It has been over 24 hours since the final document, or synthesis report, of the 2023 Synodal Assembly was published in Italian, but the English version has not yet been released (English and Italian are the two official languages). Once the official English translation is available, we will make the necessary changes to this article and link to the official text. (Update: the official English text is published. Click here.)

Many reports have noted that the introduction, conclusion, and each of the document body’s paragraphs were approved by wide margins. According to the vote tallies provided by the Vatican, the bulk of the paragraphs received over 95% approval, with “no” vote tallies in the single digits. No paragraph received less than 80% approval. The paragraph receiving the most “no” votes was approved by a margin of 277-69, or 80.0578% of the participants.

Looking at the numbers — based on the tallies, 344 participants voted on the paragraphs of Chapters 1 through 7, and 346 participants voted on Chapters 8-20 (late arrivals?). Of the 464 participants in the synod, 365 (including Pope Francis) were voting members, meaning that 21 members did not vote on the entire document, and 19 did not participate in the voting at all.

Among the participants who did not participate in the voting were the two bishops from mainland China who were ordered by their government to return to their home country 12 days into the assembly. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was reportedly among those who departed early as well, leaving for an ordination in Poland.

During a recent press briefing, Vatican Communications prefect Paulo Ruffini mentioned that the synod rules only allowed for yes or no votes, without the possibility of abstention. Presumably, everyone who was present voted on every paragraph. The votes were done electronically and were encrypted so that the voting would be anonymous.

Interesting to note is that not a single paragraph received a unanimous vote. Three individual paragraphs and the three-page introduction each received one “no” vote, and another 12 or so paragraphs received only two “no” votes. The concluding section received 10 “no” votes.

Obviously, the paragraphs that are receiving the most buzz are those that received the most “no” votes, and I thought I would compile a list of these because they are likely to be the subject of the most discussion and debate over the next year. Because the paragraphs that received “no” votes tended to be concentrated in certain sections, it was difficult to discern a cutoff. Ultimately, I chose to highlight those sections that received 29 or more negative votes, meaning that all of the paragraphs below received vote tallies lower than 92% and higher than 80%. This left fifteen paragraphs.

There were many chapters without any paragraphs garnering significant opposition, including the first four, on (1) Synodality: Experience and Understanding, (2) Gathered and Sent by the Trinity, (3) Entering the Community of Faith: Christian Initiation, and (4) People in Poverty, Protagonists of the Church’s Journey.

Noteworthy runners-up in the opening chapters include the final paragraph of chapter 1, which received 26 “no” votes and proposed a revision of the Church’s Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, and advised that a preliminary study be undertaken. Also receiving 26 votes was chapter 3, paragraph c, which presents a theological understanding of the sensus fidei that “consists in a certain connaturality with divine realities and the aptitude to intuitively grasp what conforms to the truth of faith,” asserting, “Synodical processes enhance this gift.”

My comments are in italics.

Ch. 5. A Church “out of every tribe, tongue, people and nation”

Vote: 312-32

e) Missionaries have given their lives to carry the Good News to the whole world. Their commitment is a great testimony to the power of the Gospel. However, particular attention and sensitivity are needed in contexts where “mission” is a word laden with painful historical memories that hinders communion today. In some places, the proclamation of the Gospel was associated with colonization, even genocide. Evangelising in these contexts requires acknowledging mistakes made, learning a new sensitivity to these issues, and accompanying a generation seeking to forge Christian identities beyond colonialism. Respect and humility are fundamental attitudes needed to recognise that we complement each other and that encounters with different cultures can enrich the living and thinking of the faith of Christian communities.

The participants voted to reconsider the use of the word “mission” to describe the proclamation of the Gospel, especially in places where the term has become negatively associated with colonialism and even genocide.

Ch. 8. Church is Mission

Vote: 308-38

n) We need more creativity in establishing ministries according to the needs of local churches, with the particular involvement of the young. One can think of further expanding responsibilities assigned to the existing ministry of lector, responsibilities that are already broader than those performed in the liturgy. This could become a fuller ministry of the Word of God, which, in appropriate contexts, could also include preaching. We could also explore the possibility of establishing a ministry assigned to married couples committed to supporting family life and accompanying people preparing for the sacrament of marriage.

I would imagine that the pushback to this suggestion is not in response to the notion of expanding lay ministries in general, but in the idea that the lay ministry of lector “could also include preaching.” It is not clear in the paragraph whether this proposal applies to lay preaching inside or outside the liturgy.  

Ch. 9. Women in the Life and Mission of the Church

Vote: 277-69

j) Different positions have been expressed regarding women’s access to the diaconal ministry. For some, this step would be unacceptable because they consider it a discontinuity with Tradition. For others, however, opening access for women to the diaconate would restore the practice of the Early Church. Others still, discern it as an appropriate and necessary response to the signs of the times, faithful to the Tradition, and one that would find an echo in the hearts of many who seek new energy and vitality in the Church. Some express concern that the request speaks of a worrying anthropological confusion, which, if granted, would marry the Church to the spirit of the age.

Vote: 309-37

k) Discussion of this question is also related to the wider ongoing reflection on the theology of the diaconate (cf. below Chapter 11).

Vote: 279-67

n) Theological and pastoral research on the access of women to the diaconate should be continued, benefiting from consideration of the results of the commissions specially established by the Holy Father, and from the theological, historical and exegetical research already undertaken. If possible, the results of this research should be presented to the next Session of the Assembly

The participants proposed continuing the discussion and study of the possibility of women in the diaconate. This is not surprising, given that the synod cannot change doctrine. Essentially they are keeping the question of the women’s diaconate open, pending a conclusive decision by the Magisterium.

Vote: 307-39

q) There is a need to ensure that liturgical texts and Church documents are more attentive to the use of language that takes into equal consideration both men and women, and also includes a range of words, images and narratives that draw more widely on women’s experience.

This is the issue of “inclusive language,” not only in liturgical texts, but also in Church documents overall. The minor controversy over the English translation of the title of Pope Francis’s most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, “Brothers all” or “Siblings all,” comes to mind.

Ch. 11. Deacons and Priests in a Synodal Church

Vote: 291-55

f) Different opinions have been expressed about priestly celibacy. Its value is appreciated by all as richly prophetic and a profound witness to Christ; some ask, however, whether its appropriateness, theologically, for priestly ministry should necessarily translate into a disciplinary obligation in the Latin Church, above all in ecclesial and cultural contexts that make it more difficult. This discussion is not new but requires further consideration.

The inevitable proposal about exceptions to priestly celibacy is raised. Although it simply advocates keeping the matter open, it does receive a significant number of “no” votes.

Vote: 285-61

i) The uncertainties surrounding the theology of the diaconate are related to the fact that it has only been restored to a distinct and permanent hierarchical ministry in the Latin Church since the Second Vatican Council. Deeper study will shed light on the question of the access of women to the diaconate.

The number of negative votes this paragraph received is interesting. I would imagine that “the theology of the diaconate” was interpreted as an openness to studying women deacons, and therefore received resistance.

Vote: 293-53

l) On a case by case basis, and in accordance with the context, the possibility can be considered of re-inserting priests who have left the ministry in pastoral services that recognise their formation and experience.

This is interesting. There are many ex-priests who do serve in the Church in various capacities, but traditionally, the document that formalizes a man’s removal from the clerical state (called a “laicization rescript” and is approved by their bishop and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the faith) will place restrictions on the roles and ministries the person can exercise going forward. For example, a laicized priest might not be allowed to teach in seminaries or serve as a lector at Mass. It would be interesting to know what they have in mind here.

Ch. 12. The Bishop in Ecclesial Communion

Vote: 317-29

j) It is necessary to implement, in forms legally yet to be defined, structures and processes for regular review of the bishop’s performance, with reference to the style of his authority, the economic administration of the diocese’s assets, and the functioning of participatory bodies, and safeguarding against all possible kinds of abuse. A culture of accountability is an integral part of a synodal Church that promotes co-responsibility, as well as safeguarding against abuses.

It is a positive sign that over 90% of the synod’s participants agree that the Church should implement structures and processes for holding bishops accountable in the areas of finance, safeguarding, and the handling of reports of abuse. But, for the faithful, this is also a matter of “We’ll believe it when we see it.” Promises of transparency and accountability have too often proven to be hollow.

Ch. 13. The Bishop of Rome in the College of Bishops

Vote: 302-44

k) In the light of the teaching of Vatican II, it is necessary to carefully evaluate whether it is opportune to ordain the prelates of the Roman Curia as bishops.

This paragraph alludes to a debate that has taken place since Vatican II over whether the authority of curial officials is an extension of the authority of the pope, or whether it is derived from their own episcopal authority. Pope Francis seems to have settled this debate in 2022 with the new apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium, which says that their authority comes from the pope.

Now the synod participants seem to be calling for further study on whether priests who are appointed to curial offices should automatically be ordained as bishops.   

Ch. 15. Ecclesial Discernment and Open Questions

Vote: 310-36

k) We propose that initiatives enabling shared discernment on controversial doctrinal, pastoral and ethical issues should be developed, in the light of the Word of God, Church teaching, theological reflection and an appreciation of the synodal experience. This can be accomplished through in-depth discussions among experts with diverse skills and backgrounds, in an institutional setting that protects confidentiality and promotes frank discussion. When appropriate it should also involve people directly affected by the matters under consideration. Such initiatives should be set in motion before the next Session of the Assembly.

This paragraph proposes that controversial matters (including doctrine) should be discussed frankly within an ecclesial setting, with the participation of those affected by the issue and with a diversity of opinions. It strikes me as what Pope Francis was aiming for with this synodal process.

Ch. 16. Towards a Listening and Accompanying Church

Vote: 303-43

q) SECAM (Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar) is encouraged to promote a theological and pastoral discernment on question of polygamy and the accompaniment of people in polygamous unions who are coming to faith.

This has been brought up numerous times as a serious concern in the context of the Church in Africa, where polygamy is often a more pressing issue than divorce and remarriage. They seem to be identifying a need for a path of discernment for Catholics in polygamous situations in the mold of Amoris Laetitia chapter 8.

Ch. 18. Structures for Participation

Vote: 311-35

f) In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis entrusted the Church to make changes to the composition of participatory bodies, this task cannot be further delayed. The participation of baptised men and women living in complex situations of loving relationship “can be expressed in different ecclesial services, which necessarily requires discerning which of the various forms of exclusion currently practised in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework, can be surmounted” (299). This discernment also concerns their exclusion from parish and diocesan community participation bodies that is experienced in some local Churches.

Amoris Laetitia suggested that there could be ways to better integrate those in irregular partnerships into the community (other than the sacraments), but did not give concrete guidance. This looks like a request for the Church to give that guidance.

Ch. 19. Groupings of Churches within the Communion of the Whole Church

Vote: 312-34

g) The doctrinal and juridical nature of Episcopal Conferences needs further study, recognising the possibility of collegial action, including questions of doctrine that arise locally, thus reopening reflection on the Motu Proprio Apostolos suos.

This could mean any number of things, but one thought that jumps out at me is that a bishops’ conference cannot exercise any authority or discipline over one of its members. This could allow for a measure of fraternal oversight within a conference if a bishop “goes rogue” doctrinally or in his behavior.

That said, I would imagine that synod cynics might read this as a request for bishops’ conferences to make up their own doctrines at a local level.

Image: Vatican Media.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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