Catholic Church to Ask Parishioners About Views on Gay Marriage, Divorce

Church officials taking the temperature of local Catholics on hot-button family issues

Catholics in the Philadelphia-area will soon be asked for their feedback on so-called "irregular" families like same-sex couples, the divorced and the raising of children in such relationships as the Catholic Church seeks to better understand how to teach family values in the 21st century.

In a document obtained by NBC News, The Vatican has asked members of the Synod of Bishops, an advisory group to Pope Francis, to develop a questionnaire to find out how Catholics in their dioceses view different types of "irregular marriages" that contradict the church’s teachings. They include gay marriages, those who have divorced or separated from their partner and those who cohabitate, but have not married.

Vatican officials also requested bishops pass along the questionnaire to local priests and parishioners so that, officials say, the church can widely understand the "pastoral challenges facing the family today" and help serve those families while continuing to teach long-held beliefs.

Such a survey that seeks a voice from the parish level on these controversial topics is considered a first for the Roman Catholic Church.

"Just the fact that we are having a discussion like this is a remarkable significance," says Fr. Kevin Gallagher, Pastor of St. Denis Parish in Havertown, Pa. "I think we should celebrate the fact that the church is bringing these socially-charged questions and discussing them before the pope."

Nine subjects feature a number of questions ranging from the current perception of the church’s teachings on marriage and family to how parishioners and individuals view sometimes controversial unions.

On the topic of same-sex marriages, the most divisive issue in the bunch, the questions seek feedback on attitudes surrounding such unions and the governments that are promoting them.

Another question asks what can be done to reach out to gay Catholics. “What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union,” the question reads.

With regards to gay couples who adopt children, officials ask how to ensure those children understand Catholic teachings.

"So it’s not so much a survey asking about ‘What do you think of same-sex unions’ but rather its asking for feedback on how in this particular situation, which is contrary to the life of the church and the life of the gospel, how do we deal with it so that there’s a high-level of care for everyone involved," said Fr. Dennis Gill, Director of the Office for Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The Vatican is also looking to learn how children who live in a divorced home or with gay parents are treated by local churches and obtain statistics on the prevalence of the non-traditional marriages in those parishes.

Fr. Gill and his office is in the process of developing their own questionnaire based on the information the Vatican is seeking. He says it will then be made as “widely available as possible” and be sent out electronically to get the most responses. There are more than 1.5 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Once the questions are answered, bishops will present their findings to Pope Francis at a meeting in October 2014. Fr. Gallagher expects lay experts on family to also weigh in on the topic.

Officials say the pope will then use the information to shape the church’s teachings on marriage and family.

While the discussion of such issues in the church may be seen as new and progressive, local church leaders are quick to say they’re not expecting the pope to redefine the traditional view of marriage. Fr. Gallagher, however, feels Pope Francis is seeking to re-instill family values among followers and possibly welcome back those they've lost.

"Just the fact that the value of family is lost, I think he’s trying to reconcile, not to push people to the side. He wants to be like Christ and bring everyone into the conversation," he said.

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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