Never Ask a Question
There is an old bit of advice that a trial lawyer should never ask a question he does not already know the answer to; another version, illustrated by the following (apocryphal) story, says he should never ask a question if he does not want to hear the answer.
In a trial, a small-town prosecuting attorney called his first witness, a grandmotherly, elderly woman, to the stand. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?”
She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you, Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a boy, and frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a big shot when you haven’t the brains to realize you’ll never amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.”
The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?”
She again replied, “Why yes, I do.” And, again, she continued, “I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. He’s lazy, bigoted, and he has a drinking problem. He can’t build a normal relationship with anyone, and his law practice is one of the worst in the entire state. Not to mention he cheated on his wife with three different women. One of them was your wife. Yes, I know him.”
The defense attorney nearly died.
The judge asked both counselors to approach the bench and, in a very quiet voice, said, “If either of you idiots asks her if she knows me, I’ll hold both of you in contempt of court.”
Last fall, in preparation for the Synod on the Family, the Vatican (presumably at Pope Francis’ behest) sent a survey to all the national bishops’ conferences, asking them to gather responses to the questions as widely as possible. The survey was not a poll constructed according to modern sociological standards, but rather a list of lengthy questions more easily answered in a narrative format. Several bishops conferences, most notably in England and Wales, Germany and Switzerland, nevertheless conducted surveys of their laity to gather responses. The secular press also took part, with the Spanish language network Univision commissioning a methodical, multi-nation survey. (An executive summary is here as a PDF document.)
In the United States, however, the USCCB did not conduct a national survey, nor did it call on each bishop to conduct surveys or otherwise seek responses from a broad pool of people. In my own archdiocese, I have heard nothing about if or how our archbishops (in December Archbishop Mansell stepped down and was replaced by Archbishop Blair) planned to gather information and respond. A few dioceses, however, did attempt to survey their laity, including San Jose, California, and St. Petersburg, Florida. Bishop Lynch of St. Petersburg, like the German and Swiss bishops, released the results publicly.
What is the reason for this reticence on the part of the American bishops, both individually and collectively, to gather responses from a broad array of the laity? It would not have been too difficult to get CARA or some other research firm to convert the synodal questions into a meaningful survey document—indeed, they would probably have done a better job than a secular firm, since they could have probed with more depth and more nuance into issues that are not sexy but are fundamental. (This is what the Swiss bishops did.) Or they could have simply asked publicly for feedback, and used the many responses, with all their biases, to get some some sense of what people are thinking.
I started this post with two bits of advice for trial lawyers. The first does not apply: I find it impossible to believe that our bishops are not aware of the disconnect between Church teaching and what the laity actually believe and do. Indeed, there have been rumors for years that these very topics are discussed quietly at the annual USCCB meetings, but pressure from Rome and the most conservative faction of bishops kept it off the official agenda. Were they to ask the laity what they think, I do not believe they would be surprised by the answers.
With regards to the second bit of advice: I think it is quite possible that they do not want to ask the question because if they do and then hear the answer, they will have to acknowledge the facts on the ground. Like the judge in the story, they are afraid the answer will not reflect well on the Church, or at least on the effectiveness of the teaching magisterium. And in one sense it won’t: the media and the broader culture already see the current situation as a massive failure of the Church’s teaching office, and the bishops acknowledging this fact will only make it worse. Of course, this trope ignores the complicated and messy history of Catholic teaching and its reception. The vision of the laity marching in lockstep to the directions of Rome exists only in the minds of nostalgic restorationists and the fantasies of anti-Catholics (among whom I include, in it softer form, much of the secular media).
Now, however, the bishops have the problem that Rome has asked the question, and the Pope is genuinely interested in hearing the answer. How should they respond? Two predictable suggestions split in opposite directions. One is that they should hold firm on Church teaching and preach it more forcefully. Indeed, when these issues come up in our commboxes, a common response is for someone to say: “I never hear my deacon/pastor/bishop preach forcefully about these matters.” Or they point out a priest or bishop who does, but do so to highlight their minority status. The alternative response is that the Church should change its doctrine given the massive failure of this doctrine to be accepted. There is some truth to both positions: the Church does need to teach clearly but at the same time, the reception of doctrine, or the failure to be accepted, is a mark of the sensus fidelium of the whole faithful.
However, neither answer is adequate. We cannot continue to teach in the same way, with the same language, if it is clear that we are not being heard. As we discussed in an earlier post, this problem applies not just to controversial issues but even to core doctrinal issues such as the Real Presence. And I will be the first to admit that the sensus fidelium cannot be reduced to polling data. (I believe Pope Francis made a similar point, but I cannot find the quote.)
I propose instead that the bishops begin by really listening to their flocks. Not to dispute with them, or to agree with them, but to understand them. They need make an effort to hear “[t]he joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted” as the Fathers of Vatican II put it in Gaudium et Spes. Reflecting on the sexual abuse crisis, one thing I noticed was that many victims wanted, more than anything else, to be heard, to have their suffering acknowledged. Unfortunately, it took many (most?) bishops far too long to understand this fact.
The Synod on the Family will be in two parts. There may not be time before the first half in October 2014, when the bishops are to report, but there will be plenty of time before the 2015 meeting. Armed with what they have heard from other bishops, the American bishops should return home and listen to the laity for themselves, and shape their responses and proposals in light of this. This will be hard and for many reasons the bishops will be loath to do this. Their own experience shows the problems that can occur: their last attempt at broad consultation—the failed attempt in the late 80’s to write a pastoral letter on women—ended badly.
Will things change? I think they will: there already appears to be movement to address the question of divorce and remarriage, though it is not clear what shape the final solution will take. But I hope and pray for a bigger change: a change in the relationship between the bishops and the laity. “Pray, pay and obey” never really worked, and it will not work now. The Latin root of the word “obey” is “obedire”, to listen. I want a Church in which the laity listen and understand their bishops, whether on abortion and same sex marriage or on immigration and economic justice. But I don’t think this will happen until the bishops start listening to the laity.