Surveying God’s People

Across the world, in preparation for this year’s Synod, Catholics are being surveyed on attitudes and practices, opportunities and obstacles, as well as beliefs, on family life. It is a marvellous opportunity for comprehensive consultation with the faithful. But it is also only as good as the survey itself.

For a survey to be useful, it has to ask the right kind of questions. They determine the answers in any survey. A quantitative survey is about numbers: how many couples live together before marriage, how many Catholics are gay. Qualitative and exploratory surveys ask about preferences and beliefs: do you believe in the Church’s teaching and practice about divorced and remarried people, and why. Both kinds are useful and necessary, but provide very different answers. Some of the surveys I’ve seen from different places tend to emphasize one set of questions over others.

A useful survey must reach a broad, representative sample audience: urban, rural, male, female, middle class and poor. Geopolitical and economic factors also matter: family life in war zones or places of poverty is different compared to places of stability and prosperity. Cultural factors surrounding marriage, patriarchy, concepts of community and individuality, among others, make a difference. While the Vatican document, for example, is quite balanced between quantitative and qualitative-exploratory, it is thin on these broader issues.

Above all for a survey to be effective it must be rightly administered. It needs wide circulation and sufficient time to complete. It must be done independently of anyone with a personal stake in the answers or with power to influence responses.  Last year’s survey was uneven precisely because of some or all of these factors. Some countries, like Germany, did apparently follow these procedures; many other countries did not. The global data was therefore scientifically problematic.

The current survey, based I admit on evidence unsystematically collected from reports and contacts in various countries, is a slightly improved repetition of the last. But in many places it’s fallen on parish priests to collect the information, in some areas even writing it up. This is unhelpful. By administering it to their parishes, the data captured will be potentially skewed: how many people will tell Father what they really think?

Finally, a survey is only as good as the analysis of raw data and the conclusions drawn from it. If the data shows significant divergence from official Catholic doctrine, how will it be interpreted? “The people lack catechesis” might be one conclusion; “The people are godless” another. Or could it be that we recognise that they have made a faithful, reasoned judgment and concluded that the Church needs to develop a new understanding of family life?

Don’t get me wrong. I am 100% in favour of this Family Survey. Though it may lack the scientific professionalism of something like the World Values Survey, I hope its results, however flawed, will be taken seriously as an approximate expression of the sensus fidelium of the people of God.

[Note to our parish subscribers: You may like to add this insert to your bulletin somewhere, if you have the space]


You too can participate in the Southern African Catholic survey on the family.

1.     For the SACBC Survey go to:, or
2.     For a survey conducted by the Jesuit Institute South Africa based on the Vatican document, go to: .

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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