Does Pope Francis *heart* Survey Research?

Too rarely do I read something that not only makes me take a second look, but also rub my eyes, and then smile in surprise.  Recent news regarding the upcoming Synod of Bishops did just that.  Not that the synod is being held, which is good news, to be sure.  Nor that its theme will be “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” though that is surely an important and timely topic.  No, what really shocked me was this:

“The Vatican has asked national bishops’ conferences around the world to conduct a wide-ranging poll of Catholics asking for their opinions on church teachings on contraception, same-sex marriage and divorce.”

According to NCR, “The poll, which comes in a questionnaire sent to national bishops’ conferences globally in preparation for a Vatican synod on the family next October, is the first time the church’s central hierarchy has asked for such input from grass-roots Catholics since at least the establishment of the synod system following the Second Vatican Council.”

Is the pope really asking for a broad parish-level survey of Catholic views?  Well, it seems that the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales has already created a survey on the ever ubiquitous–Survey Monkey–in order to generate responses.  I have no idea if these are the exact questions included on the questionnaire sent by the Vatican, but they may well be.

OK, unfortunately, we are not talking about a probability sample and measures that have been pre-tested for validity and reliability with this survey monkey poll, but still…does Pope Francis have a soft spot in his heart for empirical sociological data?  We here at CSPRI would love to help in any way we can!!  I (along with Tom and Rita Walters) recently surveyed Diocesan Directors of Religious Education throughout the US and we are busily analyzing the data now, but if Pope Francis calls on us, we’d happily take a recess in order to help meet this January deadline for broad input on the views of U.S. Catholics at all levels.

Recognizing the surreal tone of my writing, I certainly do not mean to be flippant.  In all honesty, this is exactly what CSPRI is here for …indeed the Vatican’s current request, even if in a non-social scientific form, is a validation of what CSPRI is all about.  It highlights the importance of understanding the views of ordinary Catholics and taking them into consideration when acting as Church.  We do not want a Church that merely follows polls, but we DO want one that uses survey data and in-depth interviews to understand what Catholics are thinking and feeling in order to make better informed decisions as a Church.

However, if non-social scientific methods are used to collect this data, it will be of less use than it could be to Church leaders.  If Pope Francis and Church leaders truly see the value in gaining broad input through empirical surveys, we should use the vast skills that exist among Catholic social scientists to provide the Pope and Bishops with the best, most valid information.  I have no doubt that we could put together an outstanding team of researchers to conduct such a project if the US Bishops requested it.  If I hear anything, I will let you know!


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