A New Kind of Synod?

Manipulating the membership roster sets the agenda and determines the recommendations

In announcing that non-bishops would be able to vote in this fall’s Synod on Synodality, Rome tried simultaneously to hype and downplay the news. Channeling its inner Leslie Neilsen, the synodal website blandly headlined the change as “Some News for the October 2023 Assembly.” General Relator Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich gave the story further minimalist spin by saying the extension of voting to non-bishops was just the evolution of the institution, already prepared for in Francis’s 2018 Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis communion, that non-bishops will only be a fourth of the body, and, anyway, synods are only advisory.

After having assured us there’s “nothing to see here,” Hollerich then gushed on about how the change reflects evolution of the synodal process, preserves continuity of its processes, and even affords a “prophetic function of the People of God” to the Synod.

(This is the same Vatican that told us “nothing to see here” with regard to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia’s musings about how much one could legalize the physician-assisted suicide he absolutely rejects).

The Synod of Bishops was introduced after the Second Vatican Council as a way of institutionalizing the input of the college of bishops in ecclesial affairs, making real the principle of collegiality. Where it’s going is a more curious question.

Hollerich downplayed the inclusion of non-bishops, who are “less than 25% of the total number of Assembly members,” insisting this balances (provided the principle of non-contradiction is ignored) Francis’s desire not to “affect” the “specifically episcopal nature of the Synodal Assembly” with stacking it with up to one-quarter of his own non-bishop appointees.

Undoubtedly, Hollerich et al. would take exception to my suggestion Francis is gerrymandering the Synod by insisting the Synod is an “advisory” body which only offers “recommendations” to the Pope. He can choose to accept or disregard them.

So synodality is a new “way of being Church,” indeed, a new ecclesial “dimension” that we all need to root for, but the Synod is a talk-shop-Potemkin-Village?

Now I believe the Synod should be a consultative, recommending body, largely because — apart from an ecumenical council — bishops are and should be autonomous leaders of their local churches, not part of some committee. There were similar efforts to neuter episcopal leadership when some tried to discover a “teaching mandate” in episcopal conferences. Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI made clear bishops’ conferences have no such role.

It’s a bizarre situation that we have anti-clerical prelates using the full panoply of their clerical powers to level the hierarchical Church. While they would deny it, they are eroding Vatican II’s clear teaching that the distinction between the ordained priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful differs in essence, not just degree (see Lumen gentium, no. 10).

Because the Synod is not legislative but consultative, right now recommendations are usually the result of consensus. But, as we saw with Amoris Laetitia, several controversial paragraphs (which were probably those Francis wanted) were recommended by the Synod by close votes. So loading the Synod with one out of four members is not incidental, even if it only forwards “recommendations” to the Pope. The truth is: putting one’s finger on the membership roster sets the agenda and determines the recommendations. So, while we hear lots of talk about “synodality,” this “reform” gives us synods that will generate outcomes the leadership wants while feigning to be an “unleashing” of the Holy Spirit.

(It’s not unlike diocesan “consultations” about parish “reform” that magically almost always end up with recommending what the bishop wants: close parish A, consolidate parish B. Those voices that say the bishop should be keeping churches open — well, we can decide they aren’t prophets.)

These changes most likely will be claimed to institutionalize the “sensus fidelium.” But they avoid the prior and fundamental issue Pope John Paul II raised: you cannot talk “sensus fidelium” without first talking “sensus fidei.” You need a hermeneutic to determine what the “faith” of the “faithful” is; Baptism alone doesn’t suffice. (Arius was baptized, as were Luther, Hitler, and Stalin. Will we invite any of them to a “listening session?”) So, you come back to the problem of doctrinal continuity.

One might even want to raise another awkward question. When the German bishops’ Synodaler Weg proposed a Synodal Council in which real power over bishops was entrusted to lay people, Rome rightly rejected it. Yet how will it keep from falling down that slippery slope except by reaffirming the “discerning” and governing roles of bishops to the exclusion of doctrinal and moral “power-sharing” with the “People of God?” Inquiring minds want to know!

Indeed, the Synod changes envision what, in my judgment, is a somewhat bizarre feedback loop: the “prophetic People of God” come up with ideas that are vetted by the “discernment function of the pastors.” Through that distinction, it gives us a process skewed to put pastors in reactive positions, always potentially the mean parent who says “no” to the wonderful ideas presented for his “discernment.”

How might that arrangement be used to try to constrain future popes? I fear that this change will lead to creating an interim synod whose membership produces “recommendations” that are wanted on the way to a synod that becomes a permanent vehicle to challenge, even undermine, future Bishops of Rome who might want to restrain some of the “outpourings” of the “Synodal spirit.” Are you “stifling the spirit?” Or are you establishing a permanent dissent channel?

A bishop is a bishop; a non-bishop is not. The Synod is a Synod of Bishops. We should ask what this hybrid chimera really is.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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