The Apostolic Constitution, Episcopalis communio, which Pope Francis issued Tuesday morning, introduces significant reforms to the consultative body known as the Synod of Bishops. The General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, in his prepared remarks to reporters gathered at the Press Office of the Holy See for the presentation of the new instrument, described the reform as, “a true and proper ‘re-foundation’ of the organism.”

That sweeping claim — a tall order, to be sure — but here are three major practical novelties the Constitution introduces:

The Synod of Bishops is now a permanent body within the Church

By permanently erecting the Synod of Bishops — through its General Secretariat — outside the Roman Curia, Pope Francis has taken a step toward significantly altering the mechanics of ecclesial governance. What remains unclear is the extent to which the Synod Fathers as such are to have real power.

The General Secretary and his Secretariat now have direct control over Synod proceedings

If the General Secretary and his support system were, under the old disposition, a sort of steering committee with broad but still circumscribed powers, the Secretary and the Secretariat now appear to have almost complete control over Synod Assemblies from start to finish. From the moment the Pope convokes an assembly, the General Secretariat is in charge of setting the agenda, seeing that it is kept, and deciding what the Fathers will have to decide.

In essence, the General Secretary no longer has to concern himself with keeping the Synod Fathers happy — not even tolerably content with respect to the extent to which the outcome reflects their labours  — but only has to make sure that the Synod does what the pope wants it to do.

The Pope Controls the Synod

The 2/3 majority required in order to introduce specific proposals of the Synod Fathers into any Final Document remains in place on paper, but that — and much of the rest of the mechanical intricacies — appears to be a legal nicety. The drafting of the final document is entirely controlled by the General Secretary.

In any case, the Pope may issue – as he always has been able to do and as Pope Francis did with the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris laetitia — his own document, independent of the Synod Fathers’.

Basically, the Synod Fathers will say whatever the Pope says they said.

The truth is that this has pretty much always been the case. Both Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI issued post-Synodal exhortations quite different in substance, tone, and scope, from the Final Documents supposed to have been the basis of and inspiration for them.

The effect — if not the intention — of this reform is likely to be the creation of conditions apt to provide a stronger basis for a pretense of unanimity. Said bluntly, the new modes and orders of the Synod provide cover — one might call it a collegial or Synodal fig leaf — to the Pope.

Full story at The Catholic Herald.