On Diocesan Synods

One more thing on the “Open Letter” of Catholics for Renewal.

The main request of the letter is for diocesan synods in all dioceses across Australia. The letter references the Code of Canon Law, §§460-468.

The Code defines a “diocesan synod” as:

a group of selected priests and other members of the Christian faithful of a particular church who offer assistance to the diocesan bishop for the good of the whole diocesan community according to the norm of the following canons.

Note the word “selected”. More on that below.

When should a synod be held? “[W]hen circumstances suggest it in the judgment of the diocesan bishop after he has heard the presbyteral council.” (Can. 461 §1)

Who convokes and presides at the diocesan synod? The Diocesan Bishop (Can. 462 §§1,2)

Who must be involved in a Diocesan Synod? (Can. 463 §1.) The following must be called to a diocesan synod as members of the synod and are obliged to participate in it:

1/ a coadjutor bishop and auxiliary bishops;
2/ vicars general, episcopal vicars, and the judicial vicar;
3/ canons of the cathedral church;
4/ members of the presbyteral council;
5/ lay members of the Christian faithful, even members of institutes of consecrated life, chosen by the pastoral council in a manner and number to be determined by the diocesan bishop or, where this council does not exist, in a manner determined by the diocesan bishop;
6/ the rector of the diocesan major seminary;
7/ vicars forane;
8/ at least one presbyter from each vicariate forane, chosen by all those who have the care of souls there; also another presbyter must be chosen who, if the first is impeded, is to take his place;
9/ some superiors of religious institutes and of societies of apostolic life which have a house in the diocese, chosen in a number and manner determined by the diocesan bishop.

Note that in this list, only section 5 refers to the inclusion of laity in the diocesan synod, and the selection of and invitation to lay participants is completely up to the diocesan bishop. The Canons allow for others to be invited as well as the list above, but these invitations to are up to the bishop. (He can even invite observers from other Christian communities not in communion with the Catholic Church).

Although “all proposed questions are subject to the free discussion of the members during sessions of the synod” (Can. 465), “the only legislator in a diocesan synod is the diocesan bishop; the other members of the synod possess only a consultative vote” (Can. 466).

In other words, Catholics for Renewal may not have closely read the canons to which they wish to draw the Bishops’ attention. They are an instrument of the bishop, not of “the people”. They are predominantly opportunities for the bishop to consult his clergy and leaders in his diocese – something that he is able, of course, to do off his own bat whenever he wants to. There is no sense in which the diocesan synod could in any sense force the bishop’s hand, or make resolutions against his will. He can close or suspend the synod whenever he likes (Can. 468 §1). Curiously, the Code of Canon law doesn’t stipulate how the issues to be discussed at the synod are to be chosen – but I suspect that once again, it is the bishop and the bishop alone who determines what may and may not be discussed on the floor of a diocesan synod.

It is hard therefore to see how Catholics for Renewal think that the holding of diocesan synods would further their populist agenda. And if diocesan synods were inaugurated in all dioceses across Australia, here are some of the complaints you could expect afterward:

1) They didn’t chose me
2) They didn’t consult me
3) They chose the wrong people
4) The bishop only chose who he wanted to hear from
5) The agenda was totally determined by the bishop
6) The Synod voted against it, but the bishop went ahead and did it anyway
7) The Synod was loaded with priests
8) The bishop shut the discussion down because he didn’t like it

You could probably think of others! All of this is why the current code of canon law leaves the calling of diocesan synods completely up to the bishop according to his prudence and wisdom.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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3 Responses to On Diocesan Synods

  1. Peregrinus says:

    Interesting. Couple of points.

    You describe the synod as an “instrument of the bishop”, but I think that goes a bit too far. The council “assists the bishop for the good of the whole diocesan community”. And a synod is to be held (in fact, it is to be “celebrated” – interesting choice of word!) in a particular diocese “when circumstances suggest it” – not when the bishop feels like it. The synod looks to me like an instrument of the church, not an instrument of the bishop.

    Now, it is down to the bishop to judge when circumstances suggest a synod, but this is not at all the same thing as deciding whether he wants it. And, furthermore, this is a judgment which he is only to make “after he has heard the presbyteral council”. A canon law requirement to “hear” somebody doesn’t just required that you let them say their piece; it imports a requirement to attend to what they say; to listen to it and to factor it into your subsequent decision. So this is a judgment which a bishop is supposed to open to the influence of his presbyteral council.

    A careful reading of the canon shows that the “selection of and invitation to lay participants” is not “completely up to the diocesan bishop”. Under canon 463 s. 1 the lay members are to be chosen by the pastoral council. The bishop decides how many lay members they will choose (but I do not think he can choose “nil” here) and how they will make the selection – e.g. he could specify “three lay members from each deanery” – but the actual selection is done by the pastoral council. And if there is no pastoral council in the diocese, then the provision is not that the lay members will be selected “by the bishop”, but “in the manner determined by the . . . bishop”, indicating that someone else is to make the selection.

    And there is a reason for this. Canon 463 s. 2 allows the bishop, if he wishes, to call additional members of the synod, including lay members, at will. This would be unnecessary if canon 463 s. 1 allowed the bishop to call whoever he liked. Read as a whole, I think the framework is that the bishop decides how many lay members they will be and how they will be selected, but he doesn’t get to select them. If, when they have been selected, he finds the synod will be lacking the voice of someone he thinks should be there, he can call that person himself.

    You rightly point out that, although “all proposed questions are subject to the free discussion of the members”, the canon omits to say who proposes the questions.

    The bishop can propose questions, certainly. It is he who calls the synod in the first place, and he will certainly have questions that he wants it to address. But is the bishop the only person who can propose questions for the synod? The canon doesn’t say so, and there seems to be no reason why, e.g, members of the synod, or committees of the synod, should not propose questions for discussion. If the bishop really doesn’t like that he can suspect or dissolve the synod, but that looks like the “nuclear option”.

    A bishop could certainly attempt to “stack” the synod, and to exercise his power to “preside” over it, so as to ensure that he only hears what he wants to hear. But this would be very unwise. In the first place, in terms of “assisting the bishop” the same result could be achieved by not having a synod at all. Secondly, it would probably be fairly obvious that this was what the bishop was doing, and this perception could only undermine the bishop’s credibility and effectiveness as a leader. The whole point of the synod is surely that the bishop will be assisted by hearing fresh perspectives, by listening to the experiences of people who are not diocesan bishops and, ideally, are not beholden to diocesan bishops. A bishop who acted to frustrate this might arguably bring himself within the four corners of the canon, but I think he would be undermining it nevertheless.

    You speculate about hypothetical complaints along the lines of “the bishop only chose who he wanted to hear . . . shut down the discussion . . .agenda totally determined by the bishop”, etc. I agree, we could probably expect to hear these complaints. The important question is, though, might there be any truth in them?

    I suspect that the hope of those behind the petition is that, if bishops do hold diocesan synods, they will do so in good faith, to hear and attend to the views and experiences of their own church, and to learn from and be influenced by those views and experiences. Is that an entirely baseless hope?

    • Gareth says:

      Even if the Bishops did attend to the views of its people Pere – surely the other half of the fence or the views of the 50 per cent of Catholic congregations that would be in sharp opposition to those that signed the petitions views should also be taken into account as well.

      Or is it a case that the majority of people that signed the petition (many who have stated that they do not attend Sunday Mass regularly) are not interested in listening to other people’s voices and experiences?

      Slightly ironic…

  2. Peregrinus says:

    Oh, of course. The whole point of a synod is that is should assist the bishop by expressing the views and experiences of the church as a community, and that means a diversity of views and experiences, necessarily including ones which you or I or any individual Catholic might not find appealing. Whether those who promoted the petition expect this or not I can’t say, but they certainly ought to expect it.

    Mind you, if the “generation gap” analysis which David points to in another post has any validity, we would expect a synod to be characterised by the expression of baby-boomer perspectives. Baby-boomers are, after all, the bulk of the active and practising members of most parish congregations. How would they not be a significant presence – probably, among lay members, very much the largest presence – in any synod?

    But I don’t see a synod as an exercise in representative democracy, and I don’t like to think of a church divided into “parties” in any sense. The reality may be that the church is to some extent divided into parties, but we certainly shouldn’t be devising structures to formalise and entrench that. It may be the case – I think it is the case – that the substantial majority of practising Catholics are baby-boomers whose theological and ecclesial perspectives are to the left of yours, Gareth, but it doesn’t follow that a “good” synod would be one in which those perspectives dominated.

    It’s much more important that (a) there should be a variety of views, perspectives and experiences expressed in a synod (and this means that whatever means is adopted for the selection of members should be designed to ensure the inclusion of minority voices, and the voices of those normally marginalised in the usual clerical structures) (b) that the participants in the synod should be there to listen to one another as well as to say their piece, and (c) that the bishop should be there to listen to them all, and to learn from them all.

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