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Sebastian GomesMay 03, 2023
a woman with grey hair and glasses speaks into a microphone at the vaticanXavière Missionary Sister Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary of the synod, speaks to reporters at a news conference at the Vatican April 20, 2023. (CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

In his last interview shortly before he died in 2012, Cardinal Carlo Martini of Milan observed that “the church is 200 years out of date.” Last week, the Vatican’s synod office announced that non-bishop participants at a synod, including lay women and men, will have voting rights for the first time. In this case, the church was only 10 years late.

Many Catholics like myself who have followed the development of synodality under Pope Francis have been convinced that the decision to open synod voting to non-bishops was all but inevitable. I worked closely with the Holy See Press Office and the Synod Office on English language communications at three different synods, first under Benedict in 2012, and then under Francis in 2014 and 2015. I witnessed the call for non-bishop voting get louder and louder as Francis encouraged wider consultation and fervant listening to the people of God.

The reason for granting votes to non-bishops is simple: The synods are consultative, not deliberative (i.e., legislative), bodies. At synods, following a few weeks of in-person deliberations, a concluding text is drafted and the participating bishops vote on it. But the pope decides what will come of the recommendations. In a synodal church, as Francis envisions, why couldn’t lay people and women religious also vote in such an assembly to advise the pope?

[Explainer: So, what exactly is a synod?]

Since Francis began reforming the Synod of Bishops a decade ago, there has never been a convincing answer to that question—until last week’s decision. It is an exciting and positive step in the necessary empowerment of lay people and women religious in the leadership mission of the church. But more than that, it is an early sign that the synodal culture Francis envisions for the church is bearing fruit.

Reforming the synods and building a culture of synodality

This decision happened in part because of the implementation of the pope’s reforms to the synod process and structure. The current synod on synodality is the 16th ordinary synod since their modern inception under Pope Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council. At most of these synods, the bishops would meet for three or four weeks at the Vatican, having had little, if any, real consultation with the faithful beforehand. It is well known among Vatican insiders that, prior to 2013, the conversations inside the synod hall were highly regulated and outcomes were predetermined by curial officials close to the pope. A number of bishops who participated in those synods told me personally over dinners and coffee breaks at the 2014 and 2015 synods and various church events since that contentious pastoral topics, like Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, were inconspicuously removed from the agenda.

The reason for granting votes to non-bishops is simple: The synods are consultative, not deliberative (i.e., legislative), bodies.

Francis changed that. Once elected, he made clear that he would work to revitalize the synods, saying they needed a less rigid form. “I do not want token consultations,” he said, “but real consultations.” During his opening address at the 2014 preliminary synod on the family—his first synod as pope—he insisted that the bishops gathered speak honestly and “listen with humility.” In other words, nothing was off the table.

Over the past 10 years, the synods started to come to life. The Vatican’s synod office, under the leadership of Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, explored different formats of large and small group discussion. The atmosphere in the synod hall became less formal and more efficient. The years before and after the October meetings became integral parts of the process as the synod office instituted prolonged periods of consultation with dioceses. For example, the synod on the family spanned nearly four years, with preparatory work and consultation beginning in the fall of 2013, working toward an initial meeting of the heads of bishops’ conferences at the Vatican in October 2014 (officially termed an “extraordinary” synod). This was followed by further consultation and reflection in local churches through 2015, leading to a second and larger “ordinary” bishops’ gathering in October 2015. At that point, the participating bishops voted on a final document and presented it to the pope who incorporated its recommendations into a magisterial teaching document known as an “apostolic exhortation,” which was published in the spring of 2016. Then, the synod office was tasked with promoting the digestion and implementation of the exhortation throughout the global church.

But more than procedural and structural changes, the pope’s promotion of a synodal culture, in which all Catholics are called upon to speak from their experience of faith and actively listen to others, has sparked more creative and dynamic possibilities for the life and mission of the church. For his part, Francis has worked tirelessly to promote this cultural change at the highest levels. In the middle of the 2015 synod of bishops on the family, Pope Francis gave an address to the participants that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of modern synods. He declared synodality to be “a constitutive element of the church,” which demanded a reorientation of the bishops’ exercise of authority, including his own as pope. He called the church’s hierarchy “an inverted pyramid” in which “the only authority is the authority of service” to the people of God.

Voting at previous synods called by Francis

To understand how Pope Francis has changed the culture of the synod, it is helpful to go back to the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family, both of which I attended and covered. The preliminary synod in October 2014 (officially called an “extraordinary” synod) spanned two weeks and brought together mostly the heads of bishops’ conferences. Of the 253 participants, only 183 of them could vote on the final document. Voters consisted of bishops and a handful of priests. (For example, the superior general of the Jesuits at the time, Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., who was not a bishop, had a vote as a representative of the Union of Superiors General.) The non-bishops, or more precisely the non-ordained participants, which included women religious and a number of married couples, could observe, participate in the discussions and even make official interventions, but in the end were not permitted a vote. The explanation from church officials, including the head of the synod of bishops, Cardinal Baldisseri, was some version of, “Well, it’s a synod of bishops.”

The following year, a larger “ordinary” synod picked up the same topic of pastoral challenges to family life. The discussion had evolved and matured, especially because lay people in local churches had been consulted in the interim, and the bishops, together with Francis, had another year’s experience and knowledge of synodality. The schedule was more intentionally structured to help work through the key issues and to focus the small language group discussions.

There were 270 bishops present. Ten non-bishop participants were selected by the Union of Superiors General to represent male religious orders. One of them was Herve Janson, P.F.J., the prior general of the Little Brothers of Jesus. Brother Janson was not an ordained priest. And yet, he was given a vote on the final document at the end of the synod. When this was brought to his attention at a press conference, he admitted his unease with the fact that he could vote while three women religious participants could not. Brother Janson had no answer as to why, and church officials could only say that Brother Janson’s vote was an exception to the established rule that only bishops can vote in synods.

To understand how Pope Francis has changed the culture of the synod, it is helpful to go back to the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family.

During the 2018 synod on youth, the same debate resurfaced. Advocacy groups for women’s leadership in the Catholic Church started a petition calling on Pope Francis, Cardinal Baldisseri and the bishops to allow participating women religious to vote on the final document. The Union of Superiors General had elected two lay brothers along with eight ordained priests, all 10 of whom could vote. The women’s International Union of Superiors General was represented by three religious sisters appointed by Francis, none of whom could vote. During the course of the synod, the participant members of both unions met to discuss the matter and revealed they would work together to advocate for the right of women religious to vote in future synods.

Nothing changed a year later when the 2019 synod of bishops on the Amazon took place in Rome. Ordained men and one lay brother could vote. Unlike Brother Janson in 2015, Miguel Angel González Antolín, F.S.F., was not the superior general of his religious order but the director of a school, Sagrada Familia de Ambato, in Ecuador. Other lay people, including 20 women religious, still could not vote. The Vatican doubled down on its “exception to the rule” argument.

In a historic development in 2021, Pope Francis appointed Nathalie Becquart, a member of the Xavière Sisters, Missionaries of Jesus Christ, as one of two new undersecretaries of the Vatican’s synod office. According to its official constitution, undersecretaries are considered members of the synod assembly, and thus have a right to vote. With that, for the first time ever, a religious sister was granted a vote in future synods. Cardinal Mario Grech, Francis’ hand-picked successor to Cardinal Baldisseri as general secretary of the synod office, said, “a door has been opened. We will then see what other steps could be taken in the future.

Finally last week, this decade-long inconsistency was formally corrected. Cardinal Grech, together with Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the pointman for the current synod on synodality, announced that 21 percent of the synod’s 370 participants in the upcoming October assembly will be non-bishops. At least half of that group will be women, and everyone participating will have a right to vote on the concluding document. That document will then be sent to Pope Francis, who will consider the synod’s proposals before issuing his own exhortation.

More and more people came to the same conclusion: “Of course every baptized Catholic participating in a synod of bishops should get a vote.”

It’s not clear what changed. And yet, here we have a snapshot of how things do change in the Vatican and in the church. The issue made its way to Pope Francis’ desk, and he signed off. The pope had dropped a hint that the decision was coming. In an interview in March with La Nacion, the Argentine daily, he revealed for the first time that he intended to make this change and grant all participants a vote in the October 2023 synod. “All participants,” whether male or female, “will have the right to vote,” he said. “Everyone, everyone. That word ‘everyone’ is key for me.”

I was struck as much by the way he said it as what he said, as if he were stating the obvious. It is obvious. At the very least we can say that this decision is a sign that the Catholic Church is becoming synodal. Or, in the lingo of the synod secretariat, the space of the tent is being enlarged. More people are speaking their minds and hearts—and more church leaders are listening. Communications between the various levels of the church are improving. People are less fearful to offer suggestions and even criticisms. More and more people came to the same conclusion: “Of course every baptized Catholic participating in a synod of bishops should get a vote.”

I wrote earlier that the rationale for opening the vote has always been straightforward: The synods are consultative, not deliberative bodies. The final document of a synodal assembly is voted on and presented to the pope for him to consider as he writes his own magisterial teaching document. However, with this decision to open voting to non-bishops, a fascinating possibility emerges. Canon law 343 states that since a synod of bishops is directly subject to the authority of the Roman Pontiff, a pope can “endow it with deliberative power, in which case he ratifies the decisions of the synod” (emphasis added). Should Pope Francis choose to do this at an upcoming synod, “the [synod’s] Final Document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor of Peter once it has been ratified and promulgated by him.

In other words, the votes of non-bishop and non-ordained participants on a final document in a synod could, hypothetically, contribute directly to an official magisterial teaching document of the Roman Catholic Church. That, to my knowledge, would truly be groundbreaking. I wonder what Cardinal Martini would make of it.

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