Polling the Laity is Always a Bad Idea

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 Center for Family & Human Rights (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.