Pope Francis approves new constitution for Synod of Bishops

  • Written by Hannah Brockhaus, CNA
  • Published in International
A meeting of bishops in Rome, May 2018. Photo: CNA A meeting of bishops in Rome, May 2018. Photo: CNA

VATICAN CITY – In a new apostolic constitution, Pope Francis has reformed the Synod of Bishops, creating a mechanism for the assembly’s final documents to be included in official church teaching.

Episcopalis Communio, promulgated by the pope on September 15, establishes that the final document of a synod assembly, drafted and approved by a special commission, can be considered part of the ordinary magisterium — that is, the official teaching of the church — if it receives a particular level of papal approval.

The constitution does not require the publication of a post-synodal papal document to make its conclusions authoritative, though these have traditionally followed synodal sessions.

The most recent synod, which was held on the theme of the family, was followed by the 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, presented the new constitution on September 18.

Baldisseri told journalists Tuesday that the pope may wish to publish a document of his own following October’s synod on young people, but that the new norms allow him to forego it in favor of adopting the synod’s final document as his own.

Should Francis decide to adopt the final synodal document, it would be published with his signature and those of the members of the synod.

The norms provide for a process similar to that followed during the 2015 synod on the family — by which a commission creates the final synodal document before it is put before the members of the synod for a vote.

This commission is composed of the relator general and general secretary of the particular session of the synod, the secretary general of the synod’s permanent secretariat — currently Cardinal Baldisseri — and other members elected by the synod itself. To these, the pope may also add his own personal appointees

Regarding how the final document is to be approved by the membership, Episcopalis Communio refers back to the current “particular law.” Accordingly, individual provisions to be adopted in the final document will still require the approval of two-thirds of the synod’s members, while a simple majority suffices to reject an item.

The new constitution does, however, urge the synod fathers to seek “moral unanimity” whenever possible.

Once the final document has been prepared and voted on, it is presented to the pope for his approval and publication. At this point, the pope can choose to grant a particular kind of approval to the document, called “in forma specifica” in canon law, by which it would become an act of the pope and part of the ordinary papal magisterium.

Speaking at a press conference in Rome, Cardinal Baldisseri said that the process of receiving this specific papal approval does not require a strictly judicial standard, or depend upon a particular margin of approval by the synod fathers. 

Quoting St. John Paul II, the new constitution says that while the synod “normally has a merely consultative function,” this “does not diminish its importance.” Rather, the vote of the synod fathers, “if morally unanimous, has an ecclesial quality that overcomes the merely formal aspect of the consultative vote.” This, Baldisseri explained, is more important that a specific margin of voting.

Other sections of the constitution substantially affirm recent synodal processes and regulations, including on the synod’s composition and structure, which members have voting rights, and the three distinct synodal phases of preparation, assembly and implementation.

In the preparatory phase, information on the announced theme of the synod is gathered through study commissions, local consultations conducted through the diocesan bishops, and a pre-synod meeting, if one is convoked. The new norms also provide the option for such pre-synodal meetings to be held at a regional level.

The second phase is the actual assembly of the synodal fathers and other members, while the third phase is the implementation of the synod’s conclusions in the particular churches.

Episcopalis Communio underlines the importance of bishops listening to the voice of lay Catholics, saying that “the Synod of Bishops must increasingly become a privileged instrument for listening to the People of God.”

“Although in its composition [the Synod] appears as an essentially episcopal organism, the Synod does not therefore live separate from the rest of the faithful. On the contrary, it is a suitable instrument to give voice to the whole People of God precisely through the Bishops, constituted by God as ‘authentic guardians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church,’” the document states.

This principle is recognized in the canonical norms of the constitution itself. Article 7 of Episcopalis Communio states that the right of the faithful to send their own contributions for the synod directly to the secretary general “remains integral” to the process.

The Synod of Bishops acts as a temporary and occasional advisory body to the pope on issues of pastoral importance to the Catholic Church. It was established by Pope Paul VI with the motu proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo in 1965.

While the synod itself is a temporary body called into being by the pope, it has a permanent general secretariat in the Roman Curia.

There are three types of synod assemblies a pope can call: ordinary, extraordinary and special. Next month’s meeting will be an extraordinary assembly, as was 2014’s synod on the family.

A special assembly is usually convoked to discuss an issue related to a particular geographical region, such as the upcoming special assembly on the Amazon, which will take place in October 2019.