Will Catholic Bishops Push For Clarity On Synod’s Procedural Rules? – Analysis


By JD Flynn

Recent changes to canon law have left some bishops attending the 2018 Synod of Bishops uncertain about the meeting’s procedural rules. Unanswered questions about the synod’s norms could have significant effect on how the meeting’s final documents are regarded in the Church, and by the synod fathers themselves.

The synod’s undersecretary, Bishop Fabio Fabene, told reporters in early October that because of changes Pope Francis made to synod policies Sept. 15, the Vatican had not yet decided on the exact rules for this month’s synod.

Asked whether synod participants would be able to vote on individual provisions of the document as they have in prior meetings, Fabene said it would depend on what emerged from the synod, adding that “as we move along, we will decide.”

But two weeks into the gathering, decisions about the synod’s procedural and voting rules have not yet been announced. Several synod fathers have told CNA they are confused about the rules, or uncertain about how the synod’s voting process will actually work.

In the absence of clear norms, some observers have begun to ask whether the 2018 synod will prove to be an authentic consultation of the world’s bishops, or an exercise only in the appearance of “synodality.”

Synods are meetings of bishops gathered to discuss a topic of theological or pastoral significance, in order to prepare a document of advice or counsel to the pope. The discussion at a synod is framed around an instrumentum laboris– a working document- developed before the meeting by a small working committee of Vatican officials and diocesan bishops.

During a synod, bishops make comments and observations on the working document, and meet in small discussion groups to propose changes to the text, or to suggest new texts and additional areas for consideration.

The 2018 synod, a meeting of 267 bishops and other Church leaders, is tasked with developing a document on young people, the faith, and vocational discernment.

The modern form of synods in the Latin Catholic Church began with the 1965 promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s Apostolica sollicitudo. That document established some processes and procedures governing the work of a synod, as did revisions made in 1969 and 1971. The 1983 Code of Canon Law gave additional clarity.

But the 2006 rescript Ordo synodi episcoporum established the most detailed procedural rules for every aspect of a synod of bishops, among them the election of members; the appointment, work, and authority of the general secretariat and general relator; and the voting on proposals (modi) and documents, including the points to be included in the final report.

Ordo synodi episcoporum required that modi and documents be voted on according to a procedure allowing bishops to make additional amendments, and delineating specific cases when a 2/3 majority of voting bishops would be required, and others cases that would require only an absolute majority (50 percent+1) of bishops.

According to those procedural rules, synod fathers were able to vote on proposals made for amendments or additions to the document, and eventually to vote on their approval of the document as a whole; those votes would require 2/3s majorities.

Though these procedural norms were tweaked in recent years, they remained largely intact. But on Sept. 15, they were abrogated- revoked- when Pope Francis promulgated a new document governing synods, the apostolic constitution Episcopalis communio.

Episcopalis communio eliminates nearly all specific procedural norms pertaining to the synod, including the established procedures for proposing amendments and for voting, and sets no specific approval thresholds for documents generated by the synod.

Instead of establishing specific rules, the September document calls on the General Secretary for Synod of Bishops, now Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, to issue instructions on those matters, and “regulations for each Synod Assembly.”

No such instructions or regulations seem to have been issued for the current synod, at least not publicly.

The general rules promulgated in September do explain that the synod should seek “moral unanimity insofar as this is possible” on a final document written by the drafting committee, and that “approval of the members” should be obtained before that document is presented to the pope, who is newly able to promulgate it directly as an expression of his ordinary magisterium.

Neither “moral unanimity” nor “approval by the members” are defined in the document, nor are they technical terms in canon law. At the moment, the General Secretary is able to interpret them according to his own judgment, and is bound to seek “moral unanimity,” whatever he decides that to mean, only insofar as he judges it to be possible. While the document says that particular law can determine how approval is to be sought, that particular law is precisely what has not yet been issued.

Nevertheless, Baldisseri has given some indication of how he understands the idea of “moral unanimity.”

“It is a matter of achieving a consensus that clearly goes beyond 50 percent. However, there is no legal definition. Moral unanimity is not defined by numbers,” he said Sept. 17, according to La Croix International.

Baldisseri and other Vatican officials have declined to indicate how much more than 50 percent would indicate “moral unanimity” among the bishops.

In the absence of particular regulations, the General Secretary is no longer obliged to hold votes on modi proposed to the drafting committee, as he was under the policies of the 2006 norms.  He must now only hear from the discussion groups before deciding how to proceed, with a considerable amount of latitude.

Absent regulations to the contrary, the General Secretary is at liberty to conduct, for example, only one yea or nay vote on a final synod document prepared by the drafting committee, without opening the floor for debate, or holding votes on particular sections or proposals offered by the bishops.

Furthermore, because of the September document’s caveat that moral unanimity might be unobtainable, the General Secretary may consider the document to be approved with anything more than 50 percent of votes, regardless of whether the bishops are obviously divided on controversial questions. Subsequent to such a vote, he may present a document to the Holy Father for approval as a part of the Church’s ordinary magisterium.

The procedures used at the 2018 synod are likely to be used again at the 2019 Special Synod on the Pan-Amazonian Region, and in synods subsequent to that as well.

Cardinal Wifrid Napier of Durban, South Africa, told CNA Oct. 13 that in his estimation, the synod is proceeding along the same course as the previous eight synods he has attended. He added that while he has trust in the synod process and in organizers, he is uncertain about how voting will work in the later stages of the meeting. Napier mentioned that the process used in past synods, the one governed by the 2006 norms, “worked quite well.”

Although Pope Francis has technically abrogated them, it still seems reasonable that the pope might intend for the procedural norms established by prior law to largely govern the proceedings of this synod, even if Baldisseri’s remarks are decidedly more circumspect. Certainly, the meeting has proceeded to this point according to the ordinary way of doing things. But the synod fathers have good reason to seek clarity.

As Napier told CNA Saturday: “It’s when we get into the hall [for final deliberations] that I think that process still has to be explained to us more clearly.”

It seems unlikely that many synod fathers will be content with the ambiguous answers offered thus far by synod organizers. Few are likely to consider it fair if they are asked to continue working, getting closer to final deliberations, with no real understanding of the meeting’s rules. And observers, especially the pope’s critics, are likely to begin questioning the legitimacy of the synod’s proceedings if it is not governed by a clearly defined process.

It could also become a detriment to the credibility of the synod, and even the communion of the synod fathers, if voting rules were to become a point of division and rancor at the last minute. For those reasons, synod fathers may judge it better that norms be discussed and promulgated as soon as possible, so that the final deliberations are not clouded by discontment or confusion about the rules.

To some observers, the most critical issue is not just that the rules be clarified, but that those rules reflect a genuinely “synodal” approach to the assessment of recommendations to the pope.

Questions have been raised frequently during this synod about whether the final texts are already a fait accompli, devised mostly by curial officials before the meeting began, and likely to be passed with only very few modifications from the synod fathers. If the synod fathers are not permitted to vote on sections of the documents in isolation, or to meaningfully propose amendments, there will be an ongoing debate about whether the final texts reflect the authentic consensus of the synod fathers themselves. Pope Francis is likely eager to avoid such a debate.

Of course, doctrine isn’t determined democratically, and the function of this synod is only to advise. But some observers say that if the pope has convened the synod to hear the views of the participating bishops, taking a real measure of consensus should matter. It seems clear that if the pope wants to ensure he is getting advice from the synod hall, instead of from the permanent secretariat, he may decide to insist that Baldisseri take a meaningful measure of episcopal reactions to each aspect of the proposed synodal documents.

The bishops most in support of the pope’s efforts to reform the synod are likely to begin advocating for clarity, and for the regulations called for by the September document, as soon as possible. The promulgation of those regulations, along with open debate and the possibility for synod fathers to amend procedure by majority vote, would likely quell the critics who argue that the September norms make the synod a less democratic affair.

There is no norm in Episcopalis communio allowing for democratic objections to procedural law, unlike the 2006 synod norms that allowed for bishops to raise objections to procedures, and to resolve “questions of procedure” through the vote of an absolute majority. Still, it is reasonable to expect Pope Francis, who has been widely praised for active and collaborative engagement with the synod, to communicate the synod’s voting rules with enough time to allow for open and free discussion about them among the synod fathers.

When he established the synod of bishops, Pope Paul VI told bishops that his ministry depended upon the “consolation of their presence, the help of their wisdom and experience, the support of their counsel, and the voice of their authority.” In the week ahead, the wisdom and experience of the 2018 Synod of Bishops seems likely to be deployed to help the pope fairly and transparently govern the synod process itself.


The Catholic News Agency (CNA) has been, since 2004, one of the fastest growing Catholic news providers to the English speaking world. The Catholic News Agency takes much of its mission from its sister agency, ACI Prensa, which was founded in Lima, Peru, in 1980 by Fr. Adalbert Marie Mohm (†1986).

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