Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Synod scene

The Synod on Synodality, Part 1: “Synods and the Synod on Synodality”

August 16, 2023


Since Pope Francis announced the Synod on Synodality, the reactions to it have been mixed. Some enthusiastically welcome the synod and view it as a tremendous opportunity for the Church to address issues of the day. Others are skeptical about its importance at all, sometimes jokingly referring to it as a “meeting on meetings,” which does not sound exciting or promising. Still others are worried that it has more potential for harm than good and are therefore against the entire project.1

In light of the upcoming Synod on Synodality and the variety of reactions to it, I will be offering a series of articles to help clarify what the synod is and what it is not. Once the synod itself begins, I will offer reports of its progress as it unfolds.

In this first article in the series, I place the Synod on Synodality within the larger context of synods in general. I discuss what synods are and explain the various types of synods. Finally, I specify which category of synods the Synod of Synodality belongs to.

The term ‘synod’ is Greek in origin. The prefix ‘syn-’ means “together” or “with.” The root word ‘hodos’ refers to a road, a path, a way, or the act of traveling as in on a journey. Thus, ‘synod’ literally refers to “traveling together on a path,” but its application is more metaphorical. The term denotes a kind of assembly that is working toward a common aim. In this sense, ‘synod’ is a synonym of the Latin word ‘concilium’ (council).

‘Synod’ literally refers to “traveling together on a path” . . .

In the technical, theological sense, a synod is a “general term for ecclesiastical gatherings under hierarchical authority for the discussion and decision of matters relating to faith, morals, or discipline.”2 There are different kinds or species of synods that fall under this genus. The highest form is an ecumenical council. That is why the Second Vatican Council sometimes refers to itself as a “sacred [or holy] synod.”3 An ecumenical council is defined in the glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as follows: “A gathering of all the bishops of the world, in the exercise of their collegial authority over the universal Church. An ecumenical council is usually called by the successor of St. Peter, the Pope, or at least confirmed or accepted by him.”4 There are also provincial or regional synods that take place among bishops of a particular geographical area. Additionally, a “diocesan synod is an assembly of priests and other members of Christ’s faithful who assist the bishop by offering advice about the needs of the diocese and by proposing legislation for him to enact.”5

Following the Second Vatican Council, Pope St. Paul VI established what is now called the synod of bishops. He did this through an apostolic letter, Apostolica Sollicitudo,6 issued motu proprio (meaning “of his own accord” or “on his own initiative”). Therein, he wrote: “We hereby erect and establish here in Rome a permanent Council of bishops for the universal Church, to be directly and immediately subject to Our power. Its proper name will be the Synod of Bishops.”7

A synod of bishops differs from an ecumenical council in a couple of different ways. First, unlike an ecumenical council, not all the bishops of the world are invited to attend. Rather, representatives are elected among the episcopate and religious congregations. The pope can also add up to a certain number (15% of the elected members) on his own initiative. Another difference from an ecumenical council is that a synod of bishops normally acts like an advisory board to the pope in these sessions rather than as co-teachers or co-legislators (with exceptions possible). The pope typically writes his own post-synodal apostolic exhortation wherein, after receiving input from the synod members, he addresses the issue(s) at hand. As per the 1983 Code of Canon Law [henceforth CIC], the member bishops discuss and express their desires to the Roman Pontiff, but they do “not resolve [the questions for consideration] 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.”8

In the apostolic letter establishing the synod of bishops, Paul VI set forth rules for how elections and appointments of members are to be conducted. For a given synod, the pope sets the theme or determines the issue(s) to be discussed by the synod members. He also sets the agenda for the synod.

According to the establishing document, the synod of bishops can meet in one of three kinds of sessions: general, extraordinary, or special, each having its own rules for election of members, etc. The three types of sessions are not precisely defined in the apostolic letter, but the 1983 CIC offers its own definitions thereof, with some alteration of the terminology. What the apostolic letter calls a general session is designated in the CIC as “an ordinary general session.”9 What the apostolic letter refers to as an extraordinary session is referred to in the Code as an “extraordinary general session.” It does not specify the kinds of issues addressed by an ordinary general assembly. However, it does specify what an extraordinary general assembly addresses. It “treat[s] affairs which require a speedy resolution,”10 distinguishing it from an ordinary general session. A special session is essentially tied to regional issues. Accordingly, the CIC says: “A synod of bishops gathered in a special session consists of members especially selected from those regions for which it is called.”11 The Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, popularly called the Amazon Synod, conducted in 2019, is an example of a special synod.

What we have called the Synod on Synodality, more officially called the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission,” is, obviously, an ordinary general session, as the official name suggests. We will discuss this upcoming synod, including its process and purpose, in the next article.

You can read Part II of this series here.

1 For example, see United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [henceforth, USCCB], “National Synthesis of the People of God in the United States of America for the Diocesan Phase of the 2021-2023 Synod,” (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2022), 3, USCCB website, which states: “Here in the U.S., the beginning of the diocesan phase of the Synod was met with a combination of excitement, confusion, and skepticism. ‘Several dioceses noted some apprehension and even opposition as they began their synodal listening—ranging from those who felt the process would be futile, to some who were afraid of what it would change.”
2 William Fanning, “Synod,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 14 (NY: Robert Appleton Company, 1912). Accessed online.
3 For example, see Dei Verbum 1, in The Word on Fire Vatican II Collection, ed. Matthew Levering (Park Ridge, IL: Word on Fire Institute, 2021), 17.
4 Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II [henceforth CCC] (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), p. 873.
5 CCC, p. 900.
6 Paul VI, Apostolica Sollicitudo, apostolic letter, Vatican website, September 15, 1965.
7 Paul VI, Apostolica Sollicitudo.
8 Code of Canon Law, c. 343, in The Code of Canon Law: Latin-English Edition [CIC] (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1983), 109.
9 CIC, c. 346, §1.
10 CIC, c. 346, §2.
11 CIC, c. 346, §3.