The synods of bishops celebrated up until now have always closed with the approval of a document that was either ratified by the Pope or modified by Peter’s successor, normally by means of an Apostolic Exhortation.

The surprise of 9 October 2021

The last 9 October, however, in the opening session of the Synod on synodality, the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Mario Grech, outlined to those present his wish that, on that occasion, the final document should not be limited “only to gathering the bishops’ ‘placet,’” but should rather be “accompanied by a consensus from all the Churches.”  For this reason, before the document should be presented to the Pope, God’s People should be “assembled again” in order to close, in this way, “the synodal process” opened in the month of October 2021.  Following this procedure, he noted, the final text would be the result of a consensus which reflected God’s People’s will as well as that of the College of Bishops.   

Shortly before, in the same session, Pope Francis had recalled that “we are all called upon to participate in the life of the Church and its mission, and if a real participation of all of God’s People is missing, speeches about communion run the risk of being good intentions.”  We have taken some steps forward, but we still have some way to go. And we need specifically to address “the distress and suffering of many people,” especially “women who are still frequently on the margins.”

“The one and only Catholic Church exists in and from particular Churches”

A few weeks afterwards, the same Cardinal M. Grech, responding to the accusation that with the proposal put forward by him on 9 October he had overreached his powers, reminded the Italian bishops, assembled in the Episcopal Conference of 23 November 2021, that Francis had transformed the Synod “event” into a “process,” thanks to the Constitution “Episcopalis communio” (2018).

I recognise, he went on, “that it is not easy to apprehend the change in perspective that such a choice involves,” but it is beyond all doubt that “for the first time, not only all the bishops but all of God’s People have become involved in the synodal process:  not only taking into consideration all of those individuals who have been baptised, men and women, but also all of the Churches spread around the world.”

And he continued his intervention quoting one of the Conciliar passages that gave rise to one of the most intense, interesting and impassioned debates of the post-conciliar period:  “on the basis of this transformation of the Synod from an ‘event’ to a ‘process’ lies the principle that the one and only Catholic Church exists in and from particular Churches.”

For this reason, he concluded in his intervention, it is this “reciprocity and mutual innerness” between the Catholic Church and particular Churches which provides a basis for the double opening of the Synod in Saint Peter’s on 10 October, “and in each particular Church, to show that the Church ‘happens’ in Churches.  This is a decision that has nothing to do with any useless dubbing.  And they who maintain that it has, have not understood what Paul VI already expressed in “Evangelii Nuntiandi.”

Once again, the topic is required:  it can be said more loudly, but not more clearly.

A more than possible fourth synodal stage

With the words of Cardinal Mario Grech, it seems that, from a formal point of view, the decision over this new synodal stage is still pending (I suppose until October 2023).  Its enormous implications are lost on no-one.

We cannot forget that this unique Synod on synodality represents a surprising and unprecedented programme which, in its official form and up until now, consists of three clearly differentiated stages.

The first, at a diocesan and national level, starts in October 2021 and lasts until April 2022.  At the closure of the same the Secretary General of the Synod will oversee the drafting the first so-called “Instrumentum Laboris”, before September 2022.

This first phase will be followed by another, at a continental level (from September 2022 to March 2023), which will close with the drafting of a final document, also sent to the Secretary General of the Synod.

The above-mentioned Secretariat will return to drafting a new “Instrumentum laboris” (the second one) for those participating in the Synod of Bishops Ordinary General Assembly, the so-called World Synod of Bishops, which will take place in October 2023 in the Vatican.

The novelty is the proposal –drawn up, as I have indicated, on 9 October 2021 by the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Mario Grech, in the opening session of the same– in favour of a possible fourth stage in which the document drafted by the bishops in the Synod conference should return to everyone’s diocese to be discussed and, if deemed appropriate, amended. The suggestions and observations that were elaborated would be submitted once again to the Synod Secretary General so that, once all remarks that were considered pertinent were incorporated, the final Document should be presented to Francis for its enactment.

If this last stage were brought to safe harbour (and we are to hope that this will be the case), we would encounter a programming which will –in the name of a more than wished for “consensus” between bishops and those of God’s people- lead beyond the traditional form of “ecclesial reception,” all too often failing in these last five decades, and namely in the practical non-acceptation of the ecclesial magisterium.  The most obvious case was probably that of the “Humanae Vitae” (1968) on artificial birth control.

But there have been many others of a different nature, especially during the pontificate of John Paul II.  No-one can fail to recognise that his magisterium took years to produce the incredible quantity of more than five thousand pages.  Almost nothing!  And we cannot forget the soaring disaffection in some churches – and slower in others – because of such a magisterium and form of government: in Holland, Belgium, France, Germany and including Spain.

Precedents to the possible fourth stage

Cardinal Mario Grech’s proposal for a fourth stage reminds me of the way American bishops proceeded in the 1980s, when, together with God’s People of the United States, they drafted famous documents on the nuclear arms race (“The challenge of peace,” approved in 1983), on economic inequalities (“Economic justice for all,” approved in 1986) and on the promotion of women in the Church (“Companions in the mystery of redemption,” rejected in 1992 by the Episcopal Conference on the understanding that the text presented by the corresponding Commission had been seized from this Church by the Vatican Curia).

The American bishops sent a first draft to the representatives of the training centres and different associations connected to the Church, calling for modifications, suggestions and clarifications.  Such observations were taken into account in a second draft, which they went on to send again in the aim of gathering critical remarks or recommendations once again.  It took various years for this process to draw to a close, at the end of which the Episcopal Conference expressed its position by vote.

The magisterium, developed in this way, enjoyed an exceptional and positive reception, which did not manage to dilute the resistance or the endeavours to undermine it, including those from the highest political, economic and governmental authorities in the country.  And, specifically, the United States government, with Ronald Reagan at its helm (1981-1989).

Karol Wojtyla’s sleight of hand

But at the same time this is explained by the decision adopted by John Paul II to prevent the magisterium from developing in the Episcopal Conferences.

In 1988 in the form of an “Instrumentum laboris,” a text entitled “The theological and legal status of the Episcopal Conferences” and signed by Cardinal Gantin was published together with a letter which requested a written response from the American bishops.  In the same letter, to the surprise of everyone, the cardinal maintained that the Episcopal Conferences had no doctrinal power and that they were not a true expression of collegiality, insofar as the Pope, by divine right, was the only one who could teach the entire Church. It was for the diocesan bishops to impart their teaching only to the Church they presided over.  And nothing more.

In November of the same year the American bishops replied to Cardinal Gantin showing him that his “Instrumentum laboris” had given rise to a “massive no placet,” because, among other reasons, the document was based on a flawed understanding of collegiality and community; it failed to recognise the doctrinal capacity that Vatican II had assigned to the Episcopal Conferences and it ignored the theology of God’s People.  For this and other reasons they asked for a thorough revision of the same.

Ten years later – with a good part of the Episcopal Conference in the United States and in the rest of the world revised, in conformity with the models of bishop and Church promoted by John Paul II – the Pope on 23 July 1998 in the “Motu proprio” or the Apostolic Letter “His Apostles” “on nature and the limits to the authority of the Episcopal Conferences” made known what Cardinal Gantin had brought forward ten years previously:  the capacity to issue authentic teaching to bishops remained denied in practical terms, though not in theory; something which, curiously enough, the same Code of Canon Law had enabled in 1983 in its number 753.

And if this were not enough, a year before, in 1997, they had already – by means of an Instruction to the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples – forbidden bishops to request a revision of whatever theme which implied a thesis or positioning that did not conform to the perpetual doctrine of the Church or of the Pontifical magisterium, or which affected disciplinary fields reserved for a superior ecclesiastical authority.  With this latter observation, which referred to the so-called “reserved issues,” they were not allowed to pursue applications for revision – at the request of the Synods or Diocesan Assemblies, for example – on matters reserved for the Primate See; among other things, concerning optional celibacy or women becoming priests.

Parliament, Synod, consensus and vote

It may not be too much to draw to a conclusion by recalling what Francis said to the Swiss bishops in his “ad limina” visit in November 2021 and what he has illustrated on other previous occasions: “the Synod is not a Parliament.”  He repeated it to an episcopal group in a country with a very ancient and well-established democratic and parliamentary culture.  What is most important, the Swiss prelates relate to the Catholics of their country, more than the goal, is the journey.

Without denying the opportunity of this latter observation, we cannot ignore the importance of establishing norms for the authority of bishops, and even for the same Pope, as requested in the period immediately following the end of Vatican II when they demanded a “Lex fundamentalis” in the Church to which the same successor of Peter would also be subjected in his way of governing, in order to avoid arbitrariness in his exercise of power and to guarantee the episcopal collegiality.  And, given the window opened by Francis on this occasion, I suppose also to make synodality and baptismal co-responsibility viable for all Christians.    

The request for a “Lex fundamentalis” was taken up again by the German Church when John Paul II bypassed the agreement which guaranteed the Cathedral Chapter of Cologne the right to elect bishops and went on to appoint Monsignor J.P. Meisner (1988). And he appointed him because he grasped that he had abided by the literalism of the aforementioned Concordat which only bound him to present a list of candidates: not to repeat it should it be turned down.

In Germany such behaviour was looked upon as a use of jurisdiction against the sense of law and it opened up the debate on the opportunity of the so-called “Lex fundamentalis” again, which –in accordance with the spirit of the Gospels– concluded binding everyone, including the Pope.  And, in line with the previous observation, they regretted the inexistence of an ecclesiastic authority which – in a similar way to constitutional courts – could propose an interpretation consistent with the sense of law.

With that in mind, the bid for consensus is an excellent one, but the only remaining remedy is to regulate the discrepancy.  As Cardinal Mario Grech points out, it is good that this appears as such in the synodal documents, but I suppose that, so that it can appear as such, the texts will also have to be voted upon.  And put to that, there is no choice but to return to conceding to the minority –on behalf of communion– a certain right of veto which cannot go beyond a third of the votes cast.  If such a proportion of votes is not reached, the problem of communion lies with the afore-mentioned synodal minority.  Hence the excellent idea of transferring the debate –properly regulated– to the local Churches.

Here we find all of the creative receptivity of Vatican II.  This has nothing to do with the re-readings promoted in the previous pontificates preferring an absolutist and monarchical model of government and magisterium from the famous “Prior explanatory note” to the Dogmatic Constitution “Lumen Gentium” and in opposition to debate, approved in the General Assembly and ratified by the same Paul VI.  And, of course, nothing to do with the way of governing that has become so generalised among most bishops, including those from here.

And yes a lot to do with the launch of a truly synodal Church in which listening is no mere rhetorical exercise, but a space for discernment and examination which has its own regulations and which the hierarchical corpus cannot ignore by virtue of sacramental ordination.

It seems that we are at the dawn of a new and fascinating time in the life of the Church, an era –it was about time!- marked by the implementation of an open reading of Vatican II, after five decades of interpretation and involutive application.

As has been said: with Francis boredom is prohibited.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons]

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Sacerdote diocesano de Bilbao; catedrático emérito en la Facultad de Teología del Norte de España (Sede de Vitoria); miembro de Cristianisme i Justicia (Barcelona); profesor invitado del Instituto Superior de Ciencias Religiosas Pío XII de San Sebastián y de la Pontificia Facultad Teológica de la Italia Meridional (sede Capodimonte), en Nápoles (Italia); auxiliar del equipo ministerial de la unidad pastoral de Basauri (Bizkaia). Algunas de sus publicaciones más recientes: “La cristología de Joseph Ratzinger-Benedicto XVI a la luz de su biografía teológica”, Barcelona, Cristianisme i Justicia, 2008; “Cómo hablar hoy de conciencia y magisterio moral”, Bilbao, IDTP-DDB, 20102; “Verdad y revelación cristiana. La teología fundamental veritativa en la modernidad”, Vitoria, ESET, 2011; “¿Es Dios una proyección?” Bilbao, IDTP-DDB, 2014; “La conversión del papado y la reforma de la Curia vaticana”, Madrid, PPC, 2014; “Estuve divorciado y me acogisteis”, Madrid, PPC, 2016; “Ateos y creyentes. Qué decimos cuando decimos Dios”, PPC, Madrid, 2019; “Entre el Tabor y el Calvario. Una espiritualidad ‘con carne’”, HOAC, Madrid, 2021.
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