Responses to Synod questionnaire on ACP website published

Exactly 1,562 people participated in a version of the Vatican survey on Family Life that was prepared by the Association of Catholic Priests and hosted on this website. The participants included priests, religious, lay people, parents and teachers.
Respondents generally welcomed the opportunity to participate but there was widepread criticism of the subject matter (emphasis on sexuality) and format (overly long, complicated, linguistically challenging).
The key findings from the overall responses is that those who participated consider the Church’s teaching on family life, sexual practice and sexual unions to be little understood, not relevant, of low influence and not agreed with, whether understood or not.
These findings are consistent across all age groups and religious role (clergy, lay etc) where identified.
Whilst there is general strong welcome for the consultation process and it seems that there is a strong demand for consultation, respondents in general would wish to be consulted on matters other than sexual morality on which the large majority of the sample have already made up their minds. Matters identified as relevant include church structures, role of women, financial matters, keeping faith in a consumer society etc.
In October 2013, a Vatican questionnaire was sent to bishops’ conferences across the world in preparation for an Extraordinary Synod on “The pastoral challenges to the Family in the context of Evangelization” to be held in October 2014. It was accompanied by a commentary affirming Catholic church teaching on family life and outlining challenges in this area. The conferences were requested to share the questionnaire widely.
In Ireland, the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) reformatted and amended the questionnaire and made it available on their website ( for visitors to complete. This document outlines the background to the ACP questionnaire and the principal findings.
Format of Vatican Questionnaire
The questionnaire supplied by the Vatican contained 39 questions on family issues, broken into 8 themes as follows:

  • The Diffusion of the Teachings on the Family in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Magisterium
  • Marriage according to the Natural Law
  • The Pastoral Care of the Family in Evangelization
  • Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations
  • On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex
  • The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages
  • The Openness of the Married Couple to Life
  • The Relationship Between the Family and the Person

Upon receipt of the questionnaire, many bishops’ conferences, media and church organisations considered its content and wording problemmatic. This comment from The Tablet in the UK offers typical reaction: “The survey, which includes abstract questions on natural law, has been criticised by some who feel parts of it are unintelligible.”
Content, intelligibility and wording issues affect confidence in research findings generally. It is also worth noting that there are additional issues that would make the questionnaire difficult to analyse and report from a research perspective. These include:

  • All questions are open-ended e.g. how, what, to what extent etc. There are no response choices offered e.g. yes/no, multiple choice, Likert scale etc. They invite textual answers that are difficult to codify or compare.
  • The questionnaire would take a great deal of time to complete. Its length (39 questions) and difficulty (open-ended questions requiring theological knowledge and familiarity with specialist literature) minimises the likelihood of completion and raises the likelihood of incomplete answers.
  • No profile information is sought from respondents e.g. age, sex, relationship status etc. It would, therefore, not be possible to see any variation in response between categories of respondent.
  • Section 4 ‘Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations’ and Section 6 ‘The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages’ ask for quantitative information on social groupings such as separated and cohabiting couples and their families. Such questions are more appropriate to Census-type research than consultation processes where opinion is sought. The correct responses are available in the Republic of Ireland Census data via a special run request from the CSO for cross tabulation of church membership and family type. Similar information is also be available for Northern Ireland.
  • Distribution and collection methods were not prescribed or suggested i.e. how should the questionnaire be administered – in person, electronically, focus group etc.

Reformatting of Vatican Questionnaire
As a result of the lack of direction on distribution and the other difficulties outlined, many conferences and groups receiving the questionnaire decided to reformat it before distribution.

  •  Typical approaches in the English-speaking world included:
  • Simplifying the language in the questions,
  • Formatting the questionnaire for electronic distribution and completion via an online survey website such as Survey Monkey,
  • Inclusion of codifiable response choices e.g. I agree/disagree, Likert scale (scaling responses such as Strongly Agree, Agree, Neither Agree nor Disagree, Disagree, Strongly Agree),
  • Inclusion of questions seeking demographic profile information e.g. age, sex, relationship status, church participation status etc.,
  • Addition to or omission of some of the original questions.

ACP Questionnaire
In Ireland, the Association of Catholic Priests, whilst welcoming the opportunity for consultation, shared many of the concerns expressed internationally about the questionnaire. It prepared what it termed a ‘more user-friendly’ version of the questionnaire with the following variations:

  • Demographic information about the respondents was sought – age, location, relationship status and religious role (e.g. priest, lay person, religious etc).
  • ACP asks 48 rather than 39 questions. The additions include demographic profiling questions and the separation of some multi-part questions.
  • Additional questions on the importance of marriage equality and of contraception were asked.
  • Multiple choice options were given for several questions although 20 open-ended ones remain.
  • Several questions were amended in order to simplify (e.g. removal of Latin phrasing) or to remove offensive language (e.g. irregular marriages).
  • The questionnaire was prepared for online completion via Survey Monkey.

Despite the reformatting, many of the unsatisfactory features of the original version remain. In addition, some opportunities for effective sub-category analysis was lost by 1) failure to ask respondents their gender and 2) offering the option to select multiple categories in Question 3 where respondents could, for example, describe themselves both as a priest and a weekly mass-goer. This led to widespread confusion as many priests only ticked the ‘Priest’ box and moved on to the next question. The question didn’t include a category of daily mass-goer and this confused daily attendees as to whether they should tick or ignore the ‘weekly mass-goer’ option.
The questionnaire was made available via a link from the ACP website. This was promoted and publicised in four principal ways:

  1. Bulk email message to 4,000 recipients on the contacts database of the ACP.
  2. Individual ACP members may have promoted the survey through their own parishes, communities or organisation.
  3. There was short but significant national media coverage including RTE.
  4. Casual or regular visitors to the ACP website would have encountered the questionnaire directly.

Despite the shortcomings of the questionnaire’s format and its confused presentation of demographic choices, the responses represent a large and varied sample of Irish Roman Catholics. It is unique in its reach and many respondents expressed their enthusiasm and gratitude for the opportunity to participate. It is fair to view it as a large group of members of an organisation articulating its views to the ‘top table’.
It should also be pointed out that there has been much confusion and disagreement about the purpose of the Vatican questionnaire. On one hand, it has been defended as a data collection exercise for dioceses to report in preparation for the Synod. Yet, it came with an exhortation to bishops to promote and publicise it as widely as possible and a Vatican spokesperson has been explicit in stating that local laity are the target respondents. In the former explanation, the questionnaire is aimed at specialist church administrators rather than being a consultation with church members. This could explain much of the inaccessibility of the content and presentation. On the other hand, the exhortation to distribute widely has been taken by ordinary Catholics worldwide to be an offer of consultation and this has been embraced at parish level and amongst church reform organisations. The widely varying levels of distribution by bishops also demonstrates a divergence of understanding as to what is the intended target audience of the original questionnaire.
 Objective of Report
In practice, the questionnaire has now been re-interpreted and reformatted to varying degrees across the world and within dioceses. Whilst there may be varying views on the methodological weaknesses of different versions of questionnaire and on the wisdom of diverging from the Vatican version, this report now sets about reporting the principal findings as articulated by the 1562 respondents to the ACP version.
It takes the questions and responses as given and is, therefore, distinct from the phases of questionnaire design and delivery. It reports mainly at a global level, outlining overall responses. There is some breakdown information by age but less by other categories (religious role and relationship status), given the data separation difficulties that arise from the way these questions were posed.
Sample Selection, Response Rate and Respondent Profile
There were 1562 respondents to the survey. These consist entirely of visitors to the ACP website,
Exactly 1,389 respondents (87% of all respondents gave their age category). The overall respondent profile is of a high age subset within the overall Irish population.

  • Just 19.8% are under 45 years, about one-third of the population at large.
  • 71% are aged between 46 and 75 years, about two and half times that of the general population.
  • 9% are aged over 75 years, almost twice the proportion in the general population.
  • 34.7% of respondents are over 65 years compared to 11.7% of the general population.

Relationship Status
Some 54% of respondents are married whilst 34% classify themselves as single. 41 respondents have been divorced, equal to 3% of respondents. 2% are classified as separated whilst 2% are in ‘domestic partnerships’. Although respondents were asked to ‘tick all that apply’ and, therefore, could classify themselves in multiple categories, less than 40 did so.
Religious Role
Respondents were asked ‘in what capacity are you answering these questions?’. 12 non-exclusive categories were offered, of which respondents could choose ‘all that apply’. The respondents comprised 958 lay persons and 173 priests.  Just 41 divorcees and 27 separated persons undertook the questionnaire. They form 3% and 2% respectively of the overall sample. 8 persons (0.6%) identified themselves as being in civil unions and 26 (2%) in domestic partnerships.
The respondent profile can be compared with the total relevant population e.g. Roman Catholics living in Ireland.

  • There are 3.86 million Roman Catholics in the Republic of Ireland and 783, 033 in Northern Ireland. In the Republic, they account for 84.2% of the total national population (the lowest on record, decreasing continually since the highest proportion in 1961). In the North, RCs account for 41% of the total population.
  • The demographic profile of Roman Catholics resembles very closely that of the general population but the average age is slightly higher. The age profile of those completing the ACP profile is considerably older than the general population and that of the self-identified RC population generally.
  • There were 64,798 divorced and 96,779 separated RCs in the Republic of Ireland in 2011. The divorce rate amongst RCs is now 3.6% (up from 2.6% in 2006 ), only slightly below the national rate of 4.2% .
  • Those in ‘domestic partnerships’ and civil unions are significantly underrepresented in the respondent group.

As participation in the questionnaire was open to all and only limited demographic details were requested, it is not possible to assess the overall representativeness of the final respondent sample other than to make the comments above.
Principal Findings – Quantitative
Understanding of Church Teaching on the Family: (Q. 6) Describe how well the Catholic Church’s teachings on the value of the family is understood by Catholics today? (As contained in the Bible, Gaudium et Spes, Familiaris Consortio and other documents of the post-conciliar Magisterium) This question was answered by 1134 people or 73% of all respondents. 73% of those that answered described the church’s teaching on the family as ‘poorly understood’. 27% considered it ‘mostly’ or ‘completely understood’.
Acceptance of Church Teaching on the Family: (Q. 8) In those cases where the Church’s teaching on family life is known, is it accepted fully? This question was answered by 1,078 respondents or 69% of the total. Respondents could give separate answers for the acceptance of Church teaching on the family (where known) at parish, diocesan and national level. 60% consider that acceptance is ‘not widespread’ at national level. This drops to 47% at parish level. 5% consider that acceptance is ‘very widespread’ at parish level whilst just 1% consider it so at national level.
Influence of “Natural Law” per Magisterium: (Q. 10) What influence does “natural law”, as defined by the magisterium, have in areas of society? The response rate to this question was 67%. Respondents were asked to rate the influence of “natural law” as defined by the Magisterium in education, politics, parish and among society at large. Response options were no, some or widespread influence or ‘don’t know’. It is considered to have highest influence in parishes, followed by education but few consider it to have ‘widespread influence’ in any social or political spheres. ‘Some influence’ is ascribed to it in parishes by 50% of respondents, in education by 49%, in society at large by 42% and in politics by 34%. It is seen as having ‘no influence’ in politics by 45% and in society at large by 35%. 23% see it as having ‘no Influence’ in their parish.
Acceptance of Union between Man and Woman as contained in “natural law”: (Q. 11) Is the idea of the union between a man and a woman, as contained in “Natural law” commonly accepted by Catholics? This question was answered by 64% of respondents. The answers provided and the high rate of non-answer may be influenced by the response choices – the only option between complete and non-acceptance being ‘accepted sometimes’ i.e. there was no option for partial acceptance although many may have understood ‘sometimes’ to be equivalent to ‘partial’.
Nevertheless, there is little ambiguity about the finding that just 16% of those that answered consider the idea of a union between a man and a woman, as contained in ‘natural law’, to be completely accepted by Catholics. The corresponding rate for the sub-categories of Professed Religious and Member of Church Reform Organisations are 11% and 10% respectively.
Success of Church in Proposing Family Prayer in today’s Culture: (Q. 15) How successful has the Church been in proposing a manner of praying within the family which can withstand life’s complexities and today’s culture? 58% of respondents answered this question. 70% of these consider the Church unsuccessful in this matter.
Reality or Otherwise of Cohabitation: (Q. 20) Is cohabitation (couples living together before getting married) a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage?  59% of all respondents answered this question and 98% of these consider cohabitation as defined to be a pastoral reality. The second part of the question is treated separately but is phrased in a confusing manner – ‘I estimate the percentage of cohabitation as: (then offers ten point brackets or bins up to 91-100%). However, the question doesn’t state the percentage of which overall status is required e.g. is it a percentage of all unions or a percentage those who are not married. As stated previously, this question is more suitable for examination in census –type research.
As stated previously, this question is captured in CSO Census data, which shows that there are 143,000 cohabiting couples in the Republic of Ireland. Further headline information includes:

  • 13% of households with one or more children where the youngest child is under 15 years consists of cohabiting unmarried couples.
  • Cohabiting couples with children are increasing at a faster rate than childless cohabiting couples, suggesting that cohabitation as an ongoing choice rather than as a short-term precursor to marriage is increasing.
  • 4,042 cohabiting same-sex couples were recorded in 2011.

Given the numbers involved and the resemblance of the RC population with the total Republic of Ireland population, inferences can be drawn about the levels and reality of cohabitation and cohabiting shared parenthood among RCs in ROI. Complete accuracy can be obtained by a 2011 Census special run request to the CSO.
Reality or Otherwise of Separated, Divorced and Remarried Couples: (Q. 22): Are separated couples and those divorced and remarried a pastoral reality in your particular Church? 56% answered this question and 89% of these responded ‘Yes, this is a pastoral reality.’ From the 2011 Census of Population, it is known that there were 64,798 divorced and 96,779 separated RCs in the Republic of Ireland in 2011. The divorce rate amongst RCs is now 3.6% (up from 2.6% in 2006 ), slightly below the national rate of 4.2%.
Rules Regulating the Nullity of Marriage: (Q. 26) Could a simplification of the rules regulating the nullity of the marriage bond provide a positive contribution? If yes, what form would it take? 50% of respondents answered this questions and of these, 78% consider that a simplification of the rules would be positive. This rises to 87% for Professed Religious respondents. In the overall respondent groups, it is worth noting the variation amongst age groups, showing strongest support from older respondents.
Existence of Ministry to the Separated, Divorced and Remarried: (Q. 27) Is there a ministry to the separated, divorced and remarried in your Parish / Diocese / National church? The responses show that few are aware of such ministries at either parish, diocesan or national church levels.
Attitudes towards ‘Marriage Equality’ and Same-Sex Couples: (Q. 30) What is the attitude of the following towards marriage equality? 51% answered this question in which respondents were asked to rate the attitude of their diocese, parish and small faith community toards marriage equality and towards same-sex couples. In general, small faith communities are rated as being more supportive than parishes which are, in turn, rated as being more supportive to this concept and group than dioceses. At an overall level, two-thirds of those who answered consider dioceses to be ‘negative’ or ‘hostile and condemning’ towards same-sex couples whilst 11% consider them somewhat or highly ‘supportive’.
Importance of Marriage Equality: (Q. 32) How important is marriage equality to you? This question is not contained in the original Vatican questionnaire. 56% of respondents answered and 47% of these consider marriage equality as ‘extremely’ or ‘very important’. A further 23% consider it ‘somewhat important’. 18% consider it ‘not at all important and 11% ticked ‘did not know’ or ‘prefer not to be answer.’ Lack of definition of the phrase ‘marriage equality’ may have affected actual responses and the level of non-response.
Church Authority and those in non-recognised Relationships: (Q. 34) Do you think parents in marriages not recognised by the official Catholic Church (ie same-sex couples, divorced and remarried, etc.) approach the Church for: sacraments, catechesis, and/or general teaching of the church? Check all that apply.  A large majority of those who answered this question consider that those in non-recognised relationships are more likely to partake in the sacraments than approach the Church for catechesis or general Church teaching.
Family Planning – Knowledge of Humanae Vitae: (Q. 37) Humanae Vitae is the document that outlines the Church’s teaching on family planning. What knowledge do Catholics have today of the teachings of Humanae Vitae on responsible parenthood? Are they aware of how morally to evaluate the different methods of family planning? Could any insights be suggested in this regard pastorally? 53% answered this question. Just 7% believe that Christians today are very knowledgeable about Humanae Vitae. Most (60%) consider that Christians have some knowledge whilst 29% consider them to have no such knowledge or awareness. Interestingly, respondents under 35 years of age are more likely to think that Catholics are ‘very knowledgeable’ about the teachings of Humanae Vitae on both parts of this question.
Acceptance of the teaching of Humanae Vitae: (Q. 38) Is the moral teaching of Humanae Vitae accepted? It is not clear from this question if respondents are being asked if the teaching is accepted by all in society or by members of the Church. 52% of survey respondents answered this question. 69% consider the teaching to be ‘not accepted’ today whilst 31% believe it to be ‘accepted in part’. This rises to 74% for Professed Religious respondents and 76% of Priests. Just 5 respondents from the 826 who answered believe it to be ‘completely accepted’. Again this is more likely to be the case amongst those under 35 years of age but the low number in the under 35 years category gives rise to caution against wider inference.
Availability of Contraception: (Q. 41) How important is the availability of contraception to you and your community? 51% of all respondents answered this question. 76% of those who gave a response consider the availability of contraception to be ‘extremely’ or ‘somewhat important’ to themselves or to their community. This was the case across all categories – 66% of Priests who responded (113) ticked one of these two options. There is some variation with age as is evident in the diagram.
Although the question doesn’t explicitly state whether it is referring to natural or artificial methods, there can be strong confidence that most respondents would understand it to be the latter. This is consistent with responses to a later question (Q.43) where 66% of respondents who answered stated that they support alternatives to Humanae Vitae including contraception.
Family Planning and Participation in the Sacraments: (Q. 42) What is your experience on this subject in the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and participation at the Eucharist? (Check all that apply) 47% of respondents answered this question. Just 66 people (9% of those who answered) ‘fully support the Church’s teaching on family planning and use only methods approved by the Church’.

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