With the Synod of Bishops now meeting in Rome from October 4-25, many people are asking what a Synod is and whether it can change Catholic teaching, for example on giving Communion to people who have been divorced and are now remarried outside the Church. Here is an answer to those questions, published recently in Australian Catholic newspapers.
Can a synod change Church doctrine?
Some of my friends have expressed the belief that the October synod of bishops in Rome will allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. Is this possible? Also, what exactly is a synod?
The short answer to your first question is no, it is not possible. The answer to your second question will explain why.
The synod of bishops is something relatively new in the Church, having been instituted by Pope Paul VI on 15 September 1965 in the Motu Proprio Apostolica Solicitudo. A month and a half later the Second Vatican Council’s Decree Christus Dominus on the Pastoral Office of Bishops spoke of synods and referred to Pope Paul’s document in a footnote (cf. CD, n. 5).
A series of subsequent documents gave norms for synods and finally the Code of Canon Law of 1983 summarised them in canons 342-348. Canon 342 tells us what a synod is: “The synod of bishops is a group of bishops selected from different parts of the world, who meet together at specified times to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the bishops. These bishops, by their counsel, assist the Roman Pontiff in the defence and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline.” As this canon says, the bishops in a synod assist the Pope “by their counsel” in his teaching role. They do not teach in their own right.
In the following canon we find a further answer to your question: “The function of the synod of Bishops is to discuss the matters proposed to it and set forth recommendations. It is not its function to settle matters or to draw up decrees, unless the Roman Pontiff has given it deliberative power in certain cases; in this event, it rests with the Roman Pontiff to ratify the decisions of the synod” (Can. 343). Again, the bishops’ role is to recommend, not to teach.
This gathering of bishops from all over the world is convened by the Pope to discuss the proposed topic. Some of the bishops are chosen by their respective bishops’ conferences, some attend because of the office they hold in the Church, and others are nominated by the Pope. Each bishop is given an opportunity to speak for a short, specified time on any aspect of the topic he chooses. The bishops also break up into small groups, normally according to their respective languages, to discuss the question. At the end of the synod they vote on a series of propositions which reflect their views, and these are given to the Holy Father for his consideration.
After the synod some of the bishops who took part are selected to prepare a draft of a document that the Pope might use in preparing his own document on the topic. This document, customarily in the form of an Apostolic Exhortation, is issued by the Pope himself and is a form of ordinary papal magisterium.
In recent times synods have been held approximately every three years. The last one, in 2012, was on the theme of the new evangelisation and was followed by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium in 2013. The one before that on the Word of God was held in 2008 and was followed by Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini in 2010.
The present synod will be the fourteenth ordinary general assembly of the synod of bishops. There have also been extraordinary general assemblies, like the one on the family last year to prepare for the present synod, and also special general assemblies, like those of the bishops of the larger regions of the world to prepare for the Jubilee Year 2000.
It should be remembered that the present ordinary synod on the family is not the first one on this topic. The first one was held in 1980 and was followed by Pope St John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio. In that document Pope John Paul made clear that those who are divorced and remarried civilly are to be welcomed into the life of the Church but they may not be admitted to Eucharistic Communion (cf. n. 84). Pope Francis will not change that teaching.
What we should all do is pray very much for the fruits of this important synod, which affects all of us very directly.