Rome listens to flock at last

Quizzing parishioners on faith and daily life could be a turning point for the Catholic Church, writes Jackie Kemp. Published in the Scotsman November 5 2013. It is a document that may have momentous implications for the future of a venerable institution which is recognised throughout the world. Tens of thousands of Scots are poring over it, considering their own responses and how to articulate them. No, it is not the white paper on Scottish independence. It is the Catholic Church’s questionnaire on social attitudes to the family, which for the first time asks for the faithful’s thoughts on the thorny issues of gay marriage, divorce and contraception. Across the country, it is sparking discussions of difficult subjects which for many years have been no-go areas. It as if a door which had been locked tight for many years had suddenly creaked open.


It is probably the case that more Scots are puzzling over the second document than the first. The white paper has “sold” out its initial run of 20,000 hard copies (it is actually free within the UK) and the electronic version has been downloaded 30,000 times.

But Scotland has 841,000 Catholics according to the recent census figures – 40,000 more than a decade ago – half of whom attend Mass once a month or more. Printed copies of the questionnaire are proving popular with attendees, who take extra ones home to hand out to lapsed loved ones who may want to favour the Vatican with their views.

The Vatican document’s opening question is a showstoppingly turgid: “Describe how the Catholic Church’s teachings on the value of the family contained in the Bible, Gaaudium et spes, Familiaris 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?”

This has been criticised as reminiscent of a divinity exam question and there are several simplified versions available. The Diocese of Glasgow renders question one as: “To what extent is the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life well known and understood?”

But despite its recondite language, the survey which is a preparation for an Extraordinary Synod on the Family to take place next October, really is extraordinary. For the first time, it addresses the fact that many people in the pews live with a reality that contradicts Church teachings. For the first time, it asks them to feed back their experience.

One friend, in his eighties, who has lived his life through the prism of a deep faith which he shares with his family, is going to write on the form that he feels personally hurt by the existence of a ruling which says that his daughter, a loving mother and grandmother and a lifelong Catholic, should not take Communion because she is divorced.

In fact, this ruling is quietly ignored at his local church as it is at many others, but my friend is aware of it and it saddens him to feel that his daughter is slighted. She tried hard in her marriage but it did not work out. However, he is pleased to feel that Pope Francis, whom he describes as “a very nice man”, is interested in what he thinks.

Given the divorce rates in modern Scotland, there must be many Catholics who have a similar experience and will be equipped to answer the question on the rule that divorced people should not receive the Eucharist.

The Vatican asks how they feel about this: “Are they aware of it? Are they simply indifferent? Do they feel marginalised or suffer from the impossibility of receiving the sacraments?”

The survey also asks if cohabitation before marriage is a reality in the experience of the responder and about the local churches’ attitude to same-sex unions.

My elderly friend accepts gay civil partnerships – although he would not like to see gays married in church – and says “a gay person is probably as good a Catholic as I am”.

The questionnaire also asks about how local churches are meeting the needs of gay couples as parents, and whether they are providing sacraments and religious teaching to their children.

Another friend is pleased to see a discussion of contraception. “No-one talks about contraception in the church. Priests don’t talk about it because they don’t feel informed.”

She said there was a general assumption that no-one was sticking to the rules laid out in the document Humanae Vitae.

She said: “There are some interesting things in there and I have pretty much always stuck to it, but I have no idea if anyone else has.”

One question in the survey is about whether people who follow their own conscience on the issue of contraception feel guilty. “Of course people don’t feel guilty about that,” my friend said. “Why should they?”

It is not surprising if behaviours that are increasingly accepted, normalised and validated in the wider world have become common amongst Catholics despite the fact they remain technically against the rules.

But creating a culture where there was no place for people to talk about the collision between their faith and their daily life has been harmful to the Church. Secrets have a habit of coming out. And in Scotland, the recent revelations regarding Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s private life have called attention to the fact that it is not just the laity who were keeping silent about their failure to meet the ideals to which they apparently subscribed.

This is a historic moment for the Catholic Church. There are may who feel that reforms promised by the congress of Vatican ll in the 1960s were “bottled” and that reform has been held back for too long. This survey may be the beginning of a new chapter in the Church’s long story.