Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Consulting Church

2014 will see the convening of an extraordinary general session of the (Catholic) Synod of Bishops on the family. The purpose of this is to respond to the changing cultural landscape with regards to attitudes towards family structure, same-sex relations and gender issues in general (although presumably still not intersexuality). While the promise of a new contribution to the gender and theology field is exciting enough, one of the most interesting elements of this event comes in the form of one of its preparatory initiatives.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales has produced a questionnaire (which can be downloaded and filled in here) seeking to gather the views and experiences of Catholics across England and Wales on the attitudes towards issues such as divorce and ‘non-traditional’ families among congregations, presumably in order to put the hierarchy back in touch with the views of the congregations (intellectually rather than doctrinally, of course!) Some voices in the media herald this as a sign of a new openness, in line with the (dubious) popular perception of Pope Francis as liberal reformer. However, what seems to actually be a sign of is that the Church is terrible at statistics.

The questionnaire itself is comprised of forty essay questions. For example:

7a)  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?

Now it is true that the purpose of such a consultation should be, ultimately, to answer this sort of question. The problem is that these sorts of questions are normally answered through collection of quantitative data, or qualitative data presented in quantitative form (multiple choice). What the Church seems to want to do is ask its questions and just receive the answers. Then when the topic comes round to, for example, the attitude of the local and particular Churches on the issue above, the Bishops can presumably rattle off a list of responses which can then be taken into account.

 However, due to the form of the answers, what the bishops actually end up with is basically a literature review of several thousand opinions, varying in both clarity and insight, and with no way to effectively present an overview which reflects the nuances of the field.  This method traps the Church in a hilarious double-bind. On the one hand, the greater the participation in the survey the more representative it is. On the other hand, the greater the participation in the survey, the worse the conclusions of the Bishops’ report become as the data becomes unmanageable. At the time of writing, roughly 5000 people are reported to have filled in the survey (including the inevitable non-Catholic trolls). This seems too few to be representative of what must constitute a significant chunk of Britain’s five million Catholics, but more than enough to be unwieldy.

There is, however, an alternative reading. Bishops are not stupid people, and nor are their researchers. They are deeply involved in politics on a number of levels, and so must be regularly exposed to statistics. Therefore it seems odd that they would make such a pig’s ear of this. As such, we are faced with a question: just what is the point in this consultation anyway? A cynic could claim that it is merely a PR exercise: by seeming to engage with the opinions of the common Catholic, the Church seeks to appear more open and ‘democratic’. If this were true, it would be both patronising and inauthentic. To feign an interest in people’s very real opinions and experiences is to belittle them, treating them as no more than a means to an end and with little value in themselves. To do so would thus be highly disrespectful both of these people as people, and also (in the language of the Church) as members of the mystical body of Christ in possession of the Holy Spirit: the laity may not be members of the administrative priesthood, but it is ultimately only on the presupposition of the spiritual priesthood that the administrative one exists. Furthermore, if the Church did indeed feel that it has theological justification for ignoring the input of its members, then it should fall back on this justification rather than hiding behind a smokescreen in an attempt to pander to ideologies which it resists.


That said, it is still possible that this is all just an honest mess. The document itself is longer and features more meaningful questions than you might expect if it were merely a cursory gesture. I just hope that this is the case – inability to produce decent consultations is a problem that can be sorted with an afternoon’s seminar. The alternative would indicate that the Church faces a problem of disjunction between the clergy and the laity far deeper than even those which the consultation was devised to overcome.

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