Never Ask a Question

There is an old bit of advice that a trial lawyer should never ask a question he does not already know the answer to; another version, illustrated by the following (apocryphal) story, says he should never ask a question if he does not want to hear the answer.

In a trial, a small-town prosecuting attorney called his first witness, a grandmotherly, elderly woman, to the stand. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?”

She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you, Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a boy, and frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a big shot when you haven’t the brains to realize you’ll never amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.”

The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?”

She again replied, “Why yes, I do.” And, again, she continued, “I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. He’s lazy, bigoted, and he has a drinking problem. He can’t build a normal relationship with anyone, and his law practice is one of the worst in the entire state. Not to mention he cheated on his wife with three different women. One of them was your wife. Yes, I know him.”

The defense attorney nearly died.

The judge asked both counselors to approach the bench and, in a very quiet voice, said, “If either of you idiots asks her if she knows me, I’ll hold both of you in contempt of court.”

Last fall, in preparation for the Synod on the Family, the Vatican (presumably at Pope Francis’ behest) sent a survey to all the national bishops’ conferences, asking them to gather responses to the questions as widely as possible.   The survey was not a poll constructed according to modern sociological standards, but rather a list of lengthy questions more easily answered in a narrative format.  Several bishops conferences, most notably in England and Wales, Germany and Switzerland, nevertheless conducted surveys of their laity to gather responses.   The secular press also took part, with the Spanish language network Univision commissioning a methodical, multi-nation survey.  (An executive summary is here as a PDF document.)

In the United States, however, the USCCB did not conduct a national survey, nor did it call on each bishop to conduct surveys or otherwise seek responses from a broad pool of people.  In my own archdiocese, I have heard nothing about if or how our archbishops (in December Archbishop Mansell stepped down and was replaced by Archbishop Blair) planned to gather information and respond.  A few dioceses, however, did attempt to survey their laity, including San Jose, California, and St. Petersburg, Florida.   Bishop Lynch of St. Petersburg, like the German and Swiss bishops, released the results publicly.

What is the reason for this reticence on the part of the American bishops, both individually and collectively, to gather responses from a broad array of the laity?   It would not have been too difficult to get CARA or some other research firm to convert the synodal questions into a meaningful survey document—indeed, they would probably have done a better job than a secular firm, since they could have probed with more depth and more nuance into issues that are not sexy but are fundamental.  (This is what the Swiss bishops did.)  Or they could have simply asked publicly for feedback, and used the many responses, with all their biases, to get some some sense of what people are thinking.

I started this post with two bits of advice for trial lawyers.  The first does not apply:  I find it impossible to believe that our bishops are not aware of the disconnect between Church teaching and what the laity actually believe and do.  Indeed, there have been rumors for years that these very topics are discussed quietly at the annual USCCB meetings, but pressure from Rome and the most conservative faction of bishops kept it off the official agenda.  Were they to ask the laity what they think, I do not believe they would be surprised by the answers.

With regards to the second bit of advice:  I think it is quite possible that they do not want to ask the question because if they do and then  hear the answer, they will have to acknowledge the facts on the ground.  Like the judge in the story, they are afraid the answer will not reflect well on the Church, or at least on the effectiveness of the teaching magisterium.   And in one sense it won’t:  the media and the broader culture already see the current situation as a massive failure of the Church’s teaching office, and the bishops acknowledging this fact will only make it worse.   Of course, this trope ignores the complicated and messy history of Catholic teaching and its reception.  The vision of the laity marching in lockstep to the directions of Rome exists only in the minds of nostalgic restorationists and the fantasies of anti-Catholics (among whom I include, in it softer form, much of the secular media).

Now, however, the bishops have the problem that Rome has asked the question, and the Pope is genuinely interested in hearing the answer.  How should they respond?  Two predictable suggestions split in opposite directions.  One is that they should hold firm on Church teaching and preach it more forcefully.  Indeed, when these issues come up in our commboxes, a common response is for someone to say:  “I never hear my deacon/pastor/bishop preach forcefully about these matters.”  Or they point out a priest or bishop who does, but do so to highlight their minority status.  The alternative response is that the Church should change its doctrine given the massive failure of this doctrine to be accepted.    There is some truth to both positions:  the Church does need to teach clearly but at the same time, the reception of doctrine, or the failure to be accepted, is a mark of the sensus fidelium of the whole faithful.

However, neither answer is adequate.  We cannot continue to teach in the same way, with the same language, if it is clear that we are not being heard.  As we discussed in an earlier post, this problem applies not just to controversial issues but even to core doctrinal issues such as the Real Presence.  And I will be the first to admit that the sensus fidelium cannot be reduced to polling data.  (I believe Pope Francis made a similar point, but I cannot find the quote.)

I propose instead that the bishops begin by really listening to their flocks.  Not to dispute with them, or to agree with them, but to understand them.   They need make an effort to hear “[t]he joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted” as the Fathers of Vatican II put it in Gaudium et Spes.   Reflecting on the sexual abuse crisis, one thing I noticed was that many victims wanted, more than anything else, to be heard, to have their suffering acknowledged.    Unfortunately, it took many (most?) bishops far too long to understand this fact.

The Synod on the Family will be in two parts.  There may not be time before the first half in October 2014, when the bishops are to report, but there will be plenty of time before the 2015 meeting.  Armed with what they have heard from other bishops, the American bishops should return home and listen to the laity for themselves, and shape their responses and proposals in light of this.  This will be hard and for many reasons the bishops will be loath to do this.  Their own experience shows the problems that can occur:   their last attempt at broad consultation—the failed attempt in the late 80’s to write a pastoral letter on women—ended badly.

Will things change?  I think they will:  there already appears to be movement to address the question of divorce and remarriage, though it is not clear what shape the final solution will take.   But I hope and pray for a bigger change:  a change in the relationship between the bishops and the laity.   “Pray, pay and obey” never really worked, and it will not work now.   The Latin root of the word “obey” is  “obedire”, to listen.   I want a Church in which the laity listen and understand their bishops, whether on abortion and same sex marriage or on immigration and economic justice.  But I don’t think this will happen until the bishops start listening to the laity.

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  • Jordan

    David, thank you for blowing the top off of the tea-kettle.

    I am unconvinced that bishops will be publicly honest about the disjunct between institutional policy and the laity on contraception, remarriage, lgbt issues etc. until married men are regularly ordained to the presbyterate. Pope Francis has spoken on the necessity of prelates to have the “smell of the sheep” on them. While this might not be realistic for many bishops as they must be celibate, the reintroduction of a married priesthood would greatly hasten the impetus for change or at least an unmistakable agitation for the laity to be heard on controversial issues. Would not a married priest be closer to his flock than most celibates? Would he not know their troubles better than a celibate man who has only ancedotal experience with the struggles of planning a family?

    A married priest is the greatest weapon against episcopal equivocation or even malfeasance. I suspect that many prelates do not want to ordain men with wedding bands, as these men would have fewer incentives to play by the prelates’ rulebook.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Jordan, I am less convinced than you about the effect that a married clergy might have. After all, there are many other hierarchical organizations (composed of married men) that suffer from the same faults as the American bishops. The fault lies not in celibacy but in careerism and group think.

      • dismasdolben

        Indeed, David, “careerism” might be an even stronger motivation among married men than among celibates. I do think, however, that, as with the Orthodox Church, it would not be inappropriate to offer the sacerdotal role to married men who’d agree to remain simple pastors, rather than become bishops, patriarchs or the pope.

        As an aside, you might like to know that, as an American citizen living abroad, I WAS allowed to complete the survey of the Bishops of England and Wales, because it was put up on the web, and the nice lady in the English primate’s office said, when I e-mailed it back, that she would pass it along to the offices of the Catholic primate in Egypt, where I presently live. So I believe that almost all Americans living abroad could have completed that survey, and I can tell you that the questions in it were extraordinarily sophisticated, as well as prevocative and compassionate, at the same time.
        They demanded both a mature faith, as well as considerable respect for the Magisterium’s role and responsibilities.

        It is tragic that most of the American Catholic bishops refused to allow their laity to participate. That is, in my opinion, in itself extraordinarily compelling evidence of their arrogance and their contempt for their flock.

      • emmasrandomthoughts

        I agree with you about the careerism, as well as a greater concern for the institutional church, as opposed to the Body of the Faithful.

  • TauSign

    I expect that in this grand endeavor Pope Francis is proceeding with the ‘four principles’ that he laid out in The Joy of the Gospel – (specifically regarding peace building. See the principles described in paragraphs 221-227.) In my first reading I sensed that section was a necessary digression in order to set a firm foundation. But these principles are useful more broadly, even universally. He must have known that in taking the name of ‘Francis’ that he was inheriting the mission of ‘rebuilding the church, which you see is in ruins’.

    Regarding your specific concern which could be termed ‘a lack of listening’…I agree. It will be up to the Bishops to show how they came up with their responses and how they sync with reality as opposed to idealized concerns.

  • Mary Bergan

    It is comforting to know that I am not the only one in the Archdiocese who despairs and hopes

  • brettsalkeld

    A couple comments on the questions. First of all, I agree with dismas. There were certainly provocative, compassionate and sophisticated. They would generate thoughtful conversation among not only the respondents, but among the chanceries and national and Vatican offices that have to read the responses. And they carefully steered clear of any sense (unavoidably given in some media coverage) of some kind of “voting on doctrine,” while being clearly open to hearing from the experience of the faithful. I think that part of what Francis was up to was not simply gathering data for a synod, but also giving a healthy basis for conversations at the local (i.e., diocesan) level that could transcend the typical politicized discussions on these issues.

    Second, as someone who works for a diocese that did give our people the full survey, I feel I can speak out of some experience into the decision of the American bishops not to do so. I’m not saying which decision was the correct one, only that it was actually fairly complicated. First of all, the questions were not designed to be answered by the laity. They were designed to be answered by the bishop in consultation with anyone he chose. In some cases the best consultors would be a cross section of laity, but other questions demanded expertise in, e.g., canon law. There was not a little anger expressed by many respondents at the “high-handedness” of asking them questions in technical (sometimes Latin) language or on issues which they could not be expected to have an informed opinion. When we looked at the survey we knew this dynamic was unavoidable. The only way to really do the survey justice would have been to hold several public consultations in the diocese on the various issues addressed, bringing in experts in each area as well as interested lay people. Unfortunately, there was simply no time for such a procedure. As it was, simply making the survey in its entirety available, collecting responses and summarizing them for the national offices meant working right through Christmas holidays.

    A diocese near to us tried to walk a middle road. They made the entire survey available, but highlighted those questions that the average Catholic be most likely to be able to make a genuine contribution and asked people to focus on those areas.

    As I understand it, at least some American bishops tried to craft new questions that would allow them to get a sense of the faithful on certain questions which they could then use to answer the original questions on their own. We opted not to do this because we didn’t have time and we wanted to avoid giving the impression that we were restricting the access of the faithful to the questions, but many of our respondents indicated that they would have preferred such a tack.

    Of course, whether the faithful were given the original or some kind of adapted questions, much depends on the summarizers. We simply cannot send (tens of, hundreds of?) thousands of surveys to Rome. We synthesize dozens or hundreds at the diocesan level and send the to the national office which then synthesizes dozens of diocesan syntheses to send to Rome. One can only hope that the best stuff makes it through such a process, but that depends on the skill and outlook of the synthesizers. Unfortunately, there is no way around that. (In any case, that is part of what makes me think Francis was trying to stir up local conversations as well. Much of the stuff simply could not make it to the national or Vatican level.)

    All of this is to say that the process is necessarily cumbersome and imperfect. Having been involved on the inside in a diocese that took the opposite tack, I am not particularly inclined to criticize the American Bishops.

    • dismasdolben

      First of all, the questions were not designed to be answered by the laity. They were designed to be answered by the bishop in consultation with anyone he chose. In some cases the best consultors would be a cross section of laity, but other questions demanded expertise in, e.g., canon law.

      I don’t know what you’re talking about here. I answered every single question. I’m not an expert in “canon law,” and I had no difficulty answering them all in about an hour and a half. Maybe you should ask the readers if they agree with you. I don’t.

      The survey is at the top right-hand corner of this page:

      • Brandon Watson

        Maybe you should ask the readers if they agree with you. I don’t.

        He explicitly points out in the very next sentence that his reason for saying that was that respondents expressed anger on precisely this point.

        • dismasdolben

          Okay,[ ] then I don’t understand what THEY were talking about. Better?

          [edited to tone it down. DCU]

      • brettsalkeld

        Readers of VN are not broadly representative of the faithful I’m afraid. We did ask the faithful in our Archdiocese. Many expressed anger at the questions. Others answered everything without much ado. Others answered only a few questions and didn’t complain.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      thank you for carefully summarizing your experience. It is helpful to get a boots on the ground perspective. However, even in light of this explanation of the difficulties you faced, I am still going to criticize the American bishops. First, though it was hard, your bishop went ahead and did it. As I like to say to my students when I have to do some particularly unpleasant task in a short period of time (like grading an exam), “this is why they pay me the big bucks.” I do not think I am being too unreasonable in having a similar expectation of the bishops.

      Second, I think a lot of effort could have been saved by working collectively, following the example of the Germans or the Swiss. The USCCB could have gotten an ad hoc committee together to reformat the questions into something the laity could answer. They could have then distributed them to each bishop, or created a central website for the laity to go to. Collectively the bishops have a lot more resources than any individual bishop (even in a big diocese like New York or Chicago) and it would only make sense to try to save their staffs the duplication of effort. Or they could have punted the whole matter to professionals, such as CARA.

      In making this critique I think we need to weigh their response against the (perhaps unreasonable) expectations generated by Pope Francis and the media hype surrounding him. With great fanfare the Vatican asks the bishops to consult widely—it can only play badly when the American bishops collectively fail to do so.

  • Agellius

    You say you want the laity to listen and understand the bishops, and the bishops also to listen to the laity. I have no issue with listening. Certainly people should listen to the bishops, and vice versa. I just wonder, in your vision of the Church, where obedience comes in. You sort of halfway disparage obdedience (“‘pay, pray and obey’ never really worked”). Is there a place for obedience in the Church?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I am disparaging a particular kind of obedience, one which reduces the laity from subjects to objects acted upon by the hierarchy. I see a role for obedience, but what kind of obedience do we want? Broadly speaking I think we need to move away from obedience as in “Do what I tell you” to a positive response to the call “Come, follow me.” The bishops have tried commanding and it seems pretty clear that, at least on some issues, this does not work. They need to try calling.

      • dismasdolben

        We now have a Jesuit pope, and, because we do, maybe we should try to wrap our minds around the Jesuit principle of “obedience,” which I know very well, from having worked with Jesuits in Sri Lanka a decade ago: the Jesuits believe that, if one has a disagreement with a superior, one MUST bring that disagreement out into the open with the concerned party, be it the superior or the community, and one MUST make one’s argument as well as one is able to, and then, and only then, will any sort of reconciliation or compromise be possible. AFTER stating the objections, one may defer to one’s superior’s judgment and “obey,” IF one can, in conscience. If one cannot, one must separate him or herself from the group. This is why so many Jesuits who have left the order over matters of conscience are still held in such high esteem by the rest of the brotherhood.

  • Agellius


    My read on it is that, at least in my lifetime, there has been very little commanding, and very little conveying of the idea of what it means to command and to obey. It’s possible that at some point in the Church’s history, commanding was tried and did not work, but I honestly feel like that’s something I’ve never seen, except maybe here and there in exceptional circumstances.

    In other words, I think the whole idea of a commanding episcopate and an obedient laity is foreign to today’s Western Catholics, and has been for as long as I can remember. And I think this is a big part of the reason for the disconnect between Church teaching and lay practice. The laity simply has not been taught, and therefore doesn’t believe, that they have an obligation to obey, or that there could be any kind of a price for not obeying. (I’m only familiar with the idea from books.)

    I think this is related to the phenomenon (often noted on VN) of the Western liberal notion of individualism. Rather than one family with father-figures at our head, we as a society see ourselves as a collection of individuals, each doing as he pleases and ultimately answerable to no one on earth. And this notion seems to have been adopted by the American church (and probably others). We simply don’t believe that anyone can tell us right from wrong. Rather, we expect our leaders to adapt themselves to our notions of right and wrong. After all, of the people by the people, right?

    It seems ironic to me that progressives, who would like our society to be more collectivist and less atomist, would like the Church to adopt more of the attitude of self-government, i.e. people doing as they please and the bishops meeting them where they’re at, rather than correcting and disciplining them as father to son, or shepherd to sheep.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      I don’t disagree with you, in the sense that I think “obedience in the command mode” is foreign to most people in the Western, post-Enlightenment world. However, I don’t think that means the Church has stopped acting in this fashion. To draw a fine distinction: it has not taught people that this is what obedience means, but it has taught assuming that this is what obedience means. It worked once, up to a point, when a hierarchical model of secular governance still held sway: when people believed that kings had an intrinsic authority to tell them what to do and expect to be obeyed. (However, there were nuances and exceptions even to that model, as witnessed by the many peasant revolts in the medieval and early modern periods.) The Church just adopted the prevailing model. That model is long gone in the secular sphere, and should go away in the Church as well.

      With regards to your last comment: I cannot speak for all progressives, but when I think of a new model of leadership, I am not looking for something that is atomist/individualist in line with some libertarian ethos. It is possible to be collectivist and still self-actualizing: this is the dream of many strands of anarchism, for instance, and to the best of my understanding this is the way in which Quaker meetings are organized. No one is commanded in the sense of being forced to obey, but this does not mean that decisions are not made and acted upon by the community as a whole in opposition to what some individuals might want.

      Also, let’s probe more carefully into the two analogies you use: father to son and shepherd to sheep. In what sense do they hold, and in what sense do they fail? Do you mean father to five year old, father to teenager, or father to adult child? Does the image of sheep break down given that sheep are, in the end, animals, whereas people have free will and a dignity that sheep do not? Not that I am accusing you of this, but it seems that both of these images have been read facilely to support a command model of obedience.

  • Agellius


    “The Church just adopted the prevailing model. That model is long gone in the secular sphere, and should go away in the Church as well.”

    Is it that simple? The Church should follow the secular sphere? I’m not persuaded.

    “It is possible to be collectivist and still self-actualizing …”

    I don’t think that’s realistic. Unity requires that people believe the same thing or follow the same person. The United States’ unifying principle has been “we all get to do what we want”, but it’s a unifying principle that undermines unity, which is why we’re so atomized in the secular sphere. Our leaders don’t lead, they follow the poll numbers.

    If we are to be self-actualizing in the Church rather than following our bishops, what will be our unifying principle? Will we just automatically be on the same wavelength? Will there be something in the air we breathe that makes all united? Or will the unifying principle be the Bible? Or the Holy Spirit? Hello, Protestantism!

    I submit that the bishop is supposed to be the unifying principle in a diocese, and the pope the unifying principle among the bishops. But a bishop can’t be a unifying principle unless he’s followed (similarly the pope).

    Regarding the father/son analogy: I think it was adopted in the first place, because the bishop/flock relationship was considered to be analogous to the father/son relationship *as it was understood at the time the analogy was adopted*. You ask whether the father/son analogy means that we are to obey as 5-year-old children or as adult children. Back then, sons were expected to respect and obey their fathers even as adults. If the bishop/flock relationship was supposed to be different, the Church could have adopted a different analogy.

    But I think the shepherd/sheep analogy clinches it. As you say, sheep are not rational beings. In that case, calling the bishop a shepherd seems to reflect an expectation of absolute (not to say unthinking) obedience. Again, were this not the case, they could have chosen a different analogy.

    What kind of unity would a flock have if some sheep wanted to go down by the river, some up into the hills, some to the meadow, etc., and the shepherd let each one do as he saw fit? rather than using his crook and sheepdogs to herd them together in the direction he thought best? Pretty soon you would have no flock at all. (Hello, Protestantism! : ) Thus the shepherd not only commands the sheep, but also keeps them together — but again, only to the extent that they follow him.

    “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles… Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as where Christ is, there does all the heavenly host stand by….” St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Smyrnaeans.

    “Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.” St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians.

    I foresee some objecting that what I describe sounds like fascism: Get all the people to believe the same thing and rally around a unifying personage. This calls to mind such unsavory terms as “lockstep”. But this is thinking with the mind of the world. The world in our day has decreed that anything but democracy is evil (and evidently believes that secular political ideals must prevail also in the Church).

    But the Church is supposed to be united in a way that surpasses any worldly institution. We’re supposed be one body, thinking with one mind. And it’s obvious to me that “of the people by the people” is not going to result in anything like that kind of unity. This quite simply requires a unifying principle, and that principle is the bishop. There is no other realistic candidate.