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Episcopalis communio: three things you need to know about the Pope’s new document

The 2015 synod (CNS)

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

Bl. (soon to be Saint) Paul VI introduced the Synod of Bishops as a consultative body, which would meet when convoked by the pope to consider questions of universal, urgent, or particular importance to the Church. It was a first step in responding to the desire expressed by the Fathers of the II Vatican Council to create a such a body.

“During the course of the [II Vatican] Conciliar debate,” writes Pope Francis in n.2 of the introduction, “in step with the maturation of the doctrine on episcopal collegiality, there emerged repeatedly the request to associate some Bishops with the universal ministry of the Roman Pontiff, in the form of a permanent central body, outside the dicasteries of the Curia, which would be apt to demonstrate, even outside the solemn and extraordinary form of the Ecumenical Council, the solicitude of the College of Bishops for the needs of the People of God and communion among all the Churches.”

The stated intention of this reform is to respond more fully to that desire of the II Vatican Council Fathers.

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.

In a certain sense, this reform smooths and streamlines the procedure the General Secretariat followed over the course of the last two Assemblies — a procedure broadly criticized as unresponsive to the real concerns of the Synod Fathers — and enshrines it in law.

The Pope Controls the Synod

There already has been a good deal of discussion over whether the Synod of Bishops is now a deliberative, rather than a merely consultative body. The reason for that discussion is the new Constitution’s elision of the Synod’s power with that of the Pope. In article 18, Pope Francis disposes thus: “If expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the Final Document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor to Peter.”

The following section of the same article reads: “Whensoever the Roman Pontiff shall have granted deliberative potestas to the Synod Assembly, in accordance with c.343 of the Code of Canon Law, the Final Document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor of Peter once ratified and promulgated by him. In this case the Final Document is published with the signature of the Roman Pontiff together with that of the Members.”

Apparently, 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.

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As we saw at the beginning of these considerations, Cardinal Baldisseri in fact called the reform a “re-foundation” and discovered the reason for such a powerful claim principally in the new law’s establishment of the Synod of Bishops as a stable body outside the curia.

The Undersecretary of the Synod, Bishop Fabio Fabene, concurred. “Episcopalis communio,” he said in his own remarks, addressed principally to the dispositive or operative part of the lengthy and articulate document, “while confirming the essential structure established by Paul VI in 1965, introduces to the body modifications of such breadth, as to configure a ‘re-foundation’ of the Synod.”

If nothing else were clear, it would nevertheless be evident and undeniable that the men on the dais had their talking points in order.

Prof. Dario Vitali of the Pontifical Gregorian University enlarged on the point, noting that the Pope’s choice of an Apostolic Constitution to do the work of reform is indicative of his re-foundational intention with the document. “One may well say that the Constitution manifests with evidence that “hermeneutic of reform in continuity of the one subject-Church,” indicated by Benedict XVI as the way that permits the whole composition of the Church to maintain faithfulness to the Spirit, without closing herself in the defense of the past and her past forms, without adventuring upon experimentations devoid of [roots in] history, but keeping herself sound in the way of living — and for this reason dynamic — Tradition of the Church.”

All that is very well, and well reflects the stated intention of the reform, as Francis articulates it in the introductory paragraphs of the Constitution — in often bracing language — especially insofar as the underlying Conciliar ecclesiology is concerned.

The Synod of Bishops is an organ of consultation and — at this point — governance. It is supposed to do things. Like any instrument, it will do what it is designed to do. The ecclesiology that inspired the design may well be sound, yet it does not follow from that soundness, that the instrument will really do what the designer — or his salesmen — says it will.

In any case, even minor reforms often have far-reaching consequences. Sweeping reforms inevitably produce repercussions far beyond the scope of their enactors’ vision. Pope Francis has given himself something that may turn out to be a very powerful tool. His successor — whose sympathies he cannot possibly know — will have the use of it, as well.