The news that the Synod will no longer have auditors, but members, be they bishops, priests, religious, or lay people, was not unexpected. Already in the Praedicate Evangelium, the apostolic constitution which regulates the functioning of the Curia, it was no longer called the Synod of bishops. And therefore, it was logical that voting was extended to everyone. And yet, this novelty must be freed from all hypocrisy. The Synod of Bishops, as Paul VI had imagined it, ceases to exist. But the new assembly is not an absolute novelty.
It is not because the continental experiences have always seen the presence of laypeople among the members, just as in the local stages. On the contrary, there have been, for example, nine European symposiums, each of which included a regional stage of discussion, resulting in a broader assembly and more general conclusions.
It is not because the Synod is not a parliament. Pope Francis has said this several times. Yet, it is paradoxical that, although the Synod is not a parliament, the decisions taken regarding the Synod seem to mirror those of a parliament.
In fact, since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has given the synodal process an absolute priority. Already at his first consistory, he listed Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who had become general secretary of the Synod, second among the new cardinals, only after Cardinale Pietro Parolin, secretary of State, but before listing Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Pope Francis has celebrated two extraordinary synods and two ordinary synods during his pontificate. He is now celebrating the third ordinary Synod, which extends over the space of three years and which will see two meetings.
The decisions taken by the Pope very much concerned the philosophy of a Synod itself. Previously, the paragraphs of the final document that did not obtain synodal consensus, i.e., two-thirds of the votes, were not published. The reason was that communion was sought in the Synod, not a majority or an opposition. Pope Francis ordered that all Modi (i.e., paragraphs) be published, even those that had not reached synodal consensus. Furthermore, he wanted the votes of each paragraph to be disclosed.
Already this decision seemed to parliamentarize the Synod. At this point, it became a standard step in favor of greater inclusiveness to make it an assembly where it was not only the bishops who voted.
But it is worth clearing the field of any hypocrisy: it would be true democratization of the Church only if the Synod led to binding decisions, if it were a deliberative and not simply a consultative body, and if the Pope accepted the Synod’s decisions. But that’s not the case, nor has it ever been.
All synods conclude with a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, which belongs to the Pope and only to the Pope. Although the Pope may decide to follow the proceedings, he can then take a decision that is not in line with what was heard during the debate. Not only. The post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not a magisterial document. It does not concern doctrinal decisions. It gives indications that sometimes have a very high magisterial weight, but it is not at the top of the documents that a Pope can produce.
This means that to consider the Synod as a place where decisions are made conclusively would be misleading. Instead, the Synod is a space for discussion, a place where points of view meet.
Paul VI wanted it as a Synod of Bishops because, in some way, he was repeating the extraordinary experience of the Second Vatican Council. But there was also another reason. Paul VI wanted bishops to be the first evangelizers of their dioceses, to take up the debates and bring this vision of the universal Church to their dioceses.
It was called the Synod of Bishops because great continental and regional experiences were already encouraged in the conciliar documents. These continental experiences were then the basis of the discussions of the bishops at the Synod, from which they were to draw nourishment. That is: from the people to the bishop, from the bishop to the Pope, and from the Pope back to the Universal Church.
Before the synods, therefore, there were a series of intermediate experiences with a precise meaning. All these experiences seem to have been swept away with the stroke of a pen. What value will an ecclesial assembly have if there is a Synod with the same type of composition? What value will a continental symposium have if the continental assemblies of the Synod then take the place of the continental conference?
With this decision, the Synod that Paul VI wanted no longer exists, and everything has been further centralized in some way. Especially since the members of the Synod, even the laity, are proposed, not elected, to the Pope, and the Pope chooses them personally. This also creates another situation: Catholic associations will try to organize themselves to lobby and be present at the Synod. They will ask their bishops, and the General Secretariat of the Synod, to have one of their members present for fear of being cut off and not being part of the debate.
The concrete result is that the Synod is made into a sort of “little parliament,” which is the opposite of Pope Francis’ ideal. Opening this synodal path, Cardinal Mario Grech, general secretary of the Synod, also underlined that we had to start thinking about a different way of operating in the Synod, starting from the voting process of the paragraphs in the final document, because they gave too many an idea of a democratic and parliamentary process.
True. But if there is no vote, if the discussion process is different, the idea of giving women the right to vote, that seems so revolutionary today, will also be lost.
Perhaps we should appreciate, in this synodal process, the involvement of all the people of God. But maybe it should also be remembered that this involvement already existed, albeit it was not emphasized, and although sometimes experienced in a particularly stale way. Therefore, there was in fact a need to convert hearts and revive the processes.
This step risks becoming more of a bureaucratization and centralization than a natural step forward. In fact, there are many equilibriums to maintain. Cardinals Grech and Hollerich had to send a letter to explain that, in any case, the role of bishops was not exhausted. Yet, in this great global debate, where listening is elevated at all costs, the bishops risk losing impact and awareness of their functional identity. The risk is that their munus docendi, the task of teaching, will be undervalued.
Perhaps this reading is too negative, and there are probably benefits to all of this. What is striking, however, is that Pope Francis seems to become more exclusive than inclusive, more centralizing than subsidiary in choosing to broaden the field. Because, after all, the Synod process remains firmly in the hands of Rome. It’s not that this is a bad thing, because the institution is essential and fundamental, and the Papacy is, above all, a guarantee of the unity of the Church. However, it should be noted that this centralization is the opposite of what the Pope is said to be doing now.