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Polling the Laity is Always a Bad Idea Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Friday, 15 November 2013

Polling is one of the great tools of modern political campaigns, and one of the banes, too.

Polls can be wildly inaccurate. Look at virtually any poll prior to any vote on same-sex marriage in the many states where it has been voted down. They uniformly showed traditional marriage would lose.  But with only one exception, traditional marriage has won, even in liberal states.

Polls rely on many intangibles that can sway the person answering: the wording of the question, the sample size, and where they are drawn from.

The results of polls are often used not to find out what people are really thinking but to sway the people in one direction or the other. A candidate down 15 percent in a series of polls can lose further support because his potential voters are thoroughly demoralized.

So why has the Church sent around a questionnaire on the hot button teachings like same-sex marriage, divorce, and contraception? Is the Church now open to changing its teaching based on the results? The mainstream media thinks so, as do progressive Catholics.

The Church is planning an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops looking specficially at “Pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization” to take place in October 2014. Last October 18, the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops sent a preparatory document to the world’s bishops and to others that included a questionnaire and asked them “to share it immediately as widely as possible…so that input from local sources can be received.” 

        Let me be clear: I'm less concerned here about the intentions of the Vatican and more about the way the questionnaire is being used by progressives. Such questionnaires, seeking episcopal feedback, have been used before. And it is not clear that the Vatican has, in this case, actually asked for the participation of the laity. 

In any case, the reaction has been both swift and excited and predictable. The Democratic pressure group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good created www.papalsurvey.com where they will gather answers and forward them to the Vatican.

The always excitable National Catholic Reporter wrote, “The Vatican has asked national bishops’ conferences around the world to conduct a wide-ranging poll of Catholics asking for their opinion on church teachings on contraception, same-sex marriage, and divorce.” They went on to announce this was the first time the Church’s hierarchy has asked for such input from grassroots Catholics since at least the establishment of the synod system.

Some dioceses have eagerly put the questionnaire up on a website called “Survey Monkey.” The Church in England and Wales has done so, as has the diocese of Broken Bay, Australia. There are probably more.

Linger over this for a minute: Survey Monkey is a public site that allows virtually anyone with an Internet connection to answer. 

I hope that rock-ribbed traditionalists are out there pushing their teams to answer, just as I am sure the progressives are doing so. I suspect some cheeky atheists are also answering, maybe Muslims, too. Why not everybody? Why not have anyone and everyone “vote” on Church teaching?

But what is this document anyway? Preparatory documents (lineamenta) are always sent out to bishops prior to a Synod and with the documents there are questions for the bishops to ponder. And bishops are urged to consult over the questions and come back with responses.

What is unclear at this time is whether they have ever asked for such a broad consultation, if that's indeed what's happening. And it's rather clear that the letter from the Vatican hasn't precisely asked for a poll of the laity. It asks for “input from local sources.” 

What the heck does that mean? For Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, it means polling the general public, and, sad to say, it also means that for the Church in England and Wales.

But when you read the questions themselves, you are hard-pressed to figure how even a highly educated, fully catechized layman could answer them. And, it should be noted, the questions are not as much about Church teachings per se (as progressives and the media are reporting), but about how Church teachings are understood and received.

Check out the first question: “Describe how the Catholic Church’s teachings on the value of the family contained in the Bible, Gaudium et SpesFamiliaris Consortio, and other documents of the post-conciliar Magisterium is understood by people today?”

How about this one: “What place does the idea of the natural law have in the cultural areas of society: in institutions, education, academic circles, and among the people at large? What anthropological ideas underlie the discussion on the natural basis of the family?”

Does anybody think the average layman is equipped to answer such questions? My wife is a Georgetown-educated lawyer who has worked on complicated legal and policy issues her whole professional life. She would blanche at answering these questions, as most of us would.

And then there are the questions that can only cause mischief. Under same-sex relations, the only questions are about “civil unions” and the pastoral attention to people in such unions. Nothing whatsoever about the Catholic understanding that same-sex marriage is never allowed or that same-sex adoption does “violence” to the child, as the Church teaches.

And then look at how a progressive group rewrites the questions to advance their own agenda. Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good asks, “How does your parish community welcome same-sex couples and gay persons? How are they included in the life of the parish? Are they given sufficient space to be full and active members of the Church?” 

This treatment is not even in the “papal survey,” but you can see what these guys are doing. 

Finally, there is an expectations game that is profoundly dangerous. Recall the great expectations leading up the Vatican commission’s report on contraception back in the 1960s. The world knew that the Church would allow the pill. 

When Pope Paul VI bravely issued Humanae Vitae, there was a shock to the system that is still reverberating, in large measure due to thwarted expectations. One wonders what expectations are building over this “papal survey.”

 
Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.
 
 
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Comments (33)Add Comment
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written by Frank, November 15, 2013
"Does anybody think the average layman is equipped to answer such questions? My wife is a Georgetown-educated lawyer who has worked on complicated legal and policy issues her whole professional life. She would blanche at answering these questions, as most of us would."

Well Mr. Ruse, I'm sure your lovely wife is smart with her G'Town pedigree but etc etc but with that paragraph, you have blatantly indicted yourself as an elitist. Perhaps the "average layman" might not understand all of the questions but please give us average laymen living in our "double wides" the benefit of the doubt that a great deal of common sense was passed on to us. Please don't confuse knowledge with common sense.

Somewhere out there is a nun with an 18 inch ruler made of oak ready to give you a few raps on your knuckles for you smug hubris.
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, November 15, 2013
One of the real shockers for me when I read this survey was the reference to "civil unions." The very fact that the Vatican would even think that there is any union - civil or otherwise - that is possible between two men or two women scares the hell out of me. What were they thinking? The word "arrangement" would have been apt - just as it would if I were to go out and consort with a prostitute. That would no more be a "union" no matter what I thought about it.

The other thought I had was similar to what Mr Ruse mentioned about his wife: "My wife is a Georgetown-educated lawyer who has worked on complicated legal and policy issues her whole professional life. She would blanche at answering these questions, as most of us would." My thoughts exactly! I had to admit to myself that if asked my my bishop to respond to these questions (and he won't) I would have to do some serious study, as well as reflecting (to say nothing about praying) in order to give a fair treatment to these questions.

Giving these questions out for mass distribution by the bishops instead of seeking input from reliable thinkers, will result in only one thing: a free-for-all.
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written by Chris in Maryland, November 15, 2013
Frank - what you just wrote is ridiculous...and uncivil.

From the very 1st question, the survey has little or nothing to do with common sense.
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written by Austin Ruse, November 15, 2013
Actually, Frank, i have made the case that we are average.
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written by Derek, November 15, 2013
Frank, are you kidding? Those questions are asked in the context of understanding church documents that even well educated and catechized Catholics have not read, much less integrated into an entire philosophy. Mr. Ruse was not being an elitist. He was being realistic. That was a pretty judgmental response on your part.
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written by Manfred, November 15, 2013
Thank you for a very timely warning, Mr Ruse. It will be remembered the the subject of contraception was removed from the agenda just before the Vat. II Council as it was felt, so I have been told, that the Fathers would have voted to accept it. Recall the so-called "birth control commission" installed by Paul VI after the Council. I had lunch years ago with Msgr George Kelly who served on that commission and he described it as an exercise in insanity. The members, who had no idea what there purpose was, read between the lines and assumed their purpose, as indirectly intended by the Pope, was to approve the use of contraceptives which the majority did. A few years after that debacle, Paul issued Humanae Vitae (1968).
The unfortunate truth is that the Church is filled with men who have fled mature responsibility and who cannot deal with the "hard sayings" of which the critics of Christ spoke. The result is the "pastoral approach" which consists of endless dialogue and meetings which produce no result.
The very subject of predator priests can never be properly addressed by the hierarchy TO THIS DAY and the cost to the Church is in the billions.
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written by Ted seeber, November 15, 2013
I have read the documents in question, and I am not afraid to tell anybody the answer, at least for Oregon: we are too afraid of losing our material wealth to pay attention to Church Teaching. Whether it is paying our employees a living wage or giving our grandchildren the right to exit the womb alive, or giving our cancer patients the treatment we would give a pet dog, we put pennies in front of people rather consistently, and our clergy is too cowardly to do anything about it. Those few of us who defend our morality, do so because we have already lost the culture, nearly completely. It is too late for evangelization, the only hope is that the monasteries will still exist after the American Empire falls.
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written by Grump, November 15, 2013
A new poll would only validate what is already known: that many lay Catholics do not agree with the Church's moral teachings. This is not news nor will it result in anything other than more fodder for the secular media to continue the false narrative that the Pope and Church leaders will soon be in step with modernity. Clearly, that is their hope.

Austin is correct in saying that polls depend on sample sizes, question wording and how/where and by whom conducted. I don't trust any of them. Most are paid for by one group or another to advance their own interests, not to gauge genuine public opinion. Even so, if the majority were to rule in a true democratic country like, virtually no state would have same-sex marriage. In California, for example, one gay judge had more say that millions of voters who supported Proposition 8 banning such illicit unions. So much for democracy and "the will of the people."

Like most institutions in today's world, the Vatican is sensitive to media pressure and public opinion and my guess it is doing this out of political correctness; sort of, "see, we're listening to you." But in the end, the 2,000-year-old immutable teachings of the Church will continue to stand, polls opposing notwithstanding.
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written by St. Pius X, November 15, 2013
I think he's right. If we let the laymen decide, Nancy Pelosi would be pope!
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written by Rich in MN, November 15, 2013
You are all missing the most disturbing thing -- that subversive photograph! Why isn't that single mother at her REAL job? Why isn't her daughter where she should be, at a state-sponsored daycare with a state-mandated curriculum of orientation-inclusive educational materials and activities? I think this picture was PHOTOSHOPPED!! PHOTOSHOPPED, I SAY!!!!

Sorry, I'm just in one of those "Facetious Friday" moods this morning.... Mr. Ruse, thank you for drawing attention to Pope Paul VI -- our modern-day Jeremiah. Let us pray that our present shepherds remember his integrity and courageous example. And, to our Church's credit, she has never canonized a "Saint Sycophant."
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written by James Swetnam, November 15, 2013
Mr. Ruse: Don't let Frank's ill-considered remarks deter you from writing about things as you, a dedicated knowledgeable Catholic, see them. We profit from your columns immensely. Remember what G. K. Chesterton, ever the gentleman in debate, remarked about his experiences: "Those who can, argue; those who can't, sneer.
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written by Thomas J. Hennigan, November 15, 2013
The questions are directed primarily to Bishops and inquire about the way the Church's teaching on such issues is being taught and understood. Those who think that such a questionnaire is the first step in a process of changing the Church's teachings on such matters as artificial contraception, so called same-sex marriage (which is not marriage at all) and other such just like those who taught that Pope Paul VI would change the Church's teaching on contraceptives which goes back to the beginning of the Church, are similarly going to be disappoointed, because none of that can happen. It is simply impossible. Could Pope Paul have stated something like this: "For 2000 years the Church has taught this, and considered it a serious or mortal sin to disregard or not follow this teahcing. Now, I declare that it is no longer any sin, but a virtuous act". Strangely, they seem to think that Popes have power who they absolutely don't have. They also think that popes are irresponsible and fail to maintain what the Tradition of the Church has always maintained, which is absolutley false.
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written by Christopher Manion, November 15, 2013
When polling the "public," it's all cross-tabs, cross-tabs. Who attends Mass weekly? Who says the Creed without crossing her fingers? Who is cohabiting? Who hasn't been to Mass since Woodstock?

Or perhaps a more direct approach:

Do you embrace the teaching of Humanae Vitae?

-- If "Yes," please answer the following questions:

-- If "No," thank you, goodbye.
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written by ken tremendous, November 15, 2013
Two things. This is a survey not a poll, so all the stuff you wrote about polls while somewhat true is completely irrelevant. And this is not without precedent as surveys of the faithful were taken in advance of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. The Magisterium always must listen to the Church (past as well as present) though of course the idea of sensus fidelium is a tricky concept to apply in practice.

Whether this is a good idea or not I don't know. It depends on the questions that are asked and how the results are interpreted. And it could simply be that as one commenter wrote above, the very action of taking a survey is a way of saying "we do listen to our faithful."
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written by Layman Tom, November 15, 2013
My question is: who among the bishops leaked this? If it is common practice to send out an action-items list prior to a Synod, should not those items and resultant questions be confidential? I would think so, especially in this highly-charged atmosphere. The secularist media smells blood in the water, real or perceived. Hence, these types of sensitive questions and the intent to examine them should have been accompanied with an admonition to keep it under their miters until after the Synod. Surely, when drafting these documents, somebody must have thought about what the lefties would do with them if they got their grubby mitts on them.

So, who is the rat? I'm beginning to understand why we had exclusively Italian popes for all those years! Maybe Francis needs an enforcer.

Sorry for the last part. Rich's Mood is contagious.
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, November 15, 2013
I wonder if the First Shepherd, when he said, "My flesh is real food; my blood is real drink. Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of man and drink of his blood you will not have life in you." ever considered handing out a poll about what his listeners thought about it. I guess he knew when they walked away from Him who is Truth.

I would guess we already know the answers to some of these questions by the actions of those who have walked away from the Truth.
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written by Christopher Manion, November 15, 2013
Poll Question #1:

As a Catholic, do you embrace the Church's teaching as in the Creed and Humanae Vitae?

If yes, Continue to Question #2.

If no, thanks. Goodbye.
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written by william manley, November 15, 2013
The hierarchy has lost touch with the flock, many of whom are lost forever. I applaud the attempt on the part of the hierarchy to gather information on why there is a disconnect. This is not rocket science. Take it for what it is and be glad.
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written by Rich in MN, November 15, 2013
Layman Tom, sorry I infected you! I was tempted to say that, if this were an actual photo, the woman would have only half as many children -- but I suppose that would have been over-the-top cynicism.

I was struck by Manfred's comment, which is such a powerful reminder of how often destiny seems to turn on a razor's edge.
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written by Austin Ruse, November 15, 2013
Ken,

There is no real difference between a survey adn a poll. I was using the word poll to point up the way the QUESTIONNNAIRE (what the Vatican called it) was being misused by the progressives.

Also, please link us to the survey the Church used prior to the Immaculate Conception, and the the Assumption, while you are at it. I suspect you have them at your fingertips!

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written by ken tremendous , November 15, 2013
Sorry Austin but the differences between polls and surveys are pretty fundamental. In a poll you are taking a sample which you hope is representative of the whole population. In a survey you are making an attempt to directly measure something about the whole population.

And obviously the results of earleir surveys were never released. But if you take the time to research those dogmas you will find that they did not arise ex nihilo but involved not only researching the sources of tradition but also the beliefs of catholics . The church cannot make a dogma something that the faithful don't already believe..at least implicitly. This fact was in the background to how Vatican II treated the issue of infallibility. The whole church's infallibility is proclaimed before that of the magisterium. Put differently the magisterium is subordinate to the word but the word is to be found in Scripture but also being lived out in the church. The magisterium must listen before it can teach. So no one can object in principle to a survey.

You should know all this. But it isn't surprising to me that you don't.
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written by Jack,CT, November 15, 2013
Dear Frank,
Bravo,Bravo! Well said and I hope
you relize your early and correct remarks are
not in vein,
time certainly flys and as I looked back I
relize "I" have been responding to this "Contributor'
to TCT for at least three years!
I admire your truthfullness and I feel you mirror
my own views and it is Refreshing!
God Bless You and relize that there are some
"Minority" voices that frequent here that feel as
we do and an example follows this writers "All gays
All the time" fixation on Sept 09 of this year by a
peson called "WALTER", who hit the "nail on the head"


Walter Wrote:

'This website has a facination with and gives"
the same disproportionate coverage to GAY
Topics.
The word "GAY" appears much more often on this
site than the word JESUS."

I Say a Big : AMEN!

I would not only agree with Walter but I would say that
ruse has been allowed to grow like a cancer and take over
a otherwise Healthy and thriving site-

If not his hate of "GAYS" he has attempted to ruin the
legacy of public servants,flawed people well yes:but
no more flawed than the "Majority"!

To say some of things he has said about Jack and Bobby
are outragiously cruel and.

The larger ? is : How Christian is all this Condemnation?


We all are sinners on this earth and I feel we should
replace our "Verdicts" for a Greater Grace and Higher
Power.

"Lies in the name of God are"
Still Lies"
As always God Bless You and Yours Mr Ruse-
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written by Louise, November 15, 2013
I read the document at the Vatican news website and it did seem to be addressed to the bishops who should have some sense of their people and the pastoral practices in their own dioceses. It seemed like it was prudently worded for that purpose. But I suppose the idea can certainly be misconstrued. Here's a clip from Vatican I re this topic:

Vatican Council I, Session 4 #On the Infallible Teaching Authority of the Roman Pontiff #5. The Roman pontiffs, too, as the circumstances of the time or the state of affairs suggested, sometimes by summoning ecumenical councils or consulting the opinion of the Churches scattered throughout the world, sometimes by special synods, sometimes by taking advantage of other useful means afforded by divine providence, defined as doctrines to be held those things which, by God's help, they knew to be in keeping with Sacred Scripture and the apostolic traditions.
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written by Austin Ruse, November 16, 2013
Sorry, Ken, polls and surveys differ not in their purpose, which is to discover what a particular population believes about a particular thing, but in the length of and depth of the questions.

I really didn't there were "surveys" taken of the faithful prior to the Immaculate Conceptions or the Assumption, as you asserted. Does the Church consider what Catholics believe? Of course, always has, always will. Did the Church poll or survey believe prior to these dogmas? No, Frank, She didn't.
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written by Juan, November 18, 2013
are you forgetting that minnesota voted down a ban on gay marriage last year?
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written by Paul Frantizek, November 18, 2013
Polling lay people on what they think about theological matters and moral teaching is a huge sign of weakness and more likely to discourage the faithful than convert the wayward.

Think 'weak horse/strong horse' analogy.
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written by Paulbot 1138, November 18, 2013
Given the prominence of "cafeteria Catholics" in the U.S., those who pick and choose which of the Church's teachings they will abide by and which they will reject, I suspect it's highly possible that this survey is intended to give the Holy Father an idea of just how bad the state of affairs is out in the pews, do give him a sense of just how much work the Vatican has to do to properly inform and educate the laity about the faith. If this is the case, I think this polling is a good thing: after all, you can't correct someone's errors until you have a clear understanding of exactly where they have erred.
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written by downtown dave, November 18, 2013
A more meaningful survey would be to ask Catholic laity to read Romans chapters 5 through 8 and then vote on whether the Bible teaches a salvation by grace alone, or a salvation by grace and works.
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written by schmenz, November 19, 2013
Thank you, Mr Ruse. I am glad somebody pointed out the problems involved with this survey.

Oh, and Jack: no one hates people who are gay, as in "happy, carefree". But most people are justifiably sickened by sodomy.
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written by john, November 19, 2013
Good grief.. the Church is not a democracy and faith and morals cannot change, regardless what the national schismatic reporter thinks.
The fact is that the faith has been watered down and feminized so badly that most "catholics" havnt seen a confessional for months or years.
The changes in the liturgy and the man made mass of Paul VI changed the way we worship. The obvious outcome from a feminize mass is a feminized faith. No wonder men dont go to mass anymore.
By setting a survey out on uncatechized laypeople that know nothing about death, judgement, heaven, hell, or purgatory is ripe with problems. Our bishops a weak, and the "Church of nice" is the outcome. Shame on the Vatican again... they will need to account some day for continuing to lead us all astray
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written by john, November 19, 2013
Poor downtown dave... where is the word "alone"??? Its not there. Try to thumb back to the book of James and you will see that faith without works is dead...
Are you from one of the forty thousand protestant denominations? Our Lord instituted ONE CHURCH.
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written by Jeff, November 20, 2013
Polling depends on what questions are being asked. What correlations are we trying to uncover? I come from an analytics background and there is tremendous value in looking at the data of Catholic surveys (depending on the questions and methods). If there is data out there on what type of people, parishes, and locations have the most amount of people that believe in the Real Presence we could start seeing if any relationships for its causation can be revealed...ie: Age ranges and generations, common characteristics of parishes with strong numbers of believers of the Real Presence, Geographical regions where the faith is strong...

Then go deeper... based on the "data" or surveys available, what key factors are indicators of people most likely to believe in the Real Presence. So we have a core teaching of the Church as seen through quantitative measures.

Yes, we know the teachings of all the writings of the saints, councils, Popes, etc...why not also back that up with some visible observations? There's persuasive power in the data that could help the New Evangelization.
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written by Northern Witness, December 04, 2013
The Vatican poll and the related polls in the U.S., the U.K., Australia and Canada are in essay format so the responder is free to present his or her views expansively and not just in a yes-no, true-false format. The Vatican asks for lay opinions on "the Catholic Church’s teachings on the value of the family ". This includes the roles of man and women within marriage, the questions of divorce and contraception, and who can marry or divorce, all of which include a homosexual component. It is difficult to understand why the author has the concerns he expresses - unless, of course, this is a ruse to endorse the current teachings on family and prevent alternate viewpoints.

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