How much authority does a synod have?

October 16, 2015
Source: District of the USA

The problematic Family on the Synod has caused many to wonder: "How much authority does the Synod on the Family have?"

Continuing its news about the Family on the Synod, DICI has published an explanatory piece on the different types of synods and the authority they possess.


The authority of the Synod

The status of the second Synod on the Family that is currently taking place is the object of surprising interpretations. To hear the journalists talk—along with some bishops who are strongly influenced by democratic ideas—you would think that this assembly was like a parliament of the representatives of the People of God: that a conservative right wing was confronting a progressive left, before putting dogmatic and moral truths to a vote…. Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, professor of ecclesiology at St. Pius X Seminary in Econe (Switzerland), recalls exactly what a synod is, with its powers and its limits.

Like the word “council”, the word “synod” designates in the Church an assembly of personages gathered to deliberate and make decisions in matters of doctrine or discipline. As organs of government, these assemblies were made up of bishops, or at least were headed by one of them. Initially they were all called councils or synods; later assemblies of clerics convoked by the diocesan bishop were the only ones to receive the name of synods and their decisions were called synodal statutes, whereas meetings of bishops with the pope or his representatives presiding were preferably called councils.

Vatican Council II, by the very fact that it was held, restored to the ecumenical council its current interest, and at the same time it promoted the renewal of the synodal institution in two forms:

  1. the diocesan synod, which is therefore not a novelty, although its methods, objectives and statutes have been profoundly revised;
  2. the synod of bishops, an original creation desired by Paul VI to take over more effectively from the College of Cardinals. Here we will discuss this synod of bishops.

The synod of bishops is a new institution, the idea for which appeared during the Second Vatican Council. Four years in a row, bishops from all over the world had met in Rome; many hoped that this dialogue could continue, in some way or another, after the conclusion of the Council. To respond to this desire, Paul VI decided in 1965 to create the synod of bishops and to make of it a permanent institution, by the motu proprio, Apostolica sollicitudo, dated September 15, 1965. Initial regulations appeared in 1966, under the name of Ordo Synodi Episcoporum celebranda. It was replaced by a second version [mouture, rehash] in 1969 which, although there have been several additions subsequently, is still in force. The essential elements of these documents were adopted by the 1983 Code of Canon Law, in canons 342-348.

Canon 342 gives this definition of it:

The synod of Bishops is a group of Bishops selected from different parts of the world, who meet together at specified times to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops. These Bishops, by their counsel, assist the Roman Pontiff in the defence and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline. They also consider questions concerning the mission of the Church in the world."

As this definition shows, although the name synod has been given to it, this assembly is neither a synod nor a council. First, because in a council or a synod the bishops sit and speak in their own name, whereas here most of them are present as delegates from the episcopal conferences and consequently must express the thought of their those who elected them. Then again, because a council is a deliberative assembly in which the bishops, gathered as a college, act as legislators and doctors of the faith and issue decrees of a doctrinal or disciplinary character. The synod of bishops, on the contrary, usually has only a consultative voice. It does not publish decrees but reports and recommendations, in other words, wishes (canon 343).

As a consultative assembly, the synod is therefore even more strictly subject to the authority of the Head of the Church than an ecumenical council. Canon 344 reminds us that it is the prerogative of the pope

  1. to convene the synod and to designate the place where it will be held;
  2. to ratify the election of those who are elected, while he himself can appoint additional members;
  3. to determine the theme and the questions that will be studied at the synod;
  4. to set the agenda;
  5. to preside over the synod personally or through others; in fact the pope personally attends only the most solemn or most important sessions, and he usually has one or more “President-delegates”, who are appointed for the duration of the session, substitute for him;
  6. to conclude the synod, or to transfer, suspend or dissolve it. If the Apostolic See is vacated after the convocation of a synod or during its celebration, the assembly is suspended by that very fact until the election of a new pope, and it will be up to him to say whether the synod will continue or be dissolved (canon 347, §2).

There are three types of synodal assemblies:

  1. ordinary general;
  2. extraordinary general;
  3. special (canon 345).

1. The purpose of the first type is to deal with questions that directly concern the good of the whole Church, without however being of an urgent nature. It is composed:

  • a) of the Latin patriarchs and the archbishops and metropolitans;
  • b) of a majority of the members elected by the conferences of bishops all over the world;
  • c) of the cardinals who head one of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia, and
  • d) of ten religious belonging to clerical institutes and elected by the Roman Union of General Superiors.

Participation by the hierarchy of the Eastern Churches is regulated by particular law. In addition to all these participants, the Supreme Pontiff reserves for himself the right to appoint others, in a proportion not to exceed 15% of the rest of the assembly (canon 346, §1). By way of example, we note that the 1990 Synod was made up of 238 members, 15 Eastern Catholics and 36 appointed by the pope. Attending also were a number of lay auditors, both men and women.

2. The extraordinary general assembly meets to deal with matters that require a swift solution. Its membership is almost the same as that of the preceding, except that the bishops’ conferences are represented at it by their presidents and not by elected delegates, and that the number of religious in it is reduced to 3.

3. The assembly is called “special” when its purpose is to study matters that directly concern, not the universal Church, but one or several specific regions. Thus in 1980 two special synods were held, one for the Netherlands, the other for Ukraine. This kind of assembly is composed mainly of bishops chosen in the regions concerned (can. 346, §3).

4. The preparation of a session, its proceedings, the utilization and diffusion of its results after its conclusion, represent a considerable amount of work, which requires steady personnel. This is assured by a permanent secretariat, headed by a secretary general, who is appointed by the pope and is assisted by a council made up of bishops designated partly by the assembly and partly by the Supreme Pontiff. Specialized secretaries come to assist the secretary general for the duration of the session. A news bureau provides a liaison with the media.

5. Every session is organized around a principal theme chosen by the pope. In 1974 it was “Justice and Peace”, in 1981 “The Family”, in 1987 “The Place and Role of the Laity in the Church”. Once this theme is chosen, the general secretariat prepares a schema, called the lineamenta, to introduce this theme, and sends it, together with a questionnaire, to all the episcopal conferences so that they can study it and respond to it. Some conferences have been able to associate their priests and faithful rather extensively in this work of in-depth study. Based on the responses received, the secretary general draws up an Instrumentum laboris, or working document, which will be forwarded to the Synod Fathers and will serve as the basis for their discussions. At the end of the session, a reporter will compose the “Final Document” which will be the synthesis of the work accomplished, while added several practical recommendations to it. This document will be delivered to the pope, who will make whatever use of it he sees fit and will later utilize it to draw up papal documents.

6. Like all the preceding assemblies, the current synod remains at the discretion of Pope Francis. Canon 344 of the new Code is in fact very clear: the synod is a purely consultative organ, from which the pope can take away what he wants. Certainly, the influence of such a body is far from negligible, given the media and the prevailing democratic mindset that we know so well. But the law of the Church, remaining what it is, gives the Supreme Pontiff the means with which to make his own theology triumph.

Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize

(DICI 10-16-2015)