IS THE ROMAN Curia an impediment to collegiality? An address at Oxford University last summer by San Francisco's retired Archbishop John Quinn suggested it is. A different view of the Holy See's approach to collegiality was presented Oct. 21 in San Diego, Calif., by Cardinal Jan Schotte, secretary general to the World Synod of Bishops. At a diocesan forum, the cardinal discussed the history of the synodal process, which, he claimed, demonstrates that the Vatican's commitment to collegiality often runs deeper than that of the bishops themselves.

Cardinal Schotte said collegiality is manifested at several levels, of which the bishops' synod is one. The Pope's pastoral visits to numerous countries play a part, as do the bishops' ad limina visits to Rome. The regional episcopal bodies and national bishops'conferences also ensure collegiality. The process may be understood by the phrase cum Petro et sub Petro, (“with Peter and under his authority”), he said. The highest expression of this is an ecumenical council. The synod of bishops is a consultative body that serves Church government not as a kind of Parliament, where factional interests are jealously guarded, but a as reflection of the Church's communio. True collegiality, the cardinal said, involves the responsibility all the bishops have— along with the Pope—for the welfare of the Universal Church.

“From the start,”he said, “the Holy Father has insisted that communion among the bishops is a condition for communion among the faithful. And that, in turn, is a model for the communion within the whole Church.”He cited the Pope as saying at one point: “I will be ready to sign everything that comes out of the synod, provided the decision is reached in a collegial way and in communion.”

Decisions are not made, added the cardinal, “as a result of the cleverness of one group that manipulates [the process] until they get their ideas put down in the conclusions. I must confess that we are still far away from the ideal situation, when bishops can come together to reflect and discuss matters on the level of the Universal Church—without this pre-occupation for provincial and parochial [concerns].”

The process of organizing a synod begins with the consultation of bishop's conferences, which are asked to suggest three topics in order of priority. “Normally we get a 50-60 percent response [rate],”Cardinal Schotte said. “[T]hat 40 percent of the bishops don't take any interest in the beginning of the process,”he added, hurts collegiality.

Once the topics are analyzed by the synod council and approved by the Pope, the lineamenta—a proposal for the synod's theme—are prepared. The bishops'conferences are asked to give precise answers to a series of questions following consultations on the local/national Church level. Next, the working paper, or instrumentum laboris, is prepared, which serves as the synod agenda.

The cardinal also expressed disappointment at the response rate to the lineamenta questions: In 1974 (the Synod on Evangelization), Rome received only a 52 percent return; in 1977 (catechetics), the rate was 48 percent; in 1980 (the family—a topic that in the consultation phase all agreed was “urgent,”according to Cardinal Schotte) the response was only 42 percent. For more recent synods the rate has improved. Leading up to the 1994 African synod, the continent's bishops' conferences delivered a 94 percent response rate.

Decisions are not made, added the cardinal,‘as a result of the cleverness of one group that manipulates [the process] until they get their ideas put down in the conclusions.’

According to the cardinal, a generally poor response-rate lowers the level of collegiality for the entire synodal institution, which in turn makes the Pope less willing to endorse the synod's conclusions. And even when a response is decent, it can happen that submitted answers have not been prepared in a collegial manner. Cardinal Schotte cited instances when the responses were in no way related to the actual questions; or when the answers were prepared by a small group of bishops, or only one prelate; or where the task had been delegated to diocesan “middle-management.”These are all circumstances which diminish the collegiality of the process, said Cardinal Schotte.

Pope Paul IV instituted the synod in 1965 with the idea that it would meet every two years. After the synods of 1967 and 1969, the bishops asked for more time between the gatherings.Under the present pontificate, proposals for a four- or five-year interval between synods were voted on, resulting in a 50-50 split. The matter was put to John Paul II, who said: “I will not be the Pope who diminishes the frequency of the synods.”His own level of commitment may be judged by the fact that he is the only bishop who has attended every synod since Vatican II.

In the years ahead, the cardinal reported, the Special Assembly for Asia will address stagnation in many Asian Churches (the Philippines being a significant exception). The Special Assembly for Oceania will be seeking consensus in a panoply of unique cultures; also coming up is the Special Assembly for the Americas, at which participants will tackle issues like urbanization, migration and economic responsibility from a North-South perspective, while recognizing the commonality of a Pan-American entity. Another synod for Europe is in the planning stages as well.

Though he estimates it takes about 10 years for the results of a synod to filter down to the grass-roots levels, the cardinal sees great potential for lay involvement in answering lineamenta questions. The synodal process could thus become a powerful pastoral tool for the bishops, he concluded.

Brother Clement Kennedy, O.S.B., is a monk at Prince of Peace Abby in Oceanside, Calif.