The other revolution of “Amoris laetitia”

In the furor over Amoris laetitia, one point, we think, has escaped wider notice: what are we to make of the Holy Father’s frequent quotation of aspects of the Relatio finalis of the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops? For example, various paragraphs in the hugely contentious chapter eight consist primarily of quotations of the Relatio finalis (e.g., ¶¶ 294, 299–300). And at least one commentator—we can’t remember who just now, but we definitely recall that someone has—has observed that this wholesale quotation of the Relatio finalis is a factor that ought to be considered when determining the magisterial weight of Amoris laetitia. Certainly, Familiaris consortio did not consist of repeating vast excerpts of the Synod’s report. Neither, for that matter, did Evangelii gaudium, which, in addition to being the Holy Father’s “party program,” was supposed to be a post-synodal exhortation following a synod on the “new evangelization.” (Remember that? Us neither.)

Notwithstanding Cardinal Burke’s lengthy, learned argument to the contrary, there is a broad consensus that Amoris laetitia has done something. The Pope’s close collaborator, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, a likely contributor to Amoris laetitia, contends that it’s magisterial. (If we had written it, we would say it’s magisterial, too.) And traditionalist commentators have been, frankly, as aggressive in articulating this view as those pleased by Amoris laetitia. (Why this is so, we daren’t guess.) Now, we are not especially convinced, not least because Amoris laetitia explicitly did not change the Church’s law (¶300)—but we have seen where legalism has gotten Cardinal Burke. But let’s set aside for the moment whether or not Amoris laetitia did anything and assume that it did. If that’s the case, then we’ve witnessed a revolution bigger than anything regarding communion for bigamists. We have witnessed the Synod take on the appearance of legislative authority without a formal papal act granting it such authority.

The Synod process was not explicitly legislative. Recall what happened. Questionnaires were circulated and an instrumentum laboris was prepared based upon those questionnaires. (Cardinal Erdö tried to corral the debate envisioned by the instrumentum laboris with his initial presentation, but that plan was shot down pretty quickly.) Small groups issued their own reports and made suggestions for a final report. A final report was prepared and voted upon and passages that received the necessary majority (all the important passages, at any rate, even if only just) were included in the final report. And that final report was not in the nature of a decree or other juridical document settling questions of doctrine and practice. It was, essentially, an extended discussion of issues, some of which fell into the “Some Synod fathers say X, but others say not-X” mode of reporting. The report was then forwarded to the Holy Father, who responded to it with Amoris laetitia.

As we said, nothing about this process is necessarily legislative. (We’ll see here in a minute that the Synod can be imbued with legislative authority, albeit on an ad hoc basis.) Yet, throughout the synodal process there was a sense among observers that whatever the Synod voted, the Holy Father would ratify. The votes on the relationes were, therefore, hugely significant. (Remember the attention to and tension surrounding the 2014 and 2015 rounds of voting? We do.) The thinking went: if the bad paragraphs got into the final report—as, in fact, they did—then something bad would happen. While we would never denigrate the catastrophe of a broad cross-section of bishops and special papal appointees falling into error, there was a sense that the votes were more significant than that. In other words, the Synod had the air of a legislative assembly, even if it was not properly constituted as such.

And, certainly, the Holy Father’s response to the Synod’s final report confirms that sense of authority. While the Holy Father did not explicitly establish a penitential path or a forum internum solution, despite speculation that he would, he did put the stamp of papal approval on the final report by quoting vast sections of it and referring to it over and over (and over and over) in his footnotes. Thus, the concern that whatever the Synod voted, the Pope would ratify, was to some extent completely justified. The Pope did ratify whatever the Synod voted, with some exceptions; however, the Pope did not grant the Synod explicit legislative authority. It just sort of became a legislative body.

Of course, the possibility of a legislative synod has been present since the beginning. Paul VI, in his 1965 apostolic letter issued motu proprio, Apostolica sollicitudo, by which he established the Synod of Bishops, established:

The Synod of Bishops has, of its very nature, the function of providing information and offering advice. It can also enjoy the power of making decisions when such power is conferred upon it by the Roman Pontiff; in this case, it belongs to him to ratify the decisions of the Synod.

(Emphasis supplied.) So, Paul acknowledged the possibility of a legislative synod, but only if the pope conferred upon it legislative power and if he ratified the decisions. In a sense, therefore, a decision of a legislative synod is a decision of the pope: he gives the synod authority to decide and confirms its decisions. Yet one has the sense that Paul did not exactly believe in the idea of a legislative synod:

1. The general purpose of the Synod are:

a) to promote a closer union and greater cooperation between the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops of the whole world; 

b) to see to it that accurate and direct information is supplied on matters and situations that bear upon the internal life of the Church and upon the kind of action that should be carrying on in today’s world; 

c) to facilitate agreement, at least on essential matters of doctrine and on the course of action to be taken in the life of the Church.

2. Its special and immediate purposes are:

a) to provide mutually useful information;

b) to discuss the specific business for which the Synod is called into session on any given occasion.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, the primary purposes of the Synod of Bishops as Paul conceived of them were essentially advisory and communicative, not legislative. As an idle aside, one wonders what dear Papa Montini, so grieved by the changes that were unleashed in his name, would have made of the 2014–2015 Synod of Bishops, especially with respect of its stated purpose of “facilitat[ing] agreement, at least on essential matters of doctrine and on the course of action to be taken in the life of the Church.” Certainly no one thinks that there is more agreement on the question of communion for bigamists than before 2014. Certainly no one thinks even that there is more agreement on the framework to discuss the question than before 2014. Regardless of Amoris laetitia—and remember, we’re assuming, with the majority of leading voices in the traditionalist blogosphere, that it did something—no one can dispute that the 2014–2015 Synod is one of the most divisive events in the life of the Church since 1965. (And, even then, pretty much everyone signed the conciliar decrees, whatever happened in the aula. Even dear Cardinal Ottaviani. [Santo subito!])

Moreover, one of the complaints about the Synod under John Paul and Benedict is that the assemblies were low-risk, stage-managed affairs. That is, the interventions were thoroughly vetted, the final reports were carefully written by central authority, and the post-synodal exhortations, when they came out, were more of the same. The Holy Father has made it a priority to revitalize the Synod as a deliberative assembly. But, at the same time, it seems to us that there is something to be said for a quieter, low-risk approach; if Paul’s initial vision for the Synod was based upon closer union among the bishops of the world, exchanging information, and facilitating agreement, the high-stakes, high-conflict Synod is plainly at odds with that vision. Thus, it seems to us that John Paul and Benedict may well have been in greater continuity with Paul’s vision for the Synod than the Holy Father, who seems to like the idea of the Synod as a mini-Vatican II with all that entails. But we digress.

The Apostolica sollicitudo settlement found its way into John Paul’s 1983 Code of Canon Law, under canon 343:

It is for the synod of bishops to discuss the questions for consideration and express its wishes but not to resolve them or issue decrees about them unless in certain cases the Roman Pontiff has endowed it with deliberative power, in which case he ratifies the decisions of the synod.

(Emphasis supplied.) Thus, under the law currently governing the Synod, Paul’s intention remains: the Synod does not have authority to “resolve” issues, unless the pope gives it that authority and ratifies its decisions.

Yet, despite these clear conceptual and juridical limits to the Synod’s authority, there was, as we say, a sense that the advisory report of the Synod would represent some victory (or defeat, depending on your position). We do not recall the Holy Father granting the Synod any specific legislative authority, as Apostolica sollicitudo and canon 343 would require. Yet everyone fairly quickly assumed that the Synod’s vote mattered. Indeed, everyone fairly quickly assumed that the Synod itself was a body that mattered, a body with authority. This is extraordinary, isn’t it?

Of course, this is, we think, a major point in the Holy Father’s program for the Church. Remember what he said as recently as last fall in Florence:

I prefer a restless Italian Church, ever closer to the abandoned, the forgotten, the imperfect. I would like a glad Church with a mother’s face, that understands, accompanies, caresses. You too dream of this Church, believe in her, innovate with freedom. The Christian humanism that you are called to live radically affirms the dignity of every person as a Child of God, it establishes among all human beings a fundamental fraternity, teaches one to understand work, to inhabit creation as a common home, to furnish reasons for optimism and humour, even in the middle of a life many times more difficult.

Although it is not for me to say how to accomplish this dream today, allow me to leave you just one indication for the coming years: in every community, in every parish and institution, in every diocese and circumscription, in every region, try to launch, in a synodal fashion, a deep reflection on the Evangelii Gaudium, to draw from it practical parameters and to launch its dispositions, especially on the three or four priorities that you will identify in this meeting. I am certain of your capacity to put yourselves into a creative movement in order to make this study practical. I am sure of it because you are an adult Church, age-old in the faith, firmly rooted and with an abundance of fruit. Therefore be creative in expressing the genius that your great ones, from Dante to Michelangelo, expressed in an incomparable way. Believe in the genius of Italian Christianity, which is neither a legacy of individuals nor of elites, but of the community, of the people of this extraordinary country.

(Hyperlink in original, but emphasis supplied.) And just a little before that, at the ceremony marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Synod, the Holy Father stated:

From the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome, I sought to enhance the Synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council. For Blessed Paul VI, the Synod of Bishops was meant to reproduce the image of the Ecumenical Council and reflect its spirit and method. Pope Paul foresaw that the organization of the Synod could “be improved upon with the passing of time”. Twenty years later, Saint John Paul II echoed that thought when he stated that “this instrument might be further improved. Perhaps collegial pastoral responsibility could be more fully expressed in the Synod”. In 2006, Benedict XVI approved several changes to the Ordo Synodi Episcoporum, especially in light of the provisions of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, which had been promulgated in the meantime.

(Hyperlinks in original, but footnotes omitted and emphasis supplied.) He went on to observe in a lengthy passage:

In a synodal Church, the Synod of Bishops is only the most evident manifestation of a dynamism of communion which inspires all ecclesial decisions.

The first level of the exercise of synodality is had in the particular Churches. After mentioning the noble institution of the Diocesan Synod, in which priests and laity are called to cooperate with the bishop for the good of the whole ecclesial community…


The second level is that of Ecclesiastical Provinces and Ecclesiastical Regions, Particular Councils and, in a special way, Conferences of Bishops. We need to reflect on how better to bring about, through these bodies, intermediary instances of collegiality, perhaps by integrating and updating certain aspects of the ancient ecclesiastical organization. The hope expressed by the Council that such bodies would help increase the spirit of episcopal collegiality has not yet been fully realized. We are still on the way, part-way there. In a synodal Church, as I have said, “it is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization’”.

The last level is that of the universal Church. Here the Synod of Bishops, representing the Catholic episcopate, becomes an expression of episcopal collegiality within an entirely synodal Church. Two different phrases: “episcopal collegiality” and an “entirely synodal Church”. This level manifests the collegialitas affectiva, which can also become in certain circumstances “effective”, joining the Bishops among themselves and with the Pope in solicitude for the People God.

(Footnotes omitted and emphasis supplied.) It is therefore plain that the Holy Father has a clear vision of a synodal Church, which extends well beyond Paul’s vision for the Synod of Bishops, which was simply a closer union among the bishops of the world, an exchange of information, and a process of finding points of agreement. It is plain, furthermore, that the Holy Father may well think that the turbulence and disagreement of the 2014–2015 Synod was, after a fashion, desirable, insofar as it reflects restlessness (on the part of the progressives) and dynamism.

Thus, no one should be surprised that the Synod has just sort of become an important, legislative assembly without actually receiving that authority from the Holy Father. We would be surprised, in fact, if it were an accident. But it seems to us that once the door is open—and it is open—it will be difficult for future popes to shut it. If the 2014-2015 Synod is so significant, and the next Synod under the Holy Father will be similarly significant, then “John XXIV” or “Paul VII” will be at a serious disadvantage if they try to restore the Synod to something closer to what Paul VI imagined when he created it. And this constitutes, in our view, a very quiet revolution in Church governance.