Author: Annie Selak, Ph.D. Candidate, Boston College
As bishops gather together in Rome to discuss “Young people, faith and vocational discernment” at the synod, US news has circled around another topic: who gets a vote at the synod. Notably, non-ordained men are given a vote at this synod, a custom that began in 2015 when Brother Hervé Janson voted in his capacity as a representative of the Union of Superiors General. Women are excluded from voting rights. This division according to gender lines has drawn criticism and protests. Critics of the protestors respond that synods are gatherings of the bishops. As such, they serve a unique function in the life of the church and do not include all. Superiors General of the Dominicans, Jesuits and Coventual Franciscans stated in a press conference that women religious should have voting rights at the synod. These moments raise questions about how conversations happen in the church and who gets a seat— and a vote— at the table.
What a synod is— and is not
In thinking about how conversations happen in the church, it is helpful to examine tradition surrounding synods. Synods trace their origins back to the early church. Regional gatherings of bishops discussed and resolved concerns and problems related to doctrinal, liturgical, and disciplinary issues. These gatherings came to be known as synods, deriving from the Greek phrase for the point where multiple roads converge. The first documented synod addressed the Montanist Heresy in 175 AD, and by the 3rd century synods became common occurrences in the life of the church.
While the current structure of the synod of bishops has its roots in the early church, it was established relatively recently. Pope Paul VI established the synod of bishops on September 15, 1965, the day after the opening of the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council. The establishment of the synod of bishops was surprising, for it created an intermittent body with no decision-making faculties, a far cry from what had been discussed throughout, and even before, the Council. With the proliferation of social media and attention to the actions of Pope Francis, recent synods have garnered increased attention in the life of the church. The 2014- 2015 synod on the family was regularly covered by international news outlets, moving synods from a topic that interested only theologians and church insiders to the literal front pages of newspapers.
The synod is a consultative body, advising the pope who issues an apostolic exhortation. It is the apostolic exhortation, not the synod itself, which enjoys teaching authority. The key question for our analysis is how we understand “consultative.” It should not be dismissed, as if to imply it has no meaning since the final document is not authoritative. A dismissive view of consultative bodies operates out of an understanding of power and authority that emphasizes the formal power structures at the expense of upholding the importance of the Holy Spirit working through the church. At its best, the synod as a consultative body should be representative of the global church and highlight the diverse experience contained within the church.
In thinking of the synod as a consultative body and representative of the church, it is tempting to equate it with democratic experiences. Ecclesiologist Richard Gaillardetz wrote, “One often hears the slogan, ‘the church is not a democracy,’ yet almost never does one hear its necessary ecclesiological correlate, ‘neither is the church a monarchy or an oligarchy.’”(1) The same sentiment can be applied to the synod of bishops: though the synod is not the parliament of the church, it is also not an oligarchy. As a distinct form of leadership in the church, it is necessary that the synod function as a gathering of bishops while also fostering a relationship between the synod and the people of God. We should not attach American notions of governing to the synod, seeking to create a democracy where every constituent is represented by a vote. At the same time, we can improve structures in order to create an environment where discussions at the synod reflect the diversity in the life of the church.
Embedded into the foundation of the synod of bishops is the expectation that it would evolve over time.(2) If the goal of a synod is to bring together the leaders of the church in order to speak to a contemporary concern or pressing issue, then the format of how these conversations happen is a crucial component. The structure of conversation can impact the outcome.
The interaction with observers and experts is a crucial aspect of the synod. At the current synod, the bishops are joined by 49 observers and 23 experts. 34 of the observers are between the ages of 18-29. The experts and observers can participate in working groups and help form the final document issued by the synod. While experts and observers are included in conversation, they do not receive voting rights. So far, reports reveal that the presence of observers has positively impacted the assembly. Cardinal Napier of Durban, South Africa remarked in a press conference, “The presence of young people has given the Synod an element of reality.”
Yet the presence and impact of observers and experts is variable. Tone and structures of conversation have the potential to make them important conversation partners or relegate them to the sidelines. It is important that formal structures, such as remarks to the assembly, are organized to highlight the diversity of experience in the global church. Informal conversation is equally as important. Just as many of the important conversations at Vatican II occurred at the coffee bars “Bar Jonah” and “Bar Abbas,” the informal conversations are crucial components of dialogue.
Further, there is also room for development in the role of observers and experts beyond their remarks to the synodal assembly and informal conversation. Imagine if observers issued an observers’ report at the conclusion of the synod. This would allow for a response from a distinct point of view, and would also deepen the bishops’ own experience. An observers’ report would also be of great service to the pope in creating and issuing the apostolic exhortation. It would serve to amplify and perhaps critique the bishops’ recommendations, in turn, provide a broader view of the topic in service to the pope.
A vision for the church
Examining the role of the synod in the life of the church raises important ecclesiological issues. It looks to the role of bishops and how connected or removed they are from the laity in their diocese. It asks how the sensus fidei functions in the life of the church and how church teaching is lived out. Undergirding all of this is a basic yet central ecclesiological question: who is the church? The current synod brings these important, if overwhelming, questions to the forefront of our discourse. Addressing conversations in the church is informed by and has implications for who is counted as church. It is crucial that we grapple with these questions, and in the process of doing so, live into the reality and mystery of being church.
1. Richard Gaillardetz, “Ecclesiological Perspectives on Church Reform,” in Church Ethics and Its Organizational Context, ed. Jean Bartunek, Mary Ann Hinsdale, and James Keenan (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006), 67.
2. Apostolica sollicitudo, in outlining the governing laws, begins by stating, “This Synod, which, like all human institutions, can be improved upon with the passing of time.” Apostolica sollicitudo, Introduction.