Pope Francis' latest surprise: a survey on the modern family

Pope Francis is shaking things up
The pontiff with a penchant for
surprises is making new waves by
launching a survey of his flock on
issues facing modern families — from
gay marriage to divorce.
Very specific questions are being sent
to parishes around the globe in
preparation for next year's synod of
bishops, a grassroots effort that
experts say is unprecedented.
"It's fascinating," said Thomas
Groome, a professor of theology at
Boston College.
"It's pretty astonishing," agreed
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive
director of the gay Catholic
organization DignityUSA.
Vatican watchers say Francis' polling
attempt is extraordinary on two levels:
first, because it seeks input from rank-
and-file Roman Catholics and second,
because it touches on issues that
might have been considered off-limits
in past papacies.
The document sent to every nation's
conference of bishops notes that the
ancient church and its members are
grappling with "concerns which were
unheard of until a few years ago."
Same-sex unions, mixed marriages,
single-parent families and surrogate
mothers are all mentioned in the
prelude to a list of questions that get
into the nitty-gritty of 21st century
"What pastoral attention can be given
to people who live in these types of
[same-sex] union?"
"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?"
"Do [the divorced and remarried] feel
marginalized or suffer from the
impossibility of receiving the
"In cases where non-practicing
Catholics or declared non-believers
request the celebration of marriage,
describe how this pastoral challenge is
dealt with."
The survey is the latest sign of Francis'
willingness to engage ordinary
Catholics and promote a less
judgmental approach to hot-button
social issues.
The Argentine Jesuit elected to the
throne of St. Peter in March has drawn
widespread praise — and some
scattered criticism from conservatives
— for his comments about gays,
women, atheists and priestly celibacy .
There is nothing in the questionnaire
that says he is planning any big
changes, and a senior Vatican official
said Tuesday that the church remains
"loyal to the vision of the family where
a man and a woman join together and
procreate children."
But Fordham University theology chair
Terrence Tilley said the questionnaire
does suggest the church might tweak
some policies that don't involve
doctrine — such as denying the
sacraments to Catholics who have
divorced and remarried or opening the
church to gay couples that want to
raise adopted children Catholic.
"I think it demonstrates a grounding in
the practical realities of the world,"
Duddy-Burke said, though she
cautioned that the real test is if the
Vatican agrees to hear from a diverse
range of families at the actual synod.
Groome said it "remains to be seen" if
the polling will translate into any
action, but he's impressed nonetheless.
"To my knowledge, it's the first time in
the history of the magisterium have
genuinely attempted to consult the
laity," he said.
"At least he's started the conversation,"
Groome said.
"All of these things have been closed
issues and you could be fired for even
talking about them. Raising these
questions and polling people — it at
least signals something other than a
closed mind. You have to thank God
for small mercies."