Pope Francis Boosts Authority of the Synod of Bishops

In new apostolic constitution, the Holy Father gives the body new powers, including applying magisterial authority to a synod’s final document.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, speaks to reporters about the apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio, at the Vatican Sept. 18.
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, speaks to reporters about the apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio, at the Vatican Sept. 18. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

Pope Francis has increased the authority of the Synod of Bishops, making it similar though not identical to a legislative parliamentary body that aims to strengthen the involvement of the “People of God” and “further promote dialogue and collaboration” between bishops and between bishops and the Pope. 

In a new apostolic constitution entitled Episcopalis Communio (Episcopal Communion), signed Sept. 15 and made public Tuesday, the Pope explained how he wished to make the Synod of Bishops a “permanent central body, outside the dicasteries of the Roman Curia,” and able to manifest bishops’ concerns for the “needs of the People of God and communion among all the Churches.” 

Most significantly, he has taken up Paul VI’s prior suggestion to turn the Synod of Bishops into a deliberative, more legislative body rather than a merely consultative one by stating that the final document will now form part of the “ordinary magisterium of the Successor of Peter,” subject to papal approval. 

Originally set up as a permanent institution by Pope Paul VI in 1965 with the motu proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo to continue the spirit of collegiality and communion present at the Second Vatican Council, every Synod of Bishops is meant to provide counsel to the Holy Father in a manner that preserves the Church’s teaching and strengthens its internal discipline. 

But in recent years, synods have been criticized for serving to introduce, sometimes using coercive methods, worldly ways of thinking at odds with the Church’s perennial teaching, especially in the area of morality. 

Francis, however, believes synods must continue to be receptive (some would argue subjected) to a changing world, and with this apostolic constitution he has seemingly enhanced processes already being used.

He reminds the faithful in Episcopalis Communio that Paul VI foresaw the body as subject to change (“Like every institution,” Paul wrote, “it can be more perfected with the passing of time”). He highlights the changes in canon law in 1983 and Benedict XVI’s 2006 Ordo Synodi Episcoporum, which among other changes created a general secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. He also cites Pope St. John Paul II, who suggested the “instrument” of the Synod of Bishops could be “further improved.” 

Francis says he believes a work of renewal must include more “dialogue and collaboration” between episcopates and the Bishop of Rome. The bishop, he explains, is both “teacher and disciple,” made possible when, helped by the Holy Spirit, he “listens to the voice of Christ speaking through the entire People of God, making them ‘infallible in belief.’” 

The Synod of Bishops, he goes on to say, must become a “privileged instrument for listening to the People of God,” an “eloquent expression of synodality as a ‘constitutive dimension of the Church’” and a tool for evangelization.  

He stresses that it must still retain its consultative basis, but must also be “united in the search for a consensus that flows not from human logic but from common obedience to the Spirit of Christ” — “attentive to the sensus fidei of the People of God” while at the same time distinguishing “carefully from the often-changing flows of public opinion.” 

The Pope underlines the importance of the synod fathers being “morally unanimous” if the Synod of Bishops is to be more than consultative. But the document is unclear about how the synod fathers will vote (until now they have voted on a series of propositions), or if each proposition will continue to require a two-thirds majority. Episcopalis Communio only talks about achieving a “consensus,” and Bishop Fabio Fabene, undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, said Tuesday the consensus would simply be “as large as possible between the synod fathers.”

Other innovations in the document include formally giving the synod secretariat powers to prepare and implement the synodal assemblies, including being able to “avail itself of an adequate number of officials and consultors” (this was a point of contention in previous synods under Francis, as those chosen appeared to adhere to heterodox views and so the process was thought to be a “stacking of the deck”). 

Further changes include formally enshrining new methods of consulting the People of God (i.e., use of questionnaires and pre-synod meetings with lay faithful and people of other religions); the establishment of a “commission for implementation” made up of experts overseen by the Synod of Bishops’ secretary-general; and “councils of the general secretariat” comprising members appointed by the Pope who are to prepare synodal meetings and remain in office until five years after the end of a synod. 

The Pope closes the document by stressing the “full, supreme and universal power” of the Bishop of Rome, which he “can always exercise freely,” but “always united in communion with the other bishops and with the whole Church.” 

He concludes by encouraging a “conversion of the papacy” that will make it “more faithful to the meaning that Jesus Christ intended to give it and to the current needs of evangelization.” He also hopes it will contribute to the “re-establishment of unity among all Christians” and help the Church to find a way of exercising papal primacy without “renouncing what is essential to its mission.”