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Canon Law for Today

By Rev. Frank Morrisey


Rev. Frank MorriseyWhat is a diocesan synod?

Among the various institutions found in the church to provide for better governance, the diocesan synod should have pride of place. A synod is a council of the church, sometimes called to clarify points of doctrine or discipline. A general synod for the entire church is now known as an ecumenical council. Many of the Eastern Catholic churches have an elaborate system of synods, with meetings held even every year. In the Latin church, synods are presently identified with the diocese.

One of the principal advantages of a diocesan synod is that it groups not only representatives of the clergy with the bishop, but also selected religious and lay members of the Christian faithful. In this way, a more complete gathering of insights is possible.

Canon 460 tells us that its purpose is to foster the good of the entire diocesan community. While, in former times, it was prescribed to hold a synod every three years, the time frame was moved in 1917 to every 10 years. Since 1983, however, the frequency of the synod has been left to the judgment of the diocesan bishop. Unfortunately, in a number of instances, synods have rarely, if ever, been held. This is a missed opportunity.

The canonical rules governing the holding of a synod were revised significantly on March 19, 1997, providing more clarity as to the working of the institution and its sphere of competence.

These new Vatican norms tell us that, in the process of the synod, the bishop exercises the office of governing the church entrusted to his care. He determines its convocation, proposes the questions to be discussed, and presides at the synodal sessions. Moreover, it is he who, as sole legislator, signs the synodal declarations and decrees and orders their publication.

Similarly, art. 2 of the new norms tells us that those who participate in the synod assist the diocesan bishop by freely and sincerely expressing their opinion with regard to the questions which have been proposed by him. This opinion is defined as “consultative,” to indicate that the bishop remains free to accept or not the recommendations made to him by the members of the synod.

However, this does not imply that such an opinion is of little importance or merely an external consultation involving persons with no responsibility for the final outcome. Indeed, in virtue of their experience and their counsel, those who participate in the synod also collaborate actively in drawing up the declarations and decrees by which the governance of the diocese is inspired for the future.

When the church was first established in Canada, the synods were held religiously every three years. In the beginning, the participants, who were all clerics at the time, focussed primarily on the content of the faith and clerical discipline; but, as time went on, they began to address moral issues more directly.

Thus we find not only numerous decrees relating to the life and ministry of the clergy, but also frequent references to the abuse of alcohol, the running of taverns, sharing liquor with the local inhabitants, and the like. This was becoming a significant social problem at the time.

However, after new dioceses were established, the bishops decided that it would be preferable for them to meet together in provincial councils, rather than in synods, so as to promote a unified vision and approach. These councils thus addressed issues relating to Catholic education, relations with the governments, the stability of the clergy, and so forth. We have to keep in mind the immense distances involved and the relatively small number of Catholics living in such a vast territory.

Some diocesan bishops, instead of applying the various canonical rules relating to synods, have preferred to hold a diocesan assembly, which allows for greater participation of the faithful. Although such gatherings are not formal legal institutions, they also serve the purposes of providing a mechanism for the faithful to express their mind and to become better informed of issues facing the diocesan church.

In other dioceses, bishops have relied on advice from the presbyteral council and the diocesan pastoral council. When these institutions are functioning well, they can, in many instances, provide the information that is needed for informed decisions.

Among the matters that might be considered by a diocesan synod or assembly, we could mention the following, based on the threefold function of the diocesan bishop to teach, sanctify, and govern.

In regard to teaching, the synod could address questions relating to preaching, catechetics, ecumenism, missionary activity, and social communications.

As for the mission of sanctifying, issues being considered could touch on Sunday assemblies in the absence of a priest, the reservation and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, the admission of other Christians to some of the sacraments.

The office of governing encompasses the establishment of various pastoral and finance councils, the administration of temporal goods, and provisions for the support of the clergy and other pastoral workers.

Of course, a diocesan bishop would be free to legislate on his own, without the intervention of a synod or diocesan assembly, but such an approach would not be consistent with the spirit of the current legislation, since the governance and direction of the diocese calls for the active involvement of the entire People of God living in the territory, and is not just the prerogative of the clergy.

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 36th article in a series.