Does the vote of Bishops at the Synod matter?

As the first month of the Vatican's synod on synodality draws to a close, participants will soon begin work on preparing a document synthesizing their discussions, which will eventually serve as the basis for the synod's recommendation to the Pope at the end of another month-long gathering, which will take place next year.

Participants will examine the broad outlines of the text, propose amendments, debate its content and finally vote, by secret ballot, on the approval of their entire “synthesis document”.

Although the Vatican meeting is officially a “Synod of Bishops,” the approval process will not count the votes of bishops and those of priests, religious and other lay participants.

The Vatican says this process does not undermine the very nature of the meeting. But some observers question why laity will have an equal voice in the deliberations of an explicitly episcopal assembly, and some draw comparisons to the rejected structural proposals of the German “Synodal Path.”

The Synod of Bishops is a meeting whose members come from the episcopate of the Church throughout the world and which is held periodically in Rome

“to promote closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and the bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to examine questions relating to the activity of the Church in the world”, according to the Code of Canon Law.

The synod is not, like an ecumenical council, a formal and deliberative part of the hierarchical structure of the Latin Church and its theological understanding. Nor is it a deliberative governing body, like the synods of bishops that govern the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. But when Pope Paul VI set the rules for synods after the Second Vatican Council, he taught that synods were meant to be “central ecclesiastical institutions” and “represent the entire Catholic episcopate.”

Of course, as a matter of prudent judgment, these institutions are malleable and popes are free to modify their constitutions as they see fit. While non-bishops, mostly high-ranking priests, have already participated, Pope Francis has considerably expanded the composition of synodal assemblies, including lay and religious representatives with the same voting powers as bishops. . These representatives will be among those voting at the end of the October meeting, and if the assembled bishops are mostly divided on approving the documents, the votes of the laity could have significant influence.

This is not an unprecedented phenomenon in the structure of the Church. Church law allows diocesan synods, which make recommendations to a diocesan bishop about his local church, to be composed of both clergy and lay people, without prohibiting a majority of lay members. . And even in deliberative bodies – such as the diocesan financial council or the panels of judges that consider marriage cases – it is acceptable, according to Church law, for a majority of the members to be secular.

But critics say it is contrary to the very nature of the thing to see lay members constituted as part of an essentially episcopal body. It would be equally strange for lay people to become voting members of a diocesan priests' council or episcopal conference. Whatever the nature of this meeting, they say, the right to vote of the laity calls into question the idea that this meeting is a “synod of bishops”.

In fact, some participants agreed, and some suggested that the meeting could ambitiously be called the “Assembly of God’s People.”

Some critics note that the Vatican vigorously opposed initial plans for the German “Synodal Path” – a series of meetings held in recent years that were initially intended as a kind of deliberative and decision-making body for the German Church. Ultimately, when the Vatican declared that this idea was not “ecclesiologically valid,” the “synodal path” was remodeled into a consultative meeting, intended to give recommendations and not define policy.

But even at this stage, faced with the Vatican's refusal, the vote was endowed with a sort of two-level structure: while the entire assembly of laity, priests, religious and bishops could approve the resolutions, these same resolutions had to be adopted by a two-thirds majority of the voting bishops to be definitively adopted.

Synod critics of synodality say that what was true of the German synod should also be true of the Vatican meeting, at least in some form.

But the Vatican has taken a different position.

Vatican communications prefect Paolo Ruffini told reporters Thursday that the assembly was a “synod of bishops,” in which a minority of participants – just under 25% – were not bishops.

“The fact remains that this is a synod of bishops,” Mr. Ruffini said. But “the synod of bishops has representation from non-bishops. They are not unbelievers…we are all baptized. We are all united by the same baptismal priesthood.” “We are all believers and we offer our contribution, as happens in every parish… In every ecclesial reality, the bishops walk with the people and the people walk with the bishops.”

At the same press conference, Mr. Ruffini called for caution regarding the meaning of the interim document that will be produced at the October meeting. The text, he said, will not be the final document of synodal recommendations.

“It will be a document that we all see, and when you see it, you can judge it however you want – you can like it or not like it, and we will all make our own discernment, and we are free to “think about it what we think about it,” insisted Mr. Ruffini.

But some critics believe that a number of participants raised expectations of the synod, suggesting that it would represent a definitive “sensus fidei,” that is, a concrete expression of the common discernment of the Church.

Although organizers and most participants are working to tone down this rhetoric, it does exist, with some saying this synod is the most important event in the Church since Vatican II. In this context, they say, the October document will be presented in many corners as an expression of the identity of the Church – which is why, they say, it is important that bishops, ordained with a charisma for teaching, be those who produced it. It remains to be seen how the document will be received in the Church. But as synod organizers say the October meeting is intended to give the Church “practice” in the work of synodality – common discernment in prayer – they may soon hear that for many Catholics it is important to know who exactly does the listening, who exactly does the discerning, and who exactly has the right to vote.



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