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Kevin E. McKennaDecember 10, 2007

At the time of Pope Benedicts election in July 2005, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles made a conjecture. Based on the way then-Cardinal Ratzinger had run the College of Cardinals meetings before the conclave, Cardinal Mahony said that he would be surprised if the new pope did not reform the churchs process for the World Synod of Bishops. During the cardinals meetings most of the initial speakers came from Europe or North America. The future pope paused the discussion and asked for cardinals from southern Africa, English-speaking Africa, French-speaking Africa and different areas of Asia to prepare presentations on the pastoral challenges they face, said Cardinal Mahony, "I thought that was extremely helpfuland that gave me an insight into what he is looking for at synods" (Catholic News Service, 7/8/05).

Since the Second Vatican Council, synods have borne the hopes of many who desire a continuation of the councils collaborative, collegial spirit. Yet numerous complaints have been raised about the synod process; some have questioned the synods utility, given that the process seeks so little input into the topics discussed and the results promulgated.

On Oct. 5, 2008, Pope Benedict will convene the 12th ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops, to discuss The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. Aware of the criticisms that have been expressed, the pope could make changes to the synod structure and process. The question is, will he?

Paul VI and a New Collegial Structure

Pope Paul VI, desiring to maintain the momentum of conciliar collegiality sparked by Vatican II, issued the apostolic letter Apostolica Sollicitudo on Sept. 15, 1965, which gave form and structure to a new creation, the Synod of Bishops. It is an assembly of bishops representing the Catholic episcopate as a whole; its task is to help the pope govern the universal church by giving him counsel. In the wake of Vatican II, it had become clear to Paul VI that such a body could be useful, a “continuance after the council of the great abundance of benefits that we have been so happy to see flow to the Christian people during the time of the council as a result of our close collaboration with the bishops.”

Today, in accordance with Paul VI’s legislation and the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the Synod of Bishops provides information and advice to the pope. Ordinary general assemblies (as opposed to the extraordinary general sessions that are called to deal with matters requiring a “speedy solution” or special sessions that deal with matters concerning a specific region or regions) have addressed a number of themes, such as “The Ministerial Priesthood” and “Justice in the World” (1971), “Evangelization in the Modern World” (1974), “Catechesis in Our Time” (1977), “The Christian Family” (1980), “Penance and Reconciliation” (1983), “The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World” (2001) and most recently “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church” (2005).

The synod also enjoys the power of decision-making when “conferred upon it by the Roman Pontiff; in this case it belongs to him to ratify the decisions of the synod.”

Pope Benedict and the Critics

Pope John Paul II referred to the synod as “a particularly fruitful expression and instrument of the collegiality of bishops,” and the Second Vatican Council elucidated the importance of the worldwide episcopacy in caring for the entire church (Lumen Gentium, No. 23). But some wonder whether such participation can take place given the strictures currently imposed on the synod—limitations on the formulation of the agenda and the power of decision-making, for instance. One critic describes the current synod process as offering intriguing debates at the start that lead to no substantive changes at the end. Some observers complain about a lack of outside experts (periti), the kind of theologians whose behind-the-scenes contributions were a prominent and valuable part of the council, and posit their absence as a reason forceful, creative suggestions fail to reach or influence the pope. Still others comment that the synod has lost sight of its purpose and now moves in reverse, seeking the pope’s advice, with bishops quoting him in their public addresses, as if he does not know what he himself said.

While he was a bishop in Germany, Joseph Ratzinger participated in 15 of the 20 general, extraordinary and special synods held. Perhaps because of his experience, some procedural changes were made at the October 2005 synod: the gathering’s length was reduced from four weeks to three, and the time allotted each bishop for speaking was shortened from eight minutes to six. That year, too, each bishop was strongly encouraged to focus his reflection on but one of the four main points in the synod’s working document, and the bishops were asked to sign up to speak in the order of the chapters of the synod’s working paper. In addition, the pope added an hour of open discussion at the end of each day during which formal sessions were conducted, permitting all members to dialogue with or ask for and obtain information from the synod fathers who had spoken that day.

Structural Challenges

In 1988, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger published “The Structure and Tasks of the Synod of Bishops,” in Church, Ecumenism and Politics: New Essays in Ecclesiology (Crossroad, 1988). The essay analyzes the Synod of Bishops from theological and canonical perspectives and may reveal much of the pope’s thinking about the role of the synod in the life of the church.

Although many had hoped the synod would develop greater collegiality between the pope and the bishops— where collegiality entails a sharing of power in the church—Cardinal Ratzinger does not understand collegiality in this way. As he understands Pope Paul’s vision, the synod was intended to involve the bishops of the church collectively in the formation of policy on major questions. But according to the council, there are only two ways in which the college of bishops could act with legal force: in an ecumenical council (such as Vatican II) or by all the bishops of the world acting together. The synod assists the pope by giving advice and counsel in the defense and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, but it cannot make decisions or issue decrees.

Furthermore, Cardinal Ratzinger argues, the legal status of the synod is not changed by the additional provision that in certain cases the pope can confer deliberative power on the synod. That is because this deliberative power is not inherent in the college of bishops but rather remains dependent on the pope. The college of bishops, then, can exercise its own deliberative powers only as a whole, either in council or in practice. Bishops’ participation in the governance of the church does not come by having representation in some central organ; the communion of churches is not governed by a central parliament or by an aristocratic senate or a monarchical head, but is entrusted to bishops who lead the Catholic Church in its particular churches and thus lead the universal church. “It is in governing the particular church that the bishops share in governing the universal church and not otherwise,” writes Cardinal Ratzinger. The bishop of the particular church of Rome makes the church’s unity visible and upholds its realization as a communion.

Cardinal Ratzinger argues that making the synod a regular component of the church’s life would deform the nature of the episcopacy. The Tridentine reform emphasized the importance of the bishop’s responsibility to reside in his own diocese. This duty is not purely a matter of discipline but a requirement of divine law: “To be a bishop means to be a shepherd of one’s church,” Cardinal Ratzinger writes, “not its delegate at some center…. The fundamental principle of a bishop’s duty to reside in his diocese is not something for the church to make up as it goes along.” A council, as a rare and extraordinary event, is exceptional in the life of the church and, in Cardinal Ratzinger’s estimation, justified the excessive absence of a bishop from his diocese. But an ongoing sense of unity between a diocese and its bishop is essential in his view: The people “need a shepherd who is not looking to be a bigger fish somewhere else but is simply their shepherd and pastor who knows his own and stays with them. In this sense one can call the Tridentine reform truly pastoral; princes had to become shepherds, pastors, once again.”

The Power of the Episcopal Conferences

Another proposal Cardinal Ratzinger challenged in his 1988 essay is the concept of individual bishops’ conferences discussing a synod agenda, deciding on it as a conference and mandating their delegates, who would serve as representatives of the conference, to put forward and support only the conference decisions. Such a format he found untenable, because it presumes that delegates would be unanimous in their opinions. Consistent with a theme that runs through his thought, particularly in regard to episcopal December 10, 2007 America 17 conferences, Cardinal Ratzinger believes that on matters of faith and morals, no one can be bound by majority decisions. Truths are defined not by resolution but by recognition and acceptance of the truth. He wrote: “My view is that the work of bishops’ conferences should by its nature be directed not towards a lot of resolutions and documents but rather towards consciences becoming more enlightened….” In a similar manner, the discussions of a synod derive their weight, not from the number of votes cast in favor of a proposition, but from the truth found in the individual consciences of the participants.

The Service of the Synod to the Church

As pope, will Benedict XVI make any significant governance changes in the operation of the synod? Given his previous writings and ecclesiological perspective, most likely not. He might, however, enhance or emphasize his previously stated understanding of the proper responsibilities of the Synod of Bishops.

Information. The Synod of Bishops is held to exchange information. The bishops’ conferences inform the pope and the Curia; the pope informs the bishops, the bishops inform one another. But there is more involved than just the exchange of items of interest. “It is a mutual process of forming oneself in learning to understand the ideas, the actions, the urgent questions and the difficulties of the other person,” writes Cardinal Ratzinger. “Informing oneself in this way in learning to share in the ideas of others so as to become capable of acting together thus becomes a process of communications in the truth, the maturing of that awareness which the shepherd needs in order to know his own and to be known by them.”

Self-correction. There takes place in the synod discussions a manner of mutual self-correction. To enter into the process more deeply, one must be ready to learn: to accept something different, to re-examine what is one’s own and, if necessary, to change it. The synod must also be ready to speak to the world, offering fraternal correction by way of prophetic ministry when needed.

Encouragement. The synod must above all encourage and strengthen the positive forces inside and outside the church and foster all activities that let trust and love grow and thus contain hope.

We know that Pope Benedict XVI can surprise and that his papacy is not easily categorized or predictable. But whatever form future synods of bishops take, they will during his tenure undoubtedly reflect his understanding of the church. Whatever structures have been devised organically to make fruitful God’s saving work, it is essential that the church be the place where Christ binds himself to humanity in a new covenant, to which God is always faithful.

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