Is It a Canonical Synod of Bishops or Not? Some Observers Express Their Doubts

Some canonists contend that now that laypeople are able to vote, it’s technically not.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna during a press briefing at the Synod on Synodality Oct. 23, 2023. The cardinal told reporters that the Synod of Bishops “has not changed nature, but it has been enlarged.”
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna during a press briefing at the Synod on Synodality Oct. 23, 2023. The cardinal told reporters that the Synod of Bishops “has not changed nature, but it has been enlarged.” (photo: Edward Pentin / National Catholic Register)

VATICAN CITY — As the current phase of the Synod on Synodality draws to a close, some of the assembly participants have questioned whether it is a Synod of Bishops given that, for the first time, lay members will have a vote and make up nearly one-fifth of the ballot. 

Since April when Pope Francis made such a groundbreaking change, 70 laypeople now have a vote out of 364 voting participants, and so the assembly is no longer strictly speaking a Synod of Bishops, some observers contend. 

Announced on April 26, the addition of laity was aimed at “restoring” the “constitutive relationship between the common priesthood [of the People of God] and the ministerial priesthood,” and “giving visibility to the circular relationship between the prophetic function of the People of God and the discernment of the Pastors.” 

The change is significant as, in previous synods, only bishops and some clerical heads of male religious institutes had a vote and a two-thirds majority was required for propositions or other motions to pass. 

Now, under the changes enacted by Pope Francis, laity can make up the numbers. 

If, for example, less than two-thirds of bishops voted in support of a proposition, the votes of the laity could bring up that support to match or exceed the two-thirds mark and so ensure it would be passed. In other words, although bishops might not support a proposition, laity can make it look as if they did, especially as the Vatican has said it won’t be giving a breakdown of how participants voted.

Asked at a press briefing on Oct. 23 about whether, in light of this, the Synod on Synodality should, therefore, be rightly considered a Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna said he did not see a problem with laity voting nor with calling it a Synod of Bishops, as it involves “real participation of non-bishops.” Laity and bishops, he said, now have a “closer connection.” 

The Synod of Bishops, he continued, is “a consultative organ for the exercise of the papal ministry,” but added that, according to him, adding lay votes “does not at all diminish the weight of votes.” 


‘Enlarged’ Rather Than ‘Changed’ Nature

The Synod of Bishops, he said, “is an organ to exercise the collegial responsibility for the teaching and the life of the Church,” and that role “has not changed nature, but it has been enlarged.” Cardinal Schönborn added, “We are all together in synod, in an episcopal synod, with an enlarged participation.”

When the Register put it to him that lay votes could enable a vote to pass when fewer than two-thirds of bishops had voted in support of whatever was being voted upon, and therefore it could not rightfully be called a Synod of Bishops, he replied, “There are no casual explanations. Don’t ask me questions that are not discussed or decided. It is not on the agenda.”

In response to a similar question about whether this assembly can truly be called a Synod of Bishops, Paolo Ruffini, president of the synod’s information commission, was similarly vague in his answer. He told reporters Oct. 14 that the participants “belong to the same communion of the same synodal assembly,” and that the lay members are “united by the common baptismal priesthood.” He recommended reading the First Letter of St. Peter “to know more about the baptismal priesthood.” On Oct. 25, he stressed again to reporters that the “episcopal character” of the synod “isn’t compromised” by non-bishops.

But multiple synod participants have told the Register that this lack of clarity on whether or not the Synod on Synodality really is a Synod of Bishops remains a significant concern within the Paul VI Hall, with one bishop saying that it felt like “the equivalent of a plebiscite,” and another describing it as a “canonical and practical problem — the synod is an exercise in collegiality and episcopacy, but this is neither.”


A Synod of Bishops or Not?

A lay participant told the Register Oct. 24 that the issue has been repeatedly raised with the synod managers. “They have kept saying they don’t think it’s a Synod of Bishops, but those running it keep saying it is,” the participant said. In addition, Eastern rite and Orthodox delegates have insisted that the assembly taking place this month is not a synod as they understand it. 

Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the Synod Secretariat, was visibly irritated when a participant confronted him with the question during a general congregation. “He insisted it was a Synod of Bishops and quickly moved on,” a lay participant member told the Register.  

Even the German bishops’ conference-backed news site, which is sympathetic to the progressive goals of some of the synod delegates, reported Oct. 24 that “the legitimacy of the entire assembly” was being questioned and that the meeting was “in danger of running into an ecclesiastical crisis.” Doubts over its legitimacy led to the postponement of the publication of a “Message to the People of God,” eventually published one day later. “It is not clear what it means when an institution that was created to give the college of bishops a say is expanded to include non-bishops,” said the article. “It must be clarified bindingly who the subject is when the synod speaks of ‘we.’”


Altering the Synod’s Nature

By the Pope introducing lay voting members, canonists such as EWTN commentator Father Gerald Murray said that he ended the episcopal and hierarchical nature of a synod of bishops, and did so without the requisite canonical authority.  

The change was made only through the April 26 announcement from the Synod Secretariat, saying that it was modifying Episcopalis Communio, Pope Francis’ 2018 apostolic constitution that had already made some alterations to the nature of the Synod of Bishops.

The announcement asserted that the change to include non-bishops would not affect the “episcopal nature of the synodal assembly” but “rather it is confirmed,” and this is shown by the fact that non-bishops are fewer than 25% of the total number of assembly members.

But Father Murray argued that, as the decision was made without a papal decree or any formal change in canon law, the General Assembly of the Synod and all its acts “would be subject to a technical complaint of canonical nullity [annulment], absent the publication of a papal decree giving legal force to the extension of membership in the Synodal Assembly to non-bishops.”  

A Rome canonist agreed with Father Murray, telling the Register that the “canons are quite clear, even in Episcopalis Communion for that matter, and there was no formal change of the latter by the Pope, but even if he had changed it, one could never call this a proper Synod of Bishops, not even if one were to use the expression obliquely so to speak.” 

Father Murray explained that the change ignores the fact that bishops act as priest, prophet and king in exercising their pastoral care, and that restricting their role to “simply discerning what the prophetic People of God as a whole might somehow determine to be according to God’s will is a mistaken appreciation of the nature of the episcopate.”


‘A Totally Different Assembly’

“What this means,” he said, “is that the Synod of Bishops is a totally different assembly in which laypeople who are not sacramentally conformed by holy orders to Christ the High Priest will be treated in law as equal to bishops.”

He added that the changes “ignore the essential distinction between the ordained and the non-ordained in the Church,” and that “Christ’s establishment of a hierarchical Church means that certain roles pertain to the shepherds that do not pertain to the sheep.”

“To create confusion in this matter by making non-bishops equal in law to bishops at the General Assembly of the Synod does harm to the Church by obscuring the roles of shepherd and sheep, creating the false impression that the hierarchical authority of the bishops can be legitimately exercised by the non-ordained. Such an understanding would violate the divinely established nature of the Church,” Father Murray added. 

The Rome canonist, also agreeing with these comments from Father Murray, said he believed calling the assembly a Synod of Bishops was “highly misleading” and could be used to “hide grave doctrinal deviations, besides sending the wrong message on what a pope, bishops and laypeople can or cannot do.” But he added: “They can vote all they want, they won’t change the truth of the Church, but the threat to faith and to the eternal salvation of souls remains enormous, which calls for intense prayer and urgent atonement.” 

To add to the concerns over the status of the meeting and the obscuring of episcopal and non-episcopal votes, the Synod Secretariat has said it will not give a breakdown of the voting to show how many bishop members and non-bishop members voted. 

The delegates vote electronically and by using an iPad placed on their roundtable, through which they also take the floor. In order to use the iPad, they must enter their unique QR code when they arrive which registers their name and personal details. Despite sharing this information with the synod organizers, the Synod Secretariat has insisted that voting will be totally anonymous, although informed sources within the synod have said those in charge of the assembly will know exactly how each delegate voted. 

As for voting on the crucial synthesis report, the Synod Secretariat has yet to reveal exactly how that will take place, but it confirmed on Wednesday that a vote will take place Saturday. Once passed, the 40-page document will form the lineamenta (guidelines) for the 2024 assembly.

Ever since Pope St. Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops in 1965, it has been a consultative body through which selected bishops could provide, in a collegial manner, advice to the Pope in a final document passed by ballot. 

The Pope would then conclude the synod by writing, on the basis of a final document drawn up by bishops and synodal experts, a post-synodal apostolic exhortation. 

Canon law makes it clear that the synod is to be made up mainly of bishops with a small number of superiors of male religious institutes who also have a vote (346 §1). This exception is based upon the close relationship between the episcopate and the priesthood, and upon the exercise of governing authority by religious superiors who are priests.

But overall, this has always been an episcopal gathering that promotes the common concern of all bishops to teach, govern and sanctify the People of God in the context of the contemporary world.