HACKENSACK - The Vatican is asking Catholics to participate in a global survey about the modern family that looks at topics such as birth control, divorce and same-sex marriage.
The survey, which deals with the social challenges the church faces, reflects new leadership under Pope Francis, experts say. Among other questions, the survey asks about acceptance of teachings on family planning; church attitudes toward same-sex unions; sacraments for divorcees who remarry; and the place of family prayer in today's culture.
Dioceses are free to administer the surveys the way they see fit, but bishops' approaches have varied, with the survey going out to all parishioners in some dioceses, and others surveying only parish leaders. Some churches are announcing the efforts during weekend Masses, and information has been posted on some diocesan websites.
The Vatican launched the survey to get input for a bishops' synod, or bishops' assembly, on th e family in October 2014 - in a grass-roots approach that represents a shift in leadership style under Pope Francis. The simple act of asking lay people's opinions is remarkable in a church that has long relied strictly on the viewpoints of its hierarchy, whose teachings are expected to be accepted and obeyed by church members as part of the faith.
Catholics have welcomed the chance to add their voices, even if the reach of the survey is limited in some places.
"This is unprecedented," said Peter Marchesani, a Hackensack, N.J., resident who completed the 38-question survey after hearing about it at church last Sunday. "This is something you would never think would have happened and never really has happened in our lifetime."
Marchesani found the survey on the Archdiocese of Newark website, which posted it online Nov. 27 and announced it on Twitter. Parish priests made announcements last Sunday, and church bulletins will carry information this weekend, said t he Rev. Matthew Dooley, vicar of family life ministries for the archdiocese.
Dioceses have set deadlines in mid-December for filling out the lengthy surveys, and the Vatican has asked for in formation to be returned by the end of January.
The varied responses mirror what is happening across the U.S. The Vatican did not specify how the survey should be collected, but an October letter instructed bishops to spread the survey "as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received."
They also were told that, because time is short, to "follow the most brief and practical institutional process."
Keith Ahearn said his parish priest in Pompton Lakes, N.J., chose to email the survey to church members, and he got it Wednesday. He believes the surveys should reach all Catholics.
"If the pope really wants to hear from rank and file, it should get out to everybody," he said.
He hopes the responses will inspire change on some issues contained in the survey. "For years, it has been that the church doesn't listen, and I think they've shown a propensity for not paying attention to what the real world is doin g," he said.
The survey, and even the instructions, falls in line with Pope Francis' call to give the local church greater say in church governance and decision-making, said Christopher Bellitto, chairman and associate professor of history at Kean University in Union, N.J., who focuses on church history.
"He is telling bishops and people at the local level: 'This is in your hands.' The distribution of the survey is itself a push for people to decentralize and take charge," Bellitto said.
The pope, he said, has stated that the church needs to listen to lay people to find out what the church believes. The approach has roots in church history, Bellitto said, noting the first general council that brought together church leaders from different regions in the year 325 to resolve issues including defining the nature of Jesus.
But during the last two papacies, bishops lost decision-making power, and synods had become "rubber-stamping" events, he said.
Th e survey asks Catholics about controversial topics, including attitudes and pastoral attention that should be paid toward people in same-sex unions; about unmarried couples living together; and about sacraments for divorcees who remarry and for their children.
The church leadership has preached against homosexual activity, same-sex marriage, and the use of birth control and has denied Communion to divorcees who remarry without an annulment. Pope Francis has not changed teaching on these issues, but has adopted a new tone, saying, "Who am I to judge?" on issues of homosexuality, for example, and calling for a more welcoming church.
It's unclear how the information that's collected will be used. Some church leaders have said it is a collection of data that will not affect church doctrine or teaching.