ST. PETERSBURG — This fall, Catholic leaders from around the world will gather in Rome to talk about how the church ministers to families, setting the groundwork for potential changes in its teachings and evangelization.
Summoned by Pope Francis, the Vatican gathering is being preceded by a survey that probes Catholics' opinions on hot-button subjects including same-sex unions, adoption by same-sex couples, interfaith marriage, living together before marriage, birth control and divorce.
In the five-county Tampa Bay area, Bishop Robert Lynch sought feedback from his flock of almost a half-million Catholics and got answers in the anonymous survey from over 6,000.
How do bay area Catholics view some of these key church teachings? They see marriage as between man and woman but are concerned that the church be more welcoming of gays, lesbians and their children. Most couples they know are okay with living together before marriage. Most Catholics they know don't accept the church's rules against artificial birth control.
"I think the topic of family life and marriage … people are struggling with them every day," said Bridget Olson, director of pastoral ministries and outreach at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa, who took the survey. "They are topics that, in the past, my perception is that the church has not sought out a lot of input and took more the role of teacher."
When asked whether they accept the Catholic teaching that traditional marriage is between one man and one woman, 70 percent agreed strongly, and 10 percent agreed somewhat.
Despite that overwhelming majority, one of the themes emerging from essay questions in the survey was that the church should adopt the attitude of Pope Francis, who was quoted as saying, "Who am I to judge?" about gays and lesbians.
Some Catholics also said there appears to be little concern in the church for people in same-sex relationships. Others had mixed feelings about such relationships but said the church should respect gays as individuals while not promoting same-sex unions.
Lynch referred to the responses in his February blog. It was clear, he said, that those who participated in the survey "felt that the Church needed to be better prepared to respond to the reality of same-sex marriage." Additionally, "respondents generally tended to suggest that the Church needed to be kinder and gentler to those who identify themselves as gay and lesbian, be less judgmental and more welcoming," he said.
The Rev. Leonard Plazewski of Christ the King said it "was not surprising that Catholics have a strong belief in the dignity of human life, and I think that came through."
On birth control, 81 percent disagreed strongly or somewhat that most Catholics they know accept church teachings against artificial birth control.
The results of the Diocese of St. Petersburg survey, conducted late last year, are among others that will be considered during the worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops in October. While Lynch decided to seek input from everyone in his diocese, Don Clemmer, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said bishops chose to get feedback using methods each "deemed appropriate."
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, said the responses could lead to change.
"The church doesn't like radical change, so I think we will see incremental change. We will see changes in emphasis and changes in how we pastorally respond to these issues," he said.
"We know for a fact that Catholics have been practicing artificial birth control since the 1950s, so what we could see is less preaching about that. It will be the church practice of don't ask, don't tell."
There also could be changes in how divorced and remarried Catholics are treated. "The pope himself has said he wants to deal with that," Reese said.
A majority of bay area Catholics thought the church could provide better support to divorced Catholics and a strong majority approved of the idea of simplifying the annulment process to help Catholics who have divorced and remarried.
"I think the basic values of the church will remain the same, but the way we present those values and even encourage those who find it difficult to live up to those values" will change, said the Rev. Robert J. Schneider of St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Valrico. "We are going to be more pastorally available to them."
Asked to rate the statement, "Most couples whom I know believe in waiting until they are married before living together, just 3 percent of the 5,660 who answered said they agree strongly. Another 52 percent strongly disagreed.
Lynch was traveling Thursday and could not be reached for comment for this story. But on his blog, he noted that the responses generally reflect the "choir" — those who regularly attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.
"They do not represent the feelings of those who have fallen away from the practice of their faith, are angry or frustrated or feel alienated by the Church. How I wish I could have heard from them as well," he said.
Following this fall's meeting, Catholic bishops will meet again in 2015, when decisions will be made about marriage and family life in the church.