85% rejected the Church's teachings on contraception his local Cardinal told him that he must have surveyed the 'wrong' Catholics. the upside for him was he got his research funded three more times but still couldn't find any more of the 'right' ones.

Edmund Adamus/Vincent Nichols are wrong that the problem is a failure of formation: All the evidence shows that the Church's formal teaching has been seriously considered and rejected !

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