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Archbishop Bernard Hebda                                                                                   Sep. 22, 2015

Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis

226 Summit Avenue

St. Paul, Minnesota 55102

Dear Archbishop Hebda,

As the concerns of the Synod on the Family continue to evolve, Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have responded to Pope Francis’ call to share their lived experiences in the areas of sexuality, marriage, and family. Through a series of twenty Listening Sessions open to all across the Archdiocese, over three hundred people shared their experiences. This was done orally as participants listened carefully and without comment to the outpouring of heartfelt experience. In addition, participants wrote their responses to five questions on the topics of sexuality, marriage, and family. The attached report summarizes those written responses.

This series of Listening Sessions was sponsored by the Council of the Baptized, a group of Catholic laity who have organized to help local Catholics “claim our voices.” The Listening Sessions were held across the Archdiocese and participation was encouraged from all sectors. The objective was to provide a forum for honest sharing and careful listening.

For each of the five questions posed, we have summarized the responses as objectively as possible, highlighting some direct quotations as appropriate. Of course, it is most powerful to read the full transcript available at There the unedited, raw responses tell the stories of Catholics steeped in the struggle between faith and conscience.

In an attitude of respect and hope, we ask that you listen to these heartfelt voices as they express the realities of how Catholic teachings and practices have affected actual, individual lives. In some instances, voices of anger and frustration are clearly discernible. More prevalent, however, are voices of pain and sadness as Catholics struggle with teachings that do not fit the realities of their lives. We ask you to recognize that the Holy Spirit lives and moves in these people – not in terms of lofty theological ideals – but rather in the realities of daily, faith-filled lives.

It is our great hope that, through this sharing, we will work together to build a Church that more fully nourishes and enriches the lives of all the faithful. We seek to foster a Church full of vitality, robustly living the core Gospel values of compassion, mercy, and inclusion.

Respectfully in Christ,

Mary Beth Stein                                                                      



Question One: Describe what constitutes a family.[1]

Although a small number of respondents described family according to specific roles of mother, father, and children, the majority defined family according to the attributes and atmosphere created:

  • Two or more individuals who are willing and able to love one another with faithful commitment, hope, and sacrifice, joy and understanding (#18).
  • People who form a community by committing to care and love one another in joy and sorrow through the vicissitudes of life (#262).
  • Two or more people that share life that has commitment, hopefully affection, and an unexplainable bond to each other (#297).

A large number of respondents specifically expanded the family definition to go beyond traditionally defined roles:

  • Family consists of persons who are in a loving relationship with one another, who have “thrown in their lot” with one another, who are willing to weather the storms of life with one another.       The family unit may be a heterosexual or homosexual couple with or without children, or a single parent raising children (#23).
  • A family is a group living together supporting one another. Could be mom, dad, children; two moms and children; two dads and children; two women; two men; group of relatives; friends. There needs to be love, respect, support, enjoyment, growth, and contribution to society (#88).

The overall sense expressed by the vast majority of respondents is captured in the following quotations:

  • This concept is changing, and we need to listen (#111).
  • They come in many sizes and shapes, too many to enumerate (#112).
  • No one should define family so as to exclude loving, committed people (#125).

This exercise of reflecting on the definition of family established a basis for reflection on the remaining four questions. A great divide became apparent between the traditional family’s experience of Church teachings and practices compared to the experiences of non-traditional families. Perhaps this reveals the growing and learning edge for everyone in our Church:

  • The Church is not supportive to all families.       It is exclusive and judgmental.       It puts unrealistic expectations on marriage, having children, etc., and when things don’t work, like divorce or people don’t want children, they are left to feel like they are wrong and shouldn’t be Catholic (#49).
  • Non-traditional families mostly have no support (#89).
  • Many experience lack of support from clergy, denial of sacraments. They become “the other.” (#253)

Questions two and three elicited similar responses, so they have been combined in the following section.

Question Two: At the upcoming Synod on the Family, the bishops will discuss issues such as divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, contraception, and same sex attraction. In what ways do you experience or witness official Church teachings or practices in these areas.

  1. As being supportive to families?
  2. As hindering or hurting families?

Question Three: Are there other issues of Church teachings or practices around sexuality, marriage, or family that have affected you or ones you care about? Please describe.

A small handful of respondents have experienced the Church as fully supportive, and a larger handful thoughtfully recognized and acknowledged Church support alongside areas of hindrance:

  • Two missions of the Catholic Church jump out as supporting families. First, the Church’s consistent stance on economic social justice, a stance that has been emphasized by Pope Francis, has helped better the lives of the working poor. Second, the Church’s neighborhood-based Catholic Schools have created thousands of healthy communities in which families and children can connect and thrive (#113).
  • (a: supports) The teachings and practices are very supportive of the traditional understanding of what constitutes a family. And in that way support one segment of my definition of family. (b: hinders) By the emphasis placed on this definition of family, the teaching and practice restricts and shuts out those other families that don’t fit.       This hurts and restricts their participation in the life of the Church. (#295)

The great majority of respondents experience these Church teachings and practices as hindering or even harming families. They recount painful stories and share informed opinions based on their knowledge and experiences. The themes expressed in these next quotations are largely representative of the overall responses.

  • (a: supports) The church supports traditional families. Mine is traditional and [I] have always felt supported except in the area of birth control. (b: hinders) Other families have been very hurt by the teachings: (1) divorced friend who didn’t want the divorce and was denied an annulment - left the Church. (2) Niece who is a lesbian and does not feel welcome – left the Church. (3) Friend’s mother never felt worthy of Eucharist after her husband divorced her. (4) So many hurt with Church fighting same sex marriage. (#56)
  • (a – Church support) Very little! (b – church hindering) Teaching focuses on prohibitions instead of feeding the soul.       Divorced and remarried people cannot receive sacraments. As a result my sister cohabitates instead of remarrying. This is not the most stable environment for her daughter. My gay cousin has left the family rather than face rejection from the religious family members. (#8)
  • Hinders. The Church has lost credibility in large part because of its narrow emphasis on human sexuality as distinct from the wholeness of life and the justice issues related to it. We cannot ignore the tragic global implications of over-population and the injustices that it causes. (#126)

Most of the respondents addressed concerns commonly talked about in connection with the Synod on the Family: divorce/remarriage, same sex attraction, and artificial contraception. Below are a few responses that mirror experiences and opinions shared by a great majority of the participants:

Divorce and Remarriage

  • The Catholic ideal of family excludes too many. I am divorced. This is not a flaw or trouble. My divorce was a gift of life that the Holy Spirit guided me to. The Spirit may also call me to re-marry.       (#306)
  • My divorced friends do not feel welcomed by the Church and yet do still feel an affiliation to the Church.       Divorce and remarriage should not be something that excludes. It is sometimes the best and healthiest option. (#48)
  • I am divorced, my husband leaving me is not a reason for an annulment. He abandoned our family, and I cannot remarry in the church without an annulment. I am stuck…. (#221)


Same Sex Attraction

  • The intolerance by the church of same-sex relationships has been extremely hurtful to many people. As the parent of a gay child, I could no longer sit in the pews as a member of a church that considered my child as being “disordered” rather than created in the likeness of God, as all human beings are. If my child was not welcome, then what kind of parent would I be to condone that rejection of him by the church? I had to walk away and join a church community that equally valued all people regardless of sexual preference. (#10)
  • The “official” church teachings on same sex attraction ignores the fact that individuals do not choose this state in which they were born. Does “the Church” think that God has made a mistake? (#105)
  • (1) On same sex attraction, I cannot understand the Church’s objection to non-heterosexual love. How is a Catholic family founded on a same-sex partnership supposed to find community and support when the Church rejects us? I want to be Catholic and to live honestly. (#303)
  • The church’s teaching on sexuality has caused me a decade of shame and psychological damage. The only way I could find healing was to integrate my same-sex attraction against the Church’s recommendation. There is so much pain in the LGBT Catholic community; it can’t be captured in words. (#43)


Artificial Contraception

  • My sister in law who followed “the law” and gave birth 7 times but did not have capacity to love and nurture the last 3 of her children. (#26)
  • My mother had 8 rhythm babies and died at 60 a worn out woman. (#170)
  • My wife and I had 6 children born in 7 years, and she lost four other babies. A doctor had to tell her to stop having children or she would not live to rear them. Even with this knowledge, we struggled to accept artificial birth control another two and a half years. (#195)
  • The founding of a family takes planning; it takes thought and care to succeed. Contraception makes that possible. (#303)

Several other areas of concern were also raised:

Role of Women

  • Denial of Holy Orders to women has caused me to feel second class in the church since I was five years old. (#8)
  • The sin of sexism. The Church should ordain women. I believe it’s what is in your heart, not your shorts that is important. (#34)
  • Although I have a master’s degree in theology, the Church does not have a place for me in leadership. We need women in leadership. (#231)
  • I believe the main church problem, much the same as many other institutions and cultures, is the failure to recognize and implement the equality of male and female. We have missed untold amounts of wisdom and insight and compassion that are possessed by females which could help make us better human beings and better examples and leaders for those less fortunate or repressed. (#250)


Clerical Sex Abuse

  • My sister-in-law experienced sexual abuse by a priest and cannot at this point go to any services or become a member of any church. This happened in another state. She needs healing but is still trapped by fear and anger toward the perpetrator and the organization of the Church. (#64)
  • The whole clergy abuse of children, and the bishop cover-up of that abuse, have driven my adult children away from the Church. (#121)
  • Clergy abuse has been hidden and tolerated for too long. It feels like this is a huge wake-up call to recognize how dysfunctional church teaching on sexuality has been for decades.       (#210)


Our Children

  • My children have little respect for the church because of the positions they take on sexuality. Therefore they refuse to call themselves Catholic. (#17)
  • My granddaughter objects to current doctrine on homosexuality. Does not want to be confirmed. (#66)
  • Church teachings on marriage and homosexuality have resulted in a daughter leaving the Church. Restrictive Church practices have turned our sons away. (#139)
  • I have a lesbian daughter who has become a Lutheran. She’s getting a Master’s in Divinity and will be a minister. She married her partner in the Lutheran Church. The Catholic Church has lost two wonderful people. (#252)
  • I have five kids, all who went to Catholic schools, faith formation, and Catholic colleges. None are practicing Catholics because of all the issues! (#277)



  • I am divorced. The marriage was harmful to me and my children. If I find a man to love and marry, I will.       The Church’s teaching will be ignored. My conscience will guide. (#231)
  • I’m still an active Catholic and practicing.       I simply ignore the unjust teachings and follow my informed conscience as Vatican II instructs. (#8)
  • All the church would have to say to couples about artificial contraception is: “Pray, ask for God’s guidance, and follow your conscience.” (#239)
  • Frankly, I have relied on my own conscience after prayerfully considering church teaching and sometimes finding it irrelevant and antithetical to Jesus’ clear directive to love one another as he loves us. A pastor we had in the 1970s taught us that the living church is often ahead of the teaching church. He said this when giving us the official teaching regarding contraception, but it is as relevant a pronouncement today as it was 40 years ago. (#7)

Much of the sentiment expressed in questions two and three is captured in the following quotations:

  • We need to reform Church teaching with input from married, divorced, gay and straight Catholics, from social science understandings and with the help of theologians who can help us come to teachings which honor and support the diverse experiences of faithful Catholics in all our diversity. (#236)
  • Whenever an individual is in pain, and the Church is unwilling or unable to help out, my heart breaks. (#120)
  • As a religious sister after teaching many years it was always a longing that the heavy hand of Church would become the loving accepting arms of Christ. (#229)

Question Four: Has this affected your (or their) relationship with the Catholic Church? In what way?

  • I feel in limbo. I love my faith, but it is a struggle within to live a gay life and practice my faith. (#31)
  • Yes! The church’s backward teachings have led me elsewhere for spiritual growth in my relationship with God. We can’t be expected to use our God given faculty of reason and at the same time ignore what the scientific and especially the psychological communities teach us about the healthiness and importance of same-sex relationships, cohabitation, remarriage, and contraception for families. (#43)
  • Sometimes I am ashamed to admit I am Catholic.       I struggle with my relationship to a Church that does not accept. (#94)
  • Church didn’t care. (#109)
  • Due to the Church’s strict teachings on sexuality our children do not attend Church and are not raising their children as Catholics. (#122)
  • Have learned to think for myself and follow my conscience. (#135)
  • I cannot recommend this Church to my daughters and granddaughters until they are equal to men in all things – including Holy Orders. (#306)
  • It saddens me and troubles me that our bishops seem to believe they know everything; that their sole job is to teach, not to be part of the community of baptized Catholics.       Bishops must listen. (#154)

Finally, participants were asked what particular message they would like to send to the pope and bishops as the concerns of the Synod on the Family continue to unfold. Many, many respondents called for action by the bishops. They are asking our Church authorities to listen with open hearts to people from all walks of life and recognize how the Holy Spirit is moving among them.

Question Five: What message do you want to send to the Synod?

Many respondents focused on changes to specific teachings and practices. The following quotations are representative of the kinds of changes most often called for:

  • There is a need for more understanding and acceptance of marriage and its difficulties. (#160)
  • Look at the sacrament of marriage with open hearts to see the beauty of love, not only in one man and one woman, rather in all of the types of relationships around marriage.       (#294)
  • Modernize the teaching of birth control to utilize good science and good ethics. Seriously visit the question of loving relationships not under the traditional form of marriage. (#61)
  • (1) I want us as Church to bless all sexual orientations as coming from God. I want to encourage commitment in relationships between partners. (2) I want us to welcome the divorced and remarried fully back into the community—encouraging them to forgive what needs to be forgiven and to acknowledge what we might have done wrong.       (3) I want to encourage couples to form their own consciences and decide together what sexual expression is right for them. (#1)

A large number of respondents called upon the bishops to include women in Church leadership:

  • Include women in all roles in the church and in leadership. Have a council of women advisors to the pope and to each bishop. (#8)
  • Please add women to the upcoming discussions.       We constitute well over 50% of the human race! Why not 50% of the upcoming Synod? (#86)
  • We would like to see women included as delegates at the Synod!!! This should, of course, also include women theologians and married couples!       (#105)

Many respondents emphasized the kind of Church we deeply long for:

  • We currently focus on issues that detract from the beauty and wonder of the Church. We should be focusing on what unites us, not on what divides us.       (#57)
  • Find a way to articulate the values of “traditional Catholic” marriage and at the same time leave room for the real life situations of other relationships. This is the way to respect what God is doing in the lives of people. (#71)
  • I would like to see us emphasize the primacy of conscience for couples as they make the difficult yet glorious decisions regarding the genital expression of their love. (#106)
  • Families on the periphery need care also.       (#177)
  • Life is about evolution. As we learn more about human sexuality and as new circumstances arise, there must be development in how teachings and practices are expressed. Emphasize the primacy of conscience. Take sensus fidelium seriously. (#80)
  • The Church needs to work with science, theologians, and psychologists to change church teachings regarding sexuality.       Love is the answer to live by, not fear or shame or control. (#239)
  • The Church should be a bridge to God, not a gate.       (#175)

The call to act from Gospel values was repeated frequently:

  • What would Jesus do? The God of my understanding loves all people.       Therefore, I believe our Catholic Church needs to re-root itself in the love, compassion and open-ness of Christ to all families in the many diverse and beautiful forms we take.       Our God is not a vindictive judgmental God. Therefore our Church should not be a shaming, judging and demeaning church or faith. (#286)
  • Be inclusive, compassionate and empowering as Jesus was. Find ways to support people where they are in their lives rather than dictating whether they are acceptable. (#231)
  • Accept everyone. (#44)

Perhaps the most common refrain was simply a call to the bishops to listen to us:

  • Listen to us – Talk to us – Have us come together to talk sincerely about our doubts, faith, values. We can do this in Christ’s love. (#4)
  • Be certain that you have heard from both those who agree with current church teaching and those who don’t. Remember that no one has the whole truth but everyone has a piece of it.(#7)
  • Listen to the people of God. The Holy Spirit is at work in the faithful. (#27)
  • Start to listen to the laity and to trust the laity for having well-informed consciences to make their decisions. (#64)
  • Listen, Listen, Listen – with your hearts.       Have humility (which means truth) and admit that the Church is dysfunctional – out of touch, and has caused much pain when we should/need to find the joys, mercy, healing, care, and forgiveness. (#65)
  • Listen to the lived experience of people.       Include families of various compositions. Include women and theologians. (#194)
  • Oh Institutional Church! Listen to those on the edges. (#21)

As so many participants in these Listening Sessions have pointed out, we long for a Church that embraces all Catholics. It is together that we are Church; together we are the living Body of Christ. The Holy Spirit lives and breathes through the lives of us all. We therefore call upon you to carefully and prayerfully consider the outpouring of concerns expressed by these caring Catholics. Listen to us. Let us work together to build a Church that ever more fully embodies the eternal love of God as revealed by Jesus and enlivened by the Holy Spirit.

Council of the Baptized

5596 Royal Oaks Drive, St. Paul, Mn. USA 55126


[1] Numbers in parentheses following each quotation refer to the respondent number found in the Listening Session Responses document transcribing each participant’s answers to all questions along with the demographic information. Click HERE.  

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