Wake up and smell the newest apostolic constitution from the Holy Father: Episcopalis Communio. Released Tuesday morning, it re-writes some of the rules for the Synod of Bishops. The stand-out feature is that it for the first time invests the Synod with formal teaching authority. Instead of simply submitting recommendations to the pope (usually but not always publicly), the Synod will produce a final document, co-signed by the pope, that will of itself constitute “ordinary magisterium.”
That’s the hot take; now let’s get into the theological weeds.
What is Episcopalis Communio?
It’s an apostolic constitution, which is the ordinary means by which a pope establishes new rules for the Catholic Church, of which he is the visible and earthly head, possessing “supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power” (CIC, can. 331). The most common use is to create a new (arch)diocese. This is Pope Francis’s 17th such document. The previous one, from December, revised the rules for “ecclesiastical universities and faculties” (such as, for example, CUA’s School of Theology, from which I received my Ph.D.).
What does it do?
It issues updated rules for how the Synod of Bishops functions. The most recent update was made in 2006 by Benedict XVI. Only the most serious of church-watchers will be interested in the legal minutiae.
Then why does it matter?
In addition to rules, it re-defines the nature of the Synod of Bishops! Established in 1965 by Pope Paul VI, as a direct result of Vatican II, the Synod of Bishops was a mechanism for greater collaboration of the world’s bishops in the government of the Catholic Church. Since the 19th century, the Catholic Church has been centrally governed by the Pope and his court (called the Roman curia). Prior to the 19th century, and prior to modern means of communication and travel, local churches mostly managed their own affairs, with the pope being called upon only in extraordinary moments, such as, for example, when Clement XI issued a papal bull condemning Jansenism (basically a Catholic version of Calvinism) in 1713. The rapid centralization of the Catholic Church in the 19th century led to a diminution of the broader episcopate. Bishops were gradually reduced to glorified legates or vicars of the pope, rather than overseers of the Church and “vicars of Christ” in their own right (see Lumen Gentium 27). One of the main contributions of Vatican II was to dispel this mindset and to promote, at least in theory, the collegial governance of the Church (see Lumen Gentium, chapter 3). The Synod of Bishops was one practical way to go about this, so that the pope could regularly consult with bishops from all around the world in a formal council. He would listen to the bishops, receive their advice and recommendations, and then decide what to do on his own authority as pope.
For a long time, some bishops and theologians have felt this was insufficient to realize Vatican II’s vision of collegial, collaborative governance. After all, the pope was free to ignore all the recommendations, if he wanted to. The Synod was strictly a consultative body, not a direct, formal instrument of governance. Granted, this was a big improvement over the previous situation, where the pope was advised only by his curia! Over time, though, the Synod of Bishops became a routine, tightly-controlled affair in which bishops would more and more quote the pope to himself (Fr. Thomas Reese, “Three Ways to Improve the Synod of Bishops,” NCR, 11/12/15).
Under Pope Francis, the Synod of Bishops has become far more important, with a spirit of free and even at times combative debate among the bishops. Now, the pope has made a big step toward bringing about real collegial governance, at least in the matter of teaching. Instead of just giving advice, the Synod will produce a final document, and “If expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the final document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor of Peter” (Episcopalis Communio 18 §1). In other words, the final document will be a doctrinal text on the same level as the “post-synodal apostolic exhortations” that the popes themselves wrote and published after previous synods (including Francis’s own Evangelii Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia). In other words, future Synods’ final documents will be authoritative for the Catholic Church. This is, then, the death of the papal “post-synodal apostolic exhortation” and the birth of a new magisterial genre: the final document of the Synod of Bishops.
But can’t the pope just say no?
Yes, of course. The document must be “expressly approved.” Does that mean the Synod will still be under the control and say-so of the pope? Well, yes, of course it will. This is the Catholic Church! Not even an ecumenical council can contradict the pope: by definition, in Catholicism, an ecumenical council acts “with and under” (cum et sub) the pope, who is the head of the college of bishops (see Lumen Gentium 22; Episcopalis Communio 1). The qualification placed upon the Synod’s authority is no different from the qualification placed upon an ecumenical council. If the pope tells the other bishops, either at the Synod of Bishops or in an ecumenical council, that they are wrong and that he will not agree to their document, then it is not accepted in the Church. That being said, a pope would be loathe to allow such a situation of rupture to develop between himself and the episcopate generally, lest a schism break out. It is therefore extremely unlikely that Francis or any future pope would not sign a final document. The bishops would not put in writing anything that they felt sure the pope would refuse. There is a process of back-and-forth that takes place, where the bishops might push the pope a little, and the pope and his allies might push back. It’ll be interesting to see whether we see much of this in public view at next month’s Synod of Bishops on the topic of young people.
Is the Synod of Bishops now basically an ongoing ecumenical council?
No, the document is explicit that the Synod’s authority will be part of the Roman (papal) magisterium. The pope will co-sign the document with his own name. As such, the Synod of Bishops will remain an essentially papal institution. But it gives the papacy a much broader scope, as it works in direct collaboration with representatives of the entire episcopate. An ecumenical council, in contrast, possesses its own authority, albeit one that can never be in contradiction to papal authority since the pope is the head of the college of bishops (Lumen Gentium 22). (This is a tricky theological problem that nearly derailed Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, onto which Pope Paul VI appended a special explanatory note about how the episcopacy can never contradict the pope.) By bringing the Synod of Bishops directly into the papal magisterium, the pope is almost creating a mid-way kind of authority between the papal (Roman) and the episcopal (universal). But the document is explicit that the Synod of Bishops still comes down on the Roman side.
Incidentally, there have been requests for an ongoing ecumenical council for many centuries. In the midst of the Western Schism in the 15th century, the Council of Constance called for ecumenical councils to be held regularly and routinely for the sake of governing the Church. This call was an attempt to reduce the power of the papacy (understandable, given how the popes were behaving at that time), which the papacy successfully defeated. Perhaps the Synod of Bishops can now fulfill that role, at least with respect to teaching. To some extent, the pope’s council of cardinal advisors that he created (the so-called C-9) also fulfills this role, although it’s not representative of the whole episcopate.
One thing that I don’t see here is the pope giving the Synod of Bishops the direct ability to legislate. They now will have magisterial authority, but it does not say they will be able to issue changes to canon law. The pope remains the sole lawgiver, it seems. They could, of course, say things that imply a need for a change of law, which the pope could then enact.
Due to extreme polarization and other factors, the anti-Francis faction within the Church may reject this development. There have been elements on the political right in opposition to the pope ever since St. John XXIII called for Vatican II (e.g., William F. Buckley’s infamous dissent from that pope’s social teaching), but they have exploded recently, thanks in large part to social media platforms like Twitter. As is well known, the left long ago gave up listening to popes, ever since Paul VI condemned birth control in 1968. Granted, the ordinary teachings of popes (and now the Synod of Bishops) are not infallible dogmas—a fact recognized by all Catholic theologians. Nevertheless, one would hope that all Catholics would listen to the pope, even when they disagree. Certainly, the vitriol being directed against Francis by the far-right is totally unacceptable for any Catholic. Especially now with the renewed sex abuse scandal, it seems as if almost no one wants to listen to popes anymore.
But there is hope! If you read the new document, you will see that Pope Francis strongly emphasizes the necessity of bishops, not only to teach, but first to listen:
The Bishop is both a teacher and a disciple. He is a teacher when, endowed with a special assistance of the Holy Spirit, he announces to the faithful the Word of truth in the name of Christ the head and shepherd. But he is also a disciple when, knowing that the Spirit is given to every baptized person, he listens to the voice of Christ who speaks through the whole People of God. (Episcopalis Communio 5)
This move towards collaborative governance also brings with it a repeated emphasis that the bishops listen to and live with the people:
The Bishop is called to walk in front, indicating the path, indicating the way; to walk in the middle, to strengthen [the People of God] in unity; to walk behind, both so that no one is left behind, but above all to follow the sense of the People of God in finding new paths. (Ibid.)
I believe that is the future for Catholic teaching. If few anymore will listen to the pope alone, neither, I think, will they listen to the pope with the Synod of Bishops. But if the pope and the bishops really immerse themselves in the life of ordinary Catholics and learn to speak our language and understand our lives, problems, and concerns, then we will listen to them again. (It should be mentioned that the new document also makes some room for the participation of laypeople in the Synod.) Pronouncements from on high, whether against those who oppose the current pope for being too non-judgmental and inclusive, or perhaps against those who may oppose a future pope for being too rigid, will not work. The bishops, including the bishop of Rome, must be authentic witnesses. Pope Francis knows this. He has shown it repeatedly and spoken about it on countless occasions. This change to the Synod, while welcome, won’t accomplish what he wants (as I’m sure he knows), unless the bishops really heed his call to take on the “smell of the sheep.”
Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).