Over the course of last eight months, Catholics around the world began gathering in church halls and school gyms to, in the words of Pope Francis, “look others in the eye and listen to what they have to say”. These listening sessions were the first phase of the two-year-long Synod on Synodality that will end in 2023 when the bishops meet to assess what they’ve learned.
Now that parishes have recorded testimony from the faithful and compiled it in official reports, the Vatican is sending the message that they want to hear from those they may have missed – young or inactive Catholics who failed to show up at the parish meetings.
Jimmy Akin, a Catholic apologist and a host of the popular radio call-in show Catholic Answers Live, is one of several lay Catholic “influencers” the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications asked to reach out to those unaccounted-for Catholics.
Akin’s radio audience includes many non-Catholics, agnostics and atheists who try to trip him up with challenges to the faith. He answers respectfully, using logical arguments to defend the teachings of the Church, reminding his listeners that as a convert, he too faced similar obstacles before deciding to become a Catholic.
On Twitter this week, Akin invited his 21,800-plus followers to participate in the Synod by filling out a survey.
“The Vatican is doing an online survey to be submitted to the Synod of Bishops. They are interested in hearing from a wide range of people who may or may not be active Catholics. You can share your views here. The deadline is August 15,” he posted.
The survey, which he links to his website, asks respondents questions about their faith, how often they go to Mass, and whether they have had a personal encounter with God.
Other questions, concerning attitudes towards the Church, provoked a negative reaction from some who took issue with the phrasing of the multiple choice answers.
One survey question, for example, asks, “Which of these attributes best define the Church?”.
Survey takers are asked to select three adjectives from the following list: “supportive,” “selfish,” “authoritarian”, “participative,” “innovative,” “outdated,” “close,” and “distant.”
However, Akin’s post has not been without scrutiny, as previously alluded to. One Twitter user wrote, in response to Akin’s post, “I’m sorry Jimmy but this survey is rubbish, it is very clear that the one who made it is out of touch with the real challenges facing the Church nowadays (lack of reverence, suppression of tradition, relativism, religious indifferentism, going with the Zeitgeist etc. etc.).”
Akin told Catholic News Association that he wasn’t surprised at the reaction to the survey.
“Many people are suspicious of the upcoming Synod on Synodality, and that itself would generate concerns. Also, from filling out the questionnaire myself, it was clear that whoever composed the questions and answers was not thinking from the perspective of many active, engaged, orthodox Catholics,” he said.
“I expected that there would be individuals who saw the questionnaire as slanted towards a particular set of viewpoints and answers,” Akin added.
On the whole, he thinks it is worth completing the questionnaire.
“My view is that if the Vatican asks for your opinions, it is better to cooperate and give them, even if the instrument is imperfect. Having your voice heard is better than not having it heard at all,” Akin said.
Akin added that he was glad to help when asked.
“I recognise that the Holy See is a place with people who have many different views, and nobody except the pope has the final say on a thing. But I believe in being helpful and constructive when asked, so I was happy to help the Dicastery for Communications,” he said.
The Vatican, he said, was also aware that Akin’s audience and that of the other influencers is not representative of active Catholics.
“Someone at the Vatican clearly understood that they would not be getting the views of people who don’t go to Mass from the diocesan surveys. They made a point to us that participants do not need to be active Catholics to share their views. They want to hear from people of goodwill who are willing to engage with the Church in some form, even if some do not presently practice the Faith,” he said.
The Vatican’s communications office conducted a similar campaign in France and in Spain, employing “priest influencers” to reach out to young people who failed to attend the parish Synod meetings.
“Following the synod, from which young people were largely absent, the dicastery met with a group of Spanish influencers,” Father Gaspard Craplet told the French Catholic website La Croix.
“They said that the digital world should be consulted and submitted the question to the pope, who replied that we should go for it,” he said.
Craplet told La Croix that the dicastery contacted him and other priests who have a following on social media and asked them to pass along the survey.
“Unlike a parish, influencers reach people who follow them freely, like sheep choosing their shepherd,” he said.
The survey distributed in Spain sparked backlash because a possible gender identification was reportedly listed as “I do not know.”
That part of the survey was said to have been amended to read, “Don’t want to respond,” the answer that was subsequently adopted by the American version of the survey distributed by Akin.
A precedent that the Church in Ireland could deploy going forward, perhaps?