What Is a Synod in the Catholic Church? And Why Does This One Matter?


Even for a Roman Catholic Church rife with esoteric terminology that often defies comprehension by the uninitiated, this month’s Synod on Synodality at the Vatican — essentially a major workshop for church leaders and lay people on how to work together for the good of the church — has proved mystifyingly meta for many of the rank-and-file faithful.

“I am well aware that speaking of a ‘Synod on Synodality’ may seem something abstruse, self-referential, excessively technical, and of little interest to the general public,” Pope Francis said in August. But, he added, it “is something truly important for the church.”

So what exactly is this multiyear assembly, the next phase of which opens on Oct. 4 and runs through Oct. 29?

Since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, called to open the church to the modern world, bishops have met periodically to continue the collegiality of that landmark meeting in what are called synods to discuss specific issues to better guide the church.

Francis has convened several synods during his 10-year papacy, including on the family, on youth, and on the church in the pan-American region.

After discussing the issues on the table, bishops draft and vote on a document that is presented to the pope. If he wishes, the pope can adopt the text as a papal document, or decide to write his own at the end of the synod, which in this case will come in 2024.

But this synod is different. It is not on a single topic. Rather it is on the practice of working in a synod, a process that the Vatican explains as “journeying together.”

Starting in 2021, the Vatican began canvassing local churches around the world, which produced national and then continental reports that in theory distilled the issues most critical to the rank-and-file faithful to be discussed.

This seemingly obscure and confidential assembly may turn out to be the culmination of Francis’s pontificate. Addressing a number of previously taboo topics, this synod could result in several liberalizing reforms, though there is no guarantee that it will produce anything at all.

For some Vatican observers, it is the meeting process itself that amounts to the most potentially transformative change for the church, putting into practice the pope’s bottom-up view of a collegial and inclusive institution that upends the traditional hierarchy and forces bishops to listen to and work with their flock to better respond to their global church’s modern needs.

In what some consider a momentous innovation, Francis invited lay people, including women, to take part and vote in the meeting as a way “to disconnect participation in the leadership of the church from ordination,” explained Sister Natalie Becquart, one of the synod’s undersecretaries, in a 2022 interview.

That does not, the church has made clear, mean that the institution is becoming democratized, but that Francis will hear more voices, and be enriched with more diversity of perspective.

In all, 365 people will have voting rights in the synod, and roughly 75 percent will be bishops, Paolo Ruffini, the prefect of the Vatican’s communications office, said on Thursday. Fifty-four women will have voting rights. Pope Francis chose the 70 lay people from 140 prominent candidates active in local churches who were presented to him.

All participants have equal time — up to four minutes — to share their thoughts during the group discussions which will take place every day. But opinions differ.

The relator general of the synod, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, is one of Francis’ closest advisers, is seen as a powerful voice for liberal issues, and will be in charge of summarizing the final conclusion.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a tireless upholder of Catholic tradition and doctrine, has warned that the synod could be used as a “hostile takeover” of the church.

Sister Becquart — appointed to her role in the synod by Francis in 2021, and the first woman to hold the post — is a champion of greater participation for women in the church: “The question of women is a sign of the times,” she has said.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit father who is an outspoken advocate of greater L.G.B.G.T.Q. inclusiveness in the church, has said that he hopes that at the synod he will be “one of the voices for L.G.B.T.Q. people.”

Several sensitive topics within the church are up for discussion: priestly celibacy, the inclusion of married men in the priesthood, the blessing of gay couples, the extension of sacraments to the divorced and remarried, and the ordination of female deacons.

Other issues on the table include poverty, racism, tribalism, class discrimination, discrimination against people with disabilities, poverty and human trafficking.

The assembly’s agenda is as noteworthy for what it leaves out as what it includes. Abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia are often seized on by conservative Catholics and culture warriors. But they did not make it into the working paper for participants.

Liberal cardinals say that is not because they do not oppose abortion, but that it was not something that people asked for them to discuss during the canvassing process.

No one really knows what could come out of the meeting, but some potential changes are clearly more difficult than others.

While some participants are coming to explicitly push for the ordination of women as deacons, Francis has already delayed a decision on the issue and said it required more study. He has categorically shut down the prospect of women becoming priests.

But other moves may have more of a chance.

In June 2019, a Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region proposed ordaining married, elderly men to the priesthood to meet the pastoral needs of Catholics in remote areas of the Amazon. But Francis did not sign off on the proposal. Some in the Vatican think he wanted broader support of the measure, something that the global synod could perhaps provide.

Others are watching closely whether Francis may follow through on an earlier gesture toward allowing for the communion of divorced and remarried Catholics. In 2015, the door seemed to open, slightly, at the Synod of the Family, but Francis has not pushed it any further. Supporters of the change hope the synod might provide him with an opportunity.

In any case, this year’s gathering is only the first phase of a two year process. The participants will reconvene in Rome in October next year. After that, Francis could adopt the assembly’s conclusions, in total or in part, as a papal document, or decide to write a document on his own.


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