Episcopalis communio: what does the Pope’s new document mean for the Church?

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Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Constitution on Tuesday morning, which introduces significant reforms to the structure of the Synod of Bishops. Titled Episcopalis communio — “Episcopal communion” — the document is composed of a six-page introduction articulated in ten numbered sections, and a 27-article dispositive part.

The introduction talks a good deal about collegiality, broad consultation with all the faithful of every state of life in the Church, and the general spirit of synodal collaboration:

Although in its composition it appears as an essentially episcopal organism, the Synod does not therefore live separately from the rest of the faithful. On the contrary, it is an instrument apt to give voice to the whole People of God, precisely through the Bishops, who are constituted by God as, “authentic guardians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church,” showing itself from Assembly to Assembly to be an eloquent expression of synodality as “[a] constitutive dimension of the Church.”

In effect, however, the reforms Pope Francis introduced on Tuesday may create a situation in which the bishops gathered in synod assembly act at least as much as filters, as they do channels for the voice of the faithful.

The role of the General Secretary appears greatly increased and his powers expanded, along with those of the General Secretariat. These expanded powers especially regard the steering of Synod Assemblies, from their early organisation, through the sessions, to the drafting and approval of final documents — all of which come to be part of the Synod Assembly proper.

Though the Synod of Bishops remains a consultative body, the new law envisions a sort of elision of the body’s teaching authority with that of the Roman Pontiff. Article 18 § 2 reads, “If expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the final document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor to Peter.”

Lawyers will quibble over just what sort of elision that is, as they will also discuss the nature of and extent the participation any document thus approved has in Papal teaching authority.

The old saying tells us that the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. Applied to current circumstances, this means that we need to wait and see how the Synod of Bishops actually operates under its new paper dispositions.

If the new document makes anything clear, it is that Francis — whose “synodal” approach to governance has been the subject of much discussion — meant what he said when he told the participants in the III Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that “synodality” means being with Peter, and that “being with Peter” means being under him. How “synodal” is the Church Francis envisions? One short answer might be: as synodal as Peter says it is.