In the latest edition of America Magazine, the Rev. Kevin E. McKenna writes of the unfulfilled hopes that friends of the Spirit of Vatican II had for the synods of bishops.
Since the Second Vatican Council, synods have borne the hopes of many who desire a continuation of the council’s collaborative, collegial spirit. Yet numerous complaints have been raised about the synod process; some have questioned the synods’ utility, given that the process seeks so little input into the topics discussed and the results promulgated.
See, they are frustrated because the synods seem like such an opportunity to have little Vatican IIs on a regular basis. This frustration is compounded by the fact that the synods have absolutely no power to decide anything. They want to be able to set the agenda, pick their own outside experts (periti), and then have decision making authority. Then all the budding Bugninis out their would be free to spread their ideas with impunity.
The synods, however, can do none of these things and this is not likely to change. At least not while Pope Benedict is in charge. The Pope, then Cardinal Ratzinger, attended 15 of the 20 general, extraordinary and special synods held since Vatican II. In 1988, he published “The Structure and Tasks of the Synod of Bishops,” in Church, Ecumenism and Politics: New Essays in Ecclesiology (Crossroad, 1988). Pope Benedict does not see synods the same way as our progressive friends do.
Although many had hoped the synod would develop greater collegiality between the pope and the bishops—where collegiality entails a sharing of power in the church—Cardinal Ratzinger does not understand collegiality in this way. As he understands Pope Paul’s vision, the synod was intended to involve the bishops of the church collectively in the formation of policy on major questions. But according to the council, there are only two ways in which the college of bishops could act with legal force: in an ecumenical council (such as Vatican II) or by all the bishops of the world acting together. The synod assists the pope by giving advice and counsel in the defense and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, but it cannot make decisions or issue decrees.
Furthermore, Cardinal Ratzinger argues, the legal status of the synod is not changed by the additional provision that in certain cases the pope can confer deliberative power on the synod. That is because this deliberative power is not inherent in the college of bishops but rather remains dependent on the pope. The college of bishops, then, can exercise its own deliberative powers only as a whole, either in council or in practice.
In addition, Pope Benedict that synods are not supposed to be some super parliament with Bishops hanging out in Rome debating the relative merits of this or that policy. Their job and their duties are in their home dioceses.
This duty is not purely a matter of discipline but a requirement of divine law: “To be a bishop means to be a shepherd of one’s church,” Cardinal Ratzinger writes, “not its delegate at some center…. The fundamental principle of a bishop’s duty to reside in his diocese is not something for the church to make up as it goes along.”
The people “need a shepherd who is not looking to be a bigger fish somewhere else but is simply their shepherd and pastor who knows his own and stays with them. In this sense one can call the Tridentine reform truly pastoral; princes had to become shepherds, pastors, once again.”
I am grateful that the biggest fish in the pond does not delegate his authority to synods from a false sense of collegiality. We are all better off for it.