How Much Authority Does a Synod Actually Have?

Q: We’ve all been fixated on the Synod, but we never seem to have heard much about Synods in the Church before…. What kind of authority does a Synod actually have? And how is this one any different from Synods in the past? –Sharon

A: There’s no question that the 2015 Ordinary General Synod, which just finished, received a tremendous amount of attention from both Catholics and non-Catholics. As we well know, the event was covered by both journalists and pseudo-journalists, many of whom hoped breathlessly that the Church would finally permit divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist (see “Divorced Catholics and the Eucharist” for a more in-depth discussion of this question), and “update” its approach to homosexuality (“Can Homosexual Men be Ordained to the Priesthood?” addresses church teaching on this issue in a particular context).

But just what is a Synod, anyway? And does a Synod have the power to change Catholic moral teaching? Preferring to concentrate on their own agenda, the media have generally overlooked these fundamental questions—and yet it’s impossible to appreciate what the Synod was doing, and had the authority to do, without first understanding the answers. So let’s take a look.

To begin with, the existence of the Synod of Bishops as an entity within the Catholic Church is relatively new, having its origin in Pope Paul VI’s 1965 motu proprio document Apostolica Sollicitudo (AS). Issued at the start of the final session of the Second Vatican Council, this document states that the Pope felt keenly “the very heavy responsibility that has been laid upon Us as universal Shepherd,” and had found during the Council that the Church had benefitted “as a result of Our close collaboration with the bishops.” It was his perceived need for counsel and assistance from bishops around the world that led Pope Paul to establish the Synod of Bishops in the Church.

AS immediately set out the parameters of what a Synod would be able to do:

The Synod of Bishops has, of its very nature, the function of providing information and offering advice. It can also enjoy the power of making decisions when such power is conferred upon it by the Roman Pontiff; in this case, it belongs to him to ratify the decisions of the Synod. (AS II)

The 1983 Code of Canon Law contains the substance of this statement in canon 343. It declares that the Synod of Bishops is to discuss the matters proposed to it, and set forth recommendations—adding that it is not the function of a Synod to settle matters, or to make decrees, unless the Pope has given it this power in certain cases. Finally, echoing the language of AS quoted above, canon 343 states that if the Pope gives the Synod this power, he has to ratify the decisions the Synod makes.

As we can see, the very definition of a Synod of Bishops, contained in both this canon and AS, immediately tells us not only what it is, but also what it is not. The bishops at the Synod are to provide information, offer advice and make recommendations—they cannot resolve problems or make decisions themselves unless the Pope has given them the specific authority to do this. In short, the Synod of Bishops is nothing without the Pope!

Given the Catholic Church’s teaching about the papacy, this is not surprising. The Pope is, as per canon 331, the head of the College of Bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the Pastor of the Universal Church here on earth, with supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church. In short, he’s the boss, and nobody on this planet can overrule him. (See “Are There Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” for more on this.) Thus it’s impossible, practically speaking, for the Synod of Bishops—or any other church entity, for that matter!—to make a decision affecting the Church, without the Pope’s authorization and approval.

In fact, the Synod cannot even meet unless and until the Pope says so.  Canon 344 tells us the Synod is directly under the authority of the Pope, and it’s the Pope’s prerogative to convene the Synod whenever he sees fit, and even to determine where it will meet (c. 344 n. 1). It is up to the Pope to designate who will be members of the Synod (n. 2), to determine what the Synod is going to talk about (n. 4), and finally to conclude or dissolve the Synod when he decides it’s finished (n. 6). In a nutshell, a Synod of Bishops can’t do a blessed thing unless the Pope first gives it the green light!

So what’s the point of having a Synod, then? As Pope Paul noted, back when he created the Synod in the first place, it’s all a matter of close collaboration and providing information. Being a mere mortal, a Pope naturally cannot know the situation of the Church around the world as well as diocesan bishops collectively do. It makes little sense for the Pope to make decisions affecting the lives of the Catholic faithful without first trying to understand the pertinent issues. After all, if you don’t grasp the problem, how can you determine the best solution?

This is why sometimes a Pope will call for a special Synod focusing on a particular geographic area of the world (as per c. 345). Pope John Paul II convoked eight different Synods of this nature, to address issues affecting the Church in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and other regions of the world. Yes, John Paul II was a saintly and brilliant man, but as he had no specific expertise in such regions, he understandably wished to discuss these matters with bishops who lived and ministered right there. This is, of course, the best way for a Pope to get a handle on what’s really going on in the Church in parts of the world he knows relatively little about. (A list of all the Synods of Bishops held through 2005 can be found here, in Section V, “Summary of the Synod Assemblies.”)

Once a Synod is concluded, more often than not the Pope eventually issues an Apostolic Exhortation on the topic of the Synod. For example, in late 2005, Benedict XVI presided over a Synod which had been called by John Paul II two years earlier, on the topic of “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church.” Nearly two years later Benedict issued Sacramentum Caritatitis, which was based on the input on this issue which he had received from the bishops at the Synod. But note that the Pope doesn’t have to do this; in fact, he doesn’t have to do anything at all with the information the Synod of Bishops presents him! The bishops don’t tell the Pope what to do, what to think, or what to say. They only provide him with information and offer their suggestions—period.

This brings us to the 2015 Synod of Bishops. The only reason why this Synod has garnered so much attention was the inclusion in its subject-matter of some hot-button issues regarding sexuality, including the Church’s approach to homosexuals and to divorced and remarried Catholics. And the amount of misinformation on what transpired there, coming from both the mainstream media and (inexcusably) some in the Catholic press as well, is simply astounding and indicates a complete lack of understanding not only of what was actually going on, but even of how the entire synodal process works. Here are some objective, verifiable facts which most “news” reports on the Synod have not explained:

Fact #1: In 2014, Pope Francis called for an Extraordinary General Synod of Bishops on the topic of “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” The bishops’ working document, called an Instrumentum Laboris, stated up-front among other things that its findings would be discussed further at an ordinary Synod in 2015. (Who had the actual authority to decide that this would happen? The Pope himself—not the staff of the Synod of Bishops acting on their own.)

Fact #2: In June 2015, the Instrumentum Laboris for the upcoming general Synod of Bishops was released. Among other things, it included a section on the subject of “Pastoral Attention to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies” which said this:

130. Some families have members who have a homosexual tendency. In this regard, the synod fathers asked themselves what pastoral attention might be appropriate for them in accordance with Church teaching: “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” Nevertheless, men and women with a homosexual tendency ought to be received with respect and sensitivity. “Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, 4).
131. The following point needs to be reiterated: every person, regardless of his/her sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his/her human dignity and received with sensitivity and great care in both the Church and society. It would be desirable that dioceses devote special attention in their pastoral programmes to the accompaniment of families where a member has a homosexual tendency and of homosexual persons themselves.
132. Exerting pressure in this regard on the Pastors of the Church is totally unacceptable: it is equally unacceptable for international organizations to link their financial assistance to poorer countries with the introduction of laws that establish “marriage” between persons of the same sex.

And in Chapter III, entitled “The Family and Accompaniment by the Church,” the Instrumentum Laboris said this:

122. The synod fathers also considered the possibility of giving the divorced and remarried access to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Various synod fathers insisted on maintaining the present discipline, because of the constitutive relationship between participation in the Eucharist and communion with the Church as well as her teaching on the indissoluble character of marriage. Others proposed a more individualized approach, permitting access in certain situations and with certain well-defined conditions, primarily in irreversible situations and those involving moral obligations towards children who would have to endure unjust suffering. Access to the sacraments might take place if preceded by a penitential practice, determined by the diocesan bishop. The subject needs to be thoroughly examined…

Fact #3: In October 2015, the Synod of Bishops met to address “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World.” Pope Francis attended some, but not all, of the Synod’s meetings. At the opening of the Synod he gave an address in which he observed,

…[T]he Synod is not a parliament in which to reach a consensus or a common accord by taking recourse to negotiation, to deal-making, or to compromise: indeed, the only method of the Synod is to open oneself up to the Holy Spirit with apostolic courage, with evangelical humility and confident, trusting prayer, in order that he guide us, enlighten us and make us keep before our eyes, not our personal opinions, but with faith in God, fidelity to the Magisterium, the good of the Church and the salus animarum.

Fact #4: At the Synod’s conclusion on October 24, the bishops issued a Relazione Finale del Sinodo dei Vescovi al Santo Padre Francesco. In English, we would call that their final report to the Pope. And speaking of English, it has not (yet) been released by the Vatican in any language other than Italian.

Fact #5: On the same day, Pope Francis—who, unlike the English-language media, reads Italian very well and thus can understand what the Synod’s final report actually says—gave another address, in which he noted that the Synod

…was about urging everyone to appreciate the importance of the institution of the family and of marriage between a man and a woman, based on unity and indissolubility, and valuing it as the fundamental basis of society and human life. (emphasis added)

Fact #6: The Pope has not written any Apostolic Exhortation or taken any other action based on the information he obtained from the Synod of Bishops, yet; it is of course far too early to know what, if any, action(s) he will take.

One can’t help wondering whether, in all the din about created by the media, anybody is paying attention to what actually happened at the Synod of Bishops? Because if you rely solely on the press for information, you’ll be convinced that the bishops of the Catholic Church gathered in Rome in order to allow remarriage after divorce and to approve of homosexuality! The media have treated the Synod of Bishops in exactly the manner that Pope Francis warned against: as a political congress at which the members would lobby, argue, and vote to change Catholic teachings.

None of them seem to appreciate that at a Synod of Bishops, the bishops themselves might say whatever they like, but they have no authority whatsoever to change a thing. True, on certain issues, the Pope can; but despite the gibberish emanating from the pens of journalists around the world, Pope Francis has never indicated that he is thinking of changing Catholic doctrine on anything. Period.

To answer Sharon’s final question, this last Synod of Bishops is no different from any other, apart from the topic (which is specific to each Synod anyway). The reason this one appears so different to us is the inordinate attention paid to it by the press, which has twisted and misrepresented practically everything about it! Pope Francis himself appeared to anticipate this back in March, when he publicly asked the Catholic faithful to pray for the upcoming Synod:

…[W]e are all called to pray for the Synod. This is what is needed, not gossip! … Holy Family of Nazareth, may the approaching Synod of Bishops make us more mindful of the sacredness and inviolability of the family, and its beauty in God’s plan. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, graciously hear our prayer. Amen.

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