Laity Voting at the Synod of Bishops — What Would Paul VI Say?

Lay Catholics and women religious will be voting members of the October 2023 Synod of Bishops, and while synodal officials dismiss talk of a ‘revolution,’ some canonists say it could alter the nature of the assembly.

Pope Paul VI celebrates Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Square on March 26, 1967.
Pope Paul VI celebrates Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Square on March 26, 1967. (photo: National Catholic Register / Vatican Media)

LOS ANGELES — When the Vatican recently announced that lay Catholic men and women will participate as voting members in the 16th ordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome Oct. 2-29, the news caused head-scratching among some Catholic experts.

“The Synod of Bishops, as understood by the Second Vatican Council, as understood by Pope St. Paul VI, as understood by Pope St. John Paul II, is an episcopal body, not a meeting of the whole Church,” Dominican Father Joseph Fox, vicar for canonical services for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Register.

The Synod of Bishops is a consultative body established in 1965 by Paul VI to continue the close collaboration of the bishops with the Roman pontiff in the governance of the Church that gained a new dimension during the Second Vatican Council, Father Fox noted. He emphasized that Pope Francis was free to promulgate the new norms that mean laypeople will make up about 20% of the estimated 370 voting members at the upcoming assembly in October, but the canonist wouldn’t budge on one point: “Don’t call it a Synod of Bishops, because it’s not.” 

Susan Mulheron, the chancellor for canonical affairs for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which recently completed its own local synod, was also surprised at the decision to introduce a significant change to the composition of the episcopal body, while retaining its original name. 

“From its inception, the Synod of Bishops was never intended to have anyone else at the table, except for maybe an advisor or expert on a particular topic,” Mulheron told the Register. “To have laypersons participating fully with a vote in proposals going to the Pope is a major development. It even opens the question about whether it should still be called the ‘Synod of Bishops.’”


Key Rule Change

The key rule change announced by synod officials at an April 26 press conference at the Vatican was the removal of the “auditor” role in the body’s proceedings. In past synods, auditors included priests, religious and laypeople, who did not have the right to vote in synod deliberations.

Now, these 70 people will be able to vote, and they will be chosen by Pope Francis from among a list of 140 nominees selected by the leadership of the continental assemblies.

Information posted on the synod website set expectations that 50% of the lay participants will be women and that young people will be well represented. 

“In selecting them, account is taken not only of their general culture and prudence but also of their knowledge, both theoretical and practical, as well as their participation in various capacities in the synod process,” according to information provided by synod officials.

Further, five women religious and five men religious will be elected to represent their institutes of consecrated life, rather than 10 religious priests, as in the past.

When the new rules were announced April 26, synod officials downplayed the changes as a nonissue, and a Vatican News story insisted that the “nature” of the synod had not been altered.

“It’s an important change, not a revolution. We don’t have victims,” Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the synod’s relator general, quipped.


Recognizing Roles

Cardinal Mario Grech, the secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, framed the decision to grant voting rights to women religious and laypeople as an effort to recognize their role in the multiyear Synod on Synodality, a global process of discernment and discussions that began with parish and diocesan surveys and listening sessions in 2021 and 2022, continued with a continental dialogue this spring, and will culminate with two assemblies in Rome scheduled for October 2023 and 2024.

During an interview with Catholic News Agency after the April 26 press briefing, Cardinal Grech explained that the inclusion of laypeople as voting members would “enrich” the consultative process and not “undermine” the nature of the synod as a meeting of bishops.

The full impact of the announced changes will be evaluated and debated in the years ahead. However, a review of Apostolica Sollicito (Apostolic Concern), Pope St. Paul VI’s 1965 apostolic letter establishing a Synod of Bishops for the universal Church, confirms that the recent increase in non-bishop voting members, including laypeople, constitutes a major change from the Pope’s original blueprint for the body.

As the Second Vatican Council drew to a close, Pope Paul presented the permanent synod as a means by which the College of Bishops could assist the Roman pontiff in their common responsibility for Church governance and for the teaching of faith and morals.


Lumen Gentium

In Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Council Fathers traced the bond between governance and holy orders back to Christ himself. Likewise, the Council confirmed that sacramental hierarchy provided the foundation for Church governance.

At this time, Paul VI placed the new permanent body under the direct authority of the pope. And he decreed that it would “promote a closer union and greater cooperation between the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops of the whole world”; to provide “accurate and direct information … on matters and situations that bear upon the internal life of the Church and upon the kind of action that should be carrying on in today’s world”; and “to facilitate agreement, at least on essential matters of doctrine and on the course of action to be taken in the life of the Church.”

Apostolica Sollicito called for 10 male religious priests to be chosen from the Roman Union of Superiors General to represent the clerical religious institutes. And it allowed Paul’s successors to approve further increases in voting members: “bishops, or religious to represent the religious institutes, or clerics who are experts, to the extent of 15% of the total number of the members.” 

The document also provided leeway for other unspecified changes designed to improve the functioning of the synod “with the passing of time.” 

Both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI called for synodal assemblies to address a host of urgent matters before the universal Church. Their successor, Pope Francis, has made synodality a signature element of his reformist pontificate, calling bishops in Rome for high-profile, sometimes-controversial synodal deliberations on the pastoral needs of the family in 2014-2015, youth in 2018, and the Church in the Amazon in 2019.

“Synodality, as a constitutive element of the Church, offers us the most appropriate interpretative framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself,” said Pope Francis in 2015, during a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops. 

“Jesus founded the Church by setting at her head the College of Apostles, in which the Apostle Peter is the ‘rock’ (Matthew 16:18),” said Pope Francis. “But in this Church, as in an inverted pyramid, the top is located below the base. Consequently, those who exercise authority are called’ “ministers,” because, in the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all.”


Episcopalis Communio

In 2018, Francis issued Episcopalis Communio (Episcopal Communion), an apostolic constitution updating the norms governing the Synod of Bishops.

By then, the rules limiting voting members of the synod to the ordained had already been breached. In 2015, the Roman Union of Superiors General of religious institutes elected Brother Hervé Janson, superior general of the Little Brothers of Jesus, to be a voting member of the Synod on the Family. 

Francis’ 2018 norms gave additional weight to the synod’s deliberations, creating a mechanism for the assembly’s final document to be included in official Church teaching — if it receives a particular level of papal approval.

Francis called for the Synod of Bishops to “increasingly become a privileged instrument for listening to the People of God.” But he retained the bishops’ role as “authentic guardians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church.” 

According to the synod website, Episcopalis Communio remains operative, “with some modifications.” Thus, the updated norms that allow the votes of lay Catholics to have equal weight with the votes of bishops could reflect an effort by Pope Francis to balance his view of synodality as an “inverted pyramid” with Paul’s conciliar model of synodal deliberations grounded in hierarchical communion.


Extension of Vatican II

But that balancing act has stirred unease among some Catholic experts who believe the recent changes should be addressed head-on and not papered over.

The Synod of Bishops is an “extension of the Second Vatican Council, which was the College of Bishops gathering with the pope as its head exercising supreme authority in the Church,” said Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, professor of canon law and adjunct professor of theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

And though modern synods are different from the Second Vatican Council, he still believes that assemblies of the Synod of Bishops should reflect the Council Fathers’ definitive teaching on Church governance and sacramental hierarchy. Indeed, he worries that the recent changes to the synod are part of a broader trend in which well-intentioned Church reforms reflect a “failure to appreciate” the Council’s teachings that distinguish between the priesthood of holy orders and the priesthood of the faithful.

Lumen Gentium states that there is a difference of “essence and not only in degree” (10).

He noted that Pope Francis’ 2022 reform of the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium (Preach the Gospel), allows for “any member of the faithful” to lead a dicastery if the pope granted them that authority and thus appears to create a second source of power in the Church that is not based on holy orders. 

A number of Church leaders, including Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the former prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, have raised similar objections to Praedicate Evangelium


No Essential Changes?

Still, scholars contacted by the Register remained cautious about reading too much into the changes to the synod’s composition or related reforms. And most shrugged off news headlines that hinted the Church was becoming more democratic or that a major shift on women’s ordination could be brewing. 

“[A]ny changes that are being made to the Synod of Bishops mean simply that more people are being consulted,” Msgr. Michael Magee, dean of the School of Theological Studies at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, told the Register.

“It does not mean that the governing structure of the Church is being changed in any essential way,” he added, nor does it “justify unrealistic expectations on the part of those who would like to see a more radical change in the Church’s governing structure.” 

“Such changes are not ours or even the pope’s to make, since the basic governing structure of the Church is not of human origin; it comes to us from Christ through the apostles and remains the same throughout the centuries.”

Mulheron, the canonist serving the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, suggested that the “unique” character of the worldwide Synod on Synodality had made it easier for synod officials to justify the decision to open up voting to laypeople at the Rome assembly.

But she also observed that the change posed a challenge to Pope Francis and synod leaders. 

The Synod of Bishops advises the Roman pontiff on the governance of the universal Church, and that “naturally opens it up to major theological questions,” she observed. “It is a little more of a wild card to bring in lay folks at the highest level [of the Church], and that is why the synod was initially limited to bishops.”

Given the complexity of the present synodal process, “it is important that the laypeople who will be full-voting participants are carefully selected” and that they “understand what the real purpose of the meeting is.”

 “It is not a democratic process,” Mulheron said.

What will likely be even more significant, she concluded, is whether the recent opening of voting rights to laypeople becomes a permanent feature.

“Is this a onetime thing or does it signal a fundamental change on what this body is?” she asked.

Paul VI said the Synod of Bishops “will evolve over time. And my guess is they are waiting to see where this goes and then consider the future of this institution and whether it should be reformulated.”