Question: When is a Synod of Bishops no longer a Synod of Bishops?

Answer: When the participants are not bishops.

This year Pope Francis will appoint 70 non-bishops to participate, as voting members, in the October meeting of the Synod of Synodality. These lay participants will represent only slightly more than 20% of the Synod’s voters. Still their involvement raises the question. If it is a Synod of Bishops, why are lay people voting?

The involvement of non-bishops in a Synod of Bishops is not entirely new. At past meetings a few priests were appointed, to represent male and female religious communities. But this year the representation of non-bishops will be much greater, including lay people as well as priests. And the Vatican is anxious to tell us that half of the non-bishops will be women.

What is the significance of this change? Vatican officials boast that this year will see a much broader consultation with lay Catholics. But of course bishops have always been free to consult with anyone whose views they deem worthwhile. And for that matter the Synod itself is a consultative body; its product is not legislation, but a set of recommendations that the Pontiff may or may not endorse.

Nevertheless the Synod of Bishops is an important expression of collegial government — a recognition that all bishops, as successors to the apostles, have a special charism that enables them to lead and guide the Church. The Second Vatican Council, which called for a revival of the Synod, taught (in Lumen Gentium 23) that every bishop, “as a member of the episcopal college and legitimate successor of the apostles, is obliged by Christ’s instruction and command to be solicitous for the whole Church…” This is a duty proper to bishops, who have a corresponding grace of state to carry out that duty. In a hierarchical Church it is bishops — not priests, not religious, not lay people — who participate in the collegial decision-making process.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, the Jesuit prelate who as relator-general will chair the meetings of the October session, insists that the bishops have not given up their distinctive role. Questioned by Vatican News whether this meeting will truly remain a Synod of Bishops, he responded emphatically: “Yes, it remains so because the bishops are the majority!”

True, but anyone who has participated in a democratic process knows that a minority can constitute a decisive voting bloc, and with 20% of the votes, the lay participants will certainly be an important influence on the Synod’s outcome. Moreover, Cardinal Hollerich remarked, in the same interview: “We do not have a synodal parliamentarianism, where the majority decides and everyone follows.” So which is it: a majority decision, which bishops control, or a free-wheeling process, in which lay participants have equal voice?

And who will these lay voters be? The Pope will choose their names from lists provided by the world’s bishops, on the basis of several rounds of local meetings leading up to the worldwide session. Two points should be noted here. First, the lay voters will be chosen by the bishops — in the end, by Pope Francis. Second, they will be selected from among the participants in the preparatory meetings. So it is a considerable stretch to suggest that they represent the views of ordinary lay Catholics….

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