Many Roman Catholics don't know church teachings on the family and sexuality, they don't follow some of the ones they do know, and they question the church's moral standing to tell them what to do, Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik acknowledged in a summary of an unprecedented survey that drew more than 3,000 responses.
Bishop Zubik said the church needs to do a better job of teaching and caring for its flock, including those alienated from it -- while reasserting its moral stances even if they run against the prevailing acceptance of such matters as same-sex marriage, birth control and the individual right to choose one's family structure and sexual relationships.
"We must throw open the doors, windows, websites and all means of modern communication to connect with all families and truly listen to their hopes and hurts," Bishop Zubik wrote. "God ... loves every member of every family. We must do no less as the Church."
Bishop Zubik's report -- published in an eight-page special section of today's edition of the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper -- summarizes and responds to results of the survey, which it conducted late last year in advance of a high-level Synod of Bishops to be held in October in Rome.
The Vatican had asked dioceses to glean responses from priests and lay people, including on the challenges to church teaching and tradition posed by widespread divorce, remarriage, co-habitation and out-of-wedlock children as well as gay marriage and parenthood. The Pittsburgh diocese made the questionnaire available online, and Bishop Zubik promoted participation.
The synod is approaching as legal and cultural definitions of the family are being rewritten in many Western countries, with same-sex marriage becoming more widely legal even in Pope Francis' native Latin America. While the church maintains its opposition to gay marriage and its teaching that same-sex attraction is "objectively disordered," Francis has signaled a shift in tone, saying that if "someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
Bishops throughout the world have been reporting to the Vatican, some publicly, about their survey results. A report by bishops in Germany acknowledged that many Catholics there "expressly reject" church teachings on sex, divorce, remarriage and birth control and believe gay marriage should be accepted as a matter of justice.
Bishop Zubik wrote: "Catholics who live and practice the faith have become a minority in the United States even within the wider Catholic community."
The American culture "works actively to redefine the family in the United States," and not just in obvious areas as same-sex marriage. When each family member has his or her own room, computer and phone, family members often are mentally apart even when they're in the same place, he wrote: "When concern for the common good is not learned and practiced in the family, it is hard to promote the common good of all humanity."
The minority of families "who celebrate the liturgical seasons in their homes, pray together daily, study the faith around the kitchen table and serve the poor and needy" could serve as mentors for others, singling out the example of Catholic home-schooling families for praise.
At least 80 percent of couples seeking marriage from the church are already living together, he wrote. "There is hardly any shyness in stating to the priest their living arrangements," Bishop Zubik wrote, adding that co-habitation is growing even among senior citizens.
"It's not enough to present what the church teaches about these and other moral issues," he wrote. "... What couples most need to hear is why the church teaches what it does."
But even doing that requires "patience" because many couples "tend to be politely indifferent or dismissive" -- not even interested enough to argue about church teachings.
"One of the most challenging aspects of dealing effectively with such issues is to present moral principles honestly and completely without watering down the truth but in a way that is not judgmental or perceived to be condemning," Bishop Zubik wrote. Couples not following church teachings need the promise of "God's mercy and compassion," he wrote.
"We also need to help them realize that the church's moral teachings are not intended to be oppressive and restrictive but rather to help them live wholesome, healthy and holy lives," he added.
He also said the church should fully welcome the children of same-sex couples in parishes and schools.
Some people, Bishop Zubik acknowledged, reject the church's moral standing. "Some are upset because of the sexual abuse scandal and think priests have no right to counsel them," he wrote.
Bishop Zubik acknowledged that many Catholics see nothing wrong with using artificial contraception and following secular views that see pregnancy as a "disease ... rather than participation in the generative love of God."
He said the church should continue to promote "natural family planning" methods -- as well as the virtues of large families. "The more children in a family, the more glimpses of God there are in that family," he wrote.
But while most Catholics know the Bible teaches the value of family, they know little about official church documents on the topic or its roots in such philosophical concepts as "natural law" -- the body of timeless values rather than "social convention which can change on a whim."
Bishop Zubik commended an international group, Courage, which has a local chapter and strives to help people with same-sex attractions lead celibate lives according to church teachings.
While Bishop Zubik's report is just beginning to circulate, one priest who read it Thursday responded positively.
"It reflects Pope Francis' gentleness in not being condemnatory [even as] it doesn't depart from Catholic teaching in any way," said the Rev. Neil McCaulley, a priest at Epiphany Parish in Uptown.
Peter Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.