When the Second Vatican Council was considering synodality and collegiality, there was a call for more direct involvement of the world’s bishops in setting direction in church policy. In response to this wish, on Sept. 15, 1965, before the conclusion of the council, Pope Paul VI established what is known as the synod of bishops.
This is not, as such, a governance structure in the church because the synod has no authority on its own to make decisions. Nevertheless, as canon 342 notes, its purpose is to enable bishops from different parts of the world to meet together at specified times to promote close relationships between the Roman pontiff and the bishops.
At the same time, the synod was given the general mandate to help defend and develop faith and morals, to strengthen church discipline, and to consider questions concerning the mission of the church in the world.
When this institution was established, there were high hopes that it would play a significant role in setting direction for church leadership. However, the results have been somewhat disappointing, partly because of the format adopted for the meetings.
Because of this, Pope Francis has asked for a renewal of the procedures, and has indicated that he wishes to make greater use of the synod in church governance. At the time of this writing, new norms have not yet been issued. However, they can be expected within a short period of time.
There have been different types of synods. The ordinary one takes place usually every three years and gathers elected and appointed representatives of the various conferences and groupings of bishops, both from the Latin church and from the Oriental churches, as well as the heads of the offices of the Roman Curia.
The extraordinary synod does not have elected members as such; rather, the presidents of the conferences are the delegates, along with other persons so designated.
The extraordinary synod is used to address questions which require a speedy resolution and set a direction.
In a certain way, the topics chosen for the ordinary synods are illustrative of the seven forms of apostolate listed in canon 298: promoting the perfection of Christian life (synods on the various states of life in the church, the episcopate, priesthood, religious life), divine worship (synods on the liturgy and the sacraments), teaching the faith (catechesis, Scripture), evangelization (missions, new evangelization), works of piety (associations of the faithful), works of charity, and works of justice (justice in the world).
There have also been synods with a geographical basis, such as the synods for Holland, the Ukraine, and Lebanon. There have also been regional synods for Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Americas, and Europe.
Because of its great importance, Pope Francis decided that the synod on marriage and the family would be held with two synods: an extraordinary synod (2014) and an ordinary one (2015). Reflecting the pope’s desire to have this synod be more representative of the thinking of the faithful, an extensive questionnaire was made available, and the faithful (laity and clergy) were invited to respond. This is the first time that such an approach was taken and the response to the initiative was very positive. A number of conferences of bishops subsequently made the results of the consultation public, while others, such as Canada, preferred to have the observations sent directly to the Holy See.
In a letter addressed to families (Feb. 2, 2014), Pope Francis explained the reasons for holding two synods on the theme of marriage and the family, stating that through these events “the church will undertake a true journey of discernment and adopt the necessary pastoral means to help families face their present challenges with the light and strength that comes from the Gospel.”
The permanent secretariate of the synod consults on possible topics, prepares a working paper, receives comments on it, then presents a revised formal paper which is discussed during the meeting, both in plenary gatherings and in committee. Recommendations are then gathered and voted upon, and presented to the pope for his action.
The early synods issued their own documents, but then changed the format and simply presented their proposals to the pope. In most cases, an apostolic exhortation was issued a year or so later, taking the data from the synod and expressing the pope’s thoughts on the matter. Although they contain significant doctrinal and pastoral insights, these rather lengthy documents are not easily used in parishes and elsewhere. It is not impossible that a new format will be developed to communicate the results of the discussions.
Some conferences of bishops have suggested that the frequency of synods be lengthened to allow more time for preparation, and, especially, more time to implement the insights issued after the meeting, before having to focus attention anew on the topic chosen for the next synod.
Only the pope can convene the synod; he appoints a number of members and confirms the election of those who were presented by the various groupings of bishops. If the Apostolic See becomes vacant while a synod is in session, the activities are immediately suspended until a new pope is elected and decides to continue or dissolve the assembly. There is a similar norm for the ecumenical council, as was the case when St. John XXIII died between the first and second sessions of Vatican II.
The synod could be called upon to play a most significant role in the development of church teaching and pastoral practice. Hopefully, the experiences of the dual synods on the family will clearly show the potential this institution has for setting direction in the church.
Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 30th article in a series.