The Coming Synod of Bishops

Future development of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on collegiality, liturgy, ecumenism and lay participation in church and society may depend heavily on how diocesan bishops face up to the prelates in Vatican offices before and during next October’s Synod of Bishops in Rome.

The drama of the event will center around the topics that those leaders of the Roman Curia may try to exclude from debate. At the coming synod, the bishops discussing their own role and work as bishops will complete a quartet of Roman synods on the laity (1987), priests (1990) and consecrated religious (1993). But will the 2001 agenda include such contentious issues regarding church leadership as the appointment of bishops, relations of curial offices with dioceses and episcopal conferences, reform of the synod itself and the role and work of the bishop of Rome?


As is usual in preparation for a synod, each conference of bishops was sent a questionnaire, called the lineamenta. The questionaire sent in 1998 asked bishops to suggest agenda topics, with a deadline of September 1999 for replies. At that time, the synod was scheduled to open in October 2000, a date later postponed to Sept. 30, 2001. The bishops are still awaiting the working document (instrumentum laboris) that will set the synod agenda, based on their replies to the lineamenta.

The great unknown is not why the instrumentum laboris is delayed but whether, like the lineamenta, it will avoid hard questions about church leadership.

The announced topic for the coming synod is The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World. In the lineamenta none of the major questions were raised directly. An opening for probing leadership issues was provided only by general questions such as the following: How does the Bishop express his communion with the Roman Pontiff? Does the Bishop feel supported by the Holy See? In what ways does the Bishop collaborate in the ministry of the Successor of St. Peter through unfolding the true faith, Church discipline and the new evangelization?

Over the years since the first synod in 1967, the Vatican office for synods, which is called a secretariat, has maintained that secrecy should shroud synod work. The rationale is that outsiders should not know what advice the pope is hearing. Attempts to limit media reporting have been ineffective, but most of what happens before and during a synod is known only fragmentarily. Even participating bishops complain that ideas they thought accepted one day are not reflected in summaries from the secretariat the next morning. At the moment, this secrecy also surrounds lineamenta replies and the instrumentum laboris for the coming synod.

What is known is that some episcopal conferences, including that of Canada, want discussion of broad questions such as papal primacy, synod reform to express collegiality, and diocese-Curia relations, along with more specific issues such as the appointment of bishops and the right to ordain suitable married men as priests.

The two latter issues touch immediate pastoral problems in a number of countries. Like others in Austria and elsewhere, Canadian Catholics have attempted to have their views heard about the appointment of new bishops. The Canadian bishops have tried in vain for years to have their president join the papal nuncio in signing the terna, the list of three candidates for an episcopal appointment that is sent to Rome.

The Curia’s rejoinder has been that such moves would intrude on papal independence in appointments. Yet it is well known that curial officials themselves lobby intensely for favorite candidates. Recently the pope reportedly settled such a curial battle over two of the terna candidates for the Archdiocese of New York by himself naming a man not proposed by others. Those wanting change argue that a more open, local consultation process would give more dignity to the pope’s final decision than secret, often long-delayed dealings in Vatican corridors.

The bishops responsible for northern Canada, like the bishops in Oceania recently, have been trying for years to have the rule on priestly celibacy changed. Married native deacons are ready for ordination in certain dioceses; some married clergy from other denominations have already been ordained as Catholic priests; and Eastern rites, including Ukrainian Catholics in Canada, have priests who are married.

While changes regarding episcopal appointments and married priests have local advocates, the case for a synodal study of primacy starts at the level of John Paul II himself. In his 1995 ecumenical encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, he insistently prayed that all pastors and theologians of our Churches should join him in studying papal primacy. Except for a few individuals, such as the retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, Catholic prelates both in dioceses and in the Vatican seem to have ignored the pope’s call. The coming synod could, however, provide a starting point for supporting the pope in this matter.

As for synod reform, and changes in the ways that curial officials relate to diocesan bishops and episcopal conferences, Vatican II teaching, confirmed by Paul VI and often reiterated by John Paul II, supports the desire of diocesan bishops to have these topics related to collegiality on the synod agenda.

Along with renewing the liturgy, promoting lay participation, encouraging Christian unity and opening the Catholic church to history and the modern world, Vatican II’s most important teaching may well be that bishops are successors of the Apostles. No Vatican II teaching was more hotly contested, and the final text, No. 22 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (1964), reflects a compromise. It says that the pope alone has full, supreme and universal power, and also that the bishops with the pope have supreme and full authority over the universal church.

Many bishops at Vatican II hoped that the Synod of Bishops, whose establishment was announced by Paul VI on his own initiative, motu proprio, just before the final council session in 1965, would provide the setting for sharing responsibility with the pope. The late Archeparch Maxim Hermaniuk of Winnipeg, metropolitan for Canadian Ukrainian Catholics, was one who outlined in detail how a synod, representative of all bishops and with decision-making power, could function, with the pope as head and the Vatican Curia as its executive arm.

The constitution given the synod by Paul VI’s 1965 decree, while saying in a sub-clause that the pope could make it a deliberative body, in fact gives bishops only an advisory role in every regard. And over the years, curial officials have put limits on participating bishops that go even beyond Paul VI’s constitution, the secrecy rule being one.

Indeed, when the first synod was convened in 1967, Archbishop Ladislaus Rubin, then synod secretary, informed bishops that each would speak only for himself and not with a collective or collegial voice. Bishop Alexander Carter, then president of the Canadian bishops’ conference, protested in a vigorous letter to Paul VI, and Rubin’s rule against collegiality was reversed. At subsequent synods, Canadians continued to request that the synod be made deliberative. Their most detailed intervention was the one made by Archeparch Hermaniuk during the special synod in 1985 that was called to review the 20 years after the close of Vatican II.

The Jan. 18, 1999, issue of The Catholic Register, published in Toronto, included interviews with three retired Canadian archbishops. These synod veterans agreed that it is a misnomer to speak of a synod of bishops. It is increasingly a papal synod, arranged and controlled by curial officials. As a symbol of this, the instrumentum laboris for the 1997 Synod for America is revealing. It purported to present the topics suggested by bishops throughout the Americas. However, every idea given a footnote was taken from scriptural, patristic, conciliar, papal or curial sources. Ideas from members of the various episcopal conferences were reduced to anonymity by the curial authors of this 60-page document.

Diocesan bishops have plenty of other reasons for wanting reforms in the Vatican Curia. Major items sprung on them recently without consultation or notice include the 1997 Instruction warning about dangers in the collaboration of the non-ordained in the sacred ministry of the priest; the latest directive on the Mass; last September’s decree Dominus Iesus and the related letter that was sent to episcopal conferences. This letter especially warned against using the term church for other Christiansa ruling that John Paul II himself violates in Ut Unum Sint.

To these items can be added the affront felt by bishops when curial officials intervene directly in diocesan affairs, especially when they do so in response to unnamed local critics who complain directly to the Vatican about their bishop.

It is now 35 years since most of the bishops headed home to their dioceses after the council’s four sessions. In vote after vote, they had defeated curial positions and won papal support for renewal and reform. However, curial officials left in charge of the Vatican bureaucracy soon began to regain their advantage of being able to promote their views more readily than distant diocesan bishops busy with local concerns.

It should surprise nobody that over the years curial officials have moved to limit various Vatican II teachings. Despite official secrecy during the council, what was known at the time in general terms is now proven by historical research in many archives, diaries and journals. John XXIII’s vision of Vatican II was in difficulty until cardinals who headed dioceses challenged their counterparts in Vatican offices. Paul VI, in turn, was under constant, heavy pressure to limit the role and powers of local bishops. And, as Cardinal Paulo Arns of Brazil noted recently, John Paul II does not, unfortunately, keep watch on his Curia.

The 2001 synod could be an occasion when, as at Vatican II, the assembled diocesan bishops decisively assert their responsibility to share fully with the pope in the direction of the church.

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11 years 7 months ago
While I found Bernard M. Daly’s article “The Coming Synod of Bishops” (4/2) interesting and challenging, it occurred to me that the synod of bishops he describes is not that set forth in Canons 342-48 of the Code of Canon Law. It is important, I think, that the synod of bishops, a sort of new “institute” since the Second Vatican Council, be clearly described so that its true functions can be understood and reasonable expectations be entertained for its work.

It seems to me that Bernard Daly might perhaps miss the mark when he appears to describe the synod of bishops as a “mini-council.” That it clearly is not. And it should be noted that it is a “synod” only by analogy with the synod as that institute has existed in church law.

The synod of bishops is “to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the bishops. These bishops, by their counsel, assist the Roman Pontiff in the defense and development of faith and morals and of the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline. They also consider questions concerning the mission of the church in the world” (No. 342). “The function of the synod of bishops is to discuss the matters proposed to it and set forth recommendations.” (No. 343).


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