Concerns Generated by Lack of Clarity on Synod Voting Procedures

Pope Francis’ apostolic constitution,Episcopalis Communio, allows for the final synod document to have magisterial weight, but the question remains whether there will be propositions.

2015 Synod of Bishops
2015 Synod of Bishops (photo: CNA file photo)

The organizers of the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, which begins Wednesday, are not being clear whether propositions will be included in the final document and voted upon, as they have been in past synods. 

Although the final document has to be approved in its entirety by a two-thirds majority of the synod’s voting members, Bishop Fabio Fabene, undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, has said it remains an open question if propositions will be part of the final document and each of them require a two thirds majority to pass. 

“We have to see how the document will turn out,” Bishop Fabene told the Register Oct. 1 at a presentation of the synod at the Vatican, but added: “If there are various numbers like last time, they will need two-thirds.” 

The absence of a vote on each proposition has previously been thought to limit debate.

Ahead of the 2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family when the idea of shelving propositions was suggested, 13 cardinals voiced their disapproval, among other concerns, in a letter to Pope Francis ahead of the meeting. The cardinals' initiative enabled the ballot on propositions to stay. 

“The absence of propositions and their related discussions and voting seems to discourage open debate and to confine discussion to small groups,” the cardinals wrote. “Thus, it seems urgent to us that the crafting of propositions to be voted on by the entire synod should be restored.” They also said “voting on a final document comes too late in the process for a full review and serious adjustment of the text.”   

If an attempt at the upcoming synod to omit the propositions were to succeed, it potentially could be even more problematic now that the final document may become part of the papal magisterium, subject to the Pope’s approval, as decreed by Pope Francis in his recent apostolic constitution, Episcopalis Communio (Episcopal Communion). In the past, final documents did not hold such weight, but Episcopalis Communio changed that last month.

Some believe that not having synod fathers vote on individual propositions would enable the synod organizers to more easily push through contentious proposals, such as the inclusion of 'LGBT,' the acronym used by the homosexual lobby. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, said yesterday he had no intention of removing the acronym from the Instrumentum Laboris, the synod working document, despite young people not asking for it to be included.  

Knowing the number of votes for each proposition has proved a useful tool for revealing the points of unity, and of division, at various synods. 

At the end of the Ordinary Synod on the Family in 2015, 265 synod fathers voted on 94 propositions, all of which obtained a two-thirds majority. But the most controversial ones, related to admitting some remarried divorcees to Holy Communion, only barely managed to do so (No. 85 scraped by with just one vote but was deemed enough of a mandate for the Pope to include the change in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia). 

Furthermore, the numbers revealed that those controversial propositions would not have passed had the Pope’s personally-chosen synod fathers not been present.

The two-thirds rule for propositions was equally instructive during the first Synod on the Family in 2014 as two paragraphs on admitting some remarried divorcees to Holy Communion and a third on welcoming homosexuals failed to obtain a two-thirds majority. 

Pope Francis nevertheless controversially broke with custom, which he can do, and authoritatively insisted that all three rejected proposition be kept in the document, thereby enabling them to be carried over into the working document for the Ordinary Synod on the Family the following year.

The lack of clarity from the synod secretariat on the voting procedures during this synod is therefore a cause for concern for some observers who believe that, coupled with other problematic aspects, possible manipulation may again be afoot.