ROME -- Often, when the Vatican speaks, it can be a fairly one-sided conversation, issuing encyclicals and other formal documents stating the Roman Catholic Church's official position on doctrine or other matters.
But Pope Francis, who has shaken up the Vatican, is asking the world's 1 billion Catholics for their opinions on a questionnaire covering social issues such as same-sex marriage, unwed couples' cohabitation, contraception and the place of divorced and remarried people in the church.
"It's something that is totally new," said Monsignor Alberto Pala, a parish priest at the Cathedral of Cagliari in Sardinia, Italy. "And we are very pleased."
The questionnaire is being distributed to bishops worldwide in advance of their synod next fall. Family is the theme of that meeting, with bishops expected to grapple with how the church should address issues such as divorce and same-sex marriage. In the past, the Vatican has determined the agenda for synods and sought opinions from bishops' conferences around the world.
This time, however, some analysts say the style and content of the questionnaire represent a deliberate effort by Pope Francis to engage ordinary Catholics -- unlike in the past, when synods have attracted little attention. The pontiff has also raised expectations by changing the format, with next year's meeting framed as a prelude to a second synod in 2015 that could bring proposed changes, even if few expect him to pursue major doctrinal shifts.
In recent days, the Vatican has sought to play down the questionnaire's importance. The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, denied this week that the pope was "polling" the laity and said the questions were part of a routine preparatory document for the synod.
But other Catholic leaders clearly see the questionnaire as a significant overture that could raise expectations among Catholics for next year's synod. The bishops of England and Wales put the questions online, while Vatican Radio, the church's official news media outlet, also posted the questionnaire, accompanied by an interview with Bishop John Hine of Britain extolling the document as "extremely significant."
"It really responds to the desire for the people, the laity in the church, to be consulted on matters which concern them so deeply," Bishop Hine told Vatican Radio. "Couples are delighted that they're going to be involved in the consultations."
Vatican historian Alberto Melloni says the questionnaire is especially significant because it seeks a snapshot of Catholic families as they are, and uses a nonjudgmental tone to gauge opinions on the church's pastoral response to contentious issues. "It asks to start with the reality of the family, not the doctrine of the family," said Mr. Melloni, director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, a liberal research institute. "What we will see in the next few months will be a flourishing of opinion, debate and discussion."
First reported by the National Catholic Reporter, the questionnaire was sent to bishops' conferences worldwide Oct. 18 by Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, a Vatican official involved in preparations for next year's meeting. In the letter, Archbishop Baldisseri asked that the questions be distributed to parishes to broaden the process of consultation.
With 39 questions, the document is broken into nine subsections, including No. 5: "On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex." One question asks whether "your country" recognizes same-sex civil unions, while another asks about the attitude that parishes hold toward governments that support civil unions or same-sex marriages. "What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?" another question asked.
Another subsection seeks to explore "Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations" and asks about unmarried couples' living together. There are questions about how many divorced or remarried people ask to receive the sacraments, and whether simplifying the canonical practice of nullifying a marriage would "provide a positive contribution."
Belgium's bishops placed the survey online Friday and asked for responses from the nation's Catholics by mid-December.
But in the United States, decisions on how or whether to distribute the questionnaire will depend on individual bishops, according to Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Some are putting it on the Internet, and some will get information in other ways," she said. She noted that the Vatican typically sought information before a synod, which is supposed to be a free exchange of ideas, but that the questions this year "may be a way of tailoring the issues a little closer."