A Synod Is Not a Council—and Other Canonical Facts

Vatican II instituted the Synod of Bishops in order to provide, more adequately and more effectively, for the increase of the Faith and the maintenance of discipline in the particular Churches

Since the 2014 Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops a growing theological divide has become apparent. This divide, evident among a small minority of cardinals and bishops present (and not present) at the Extraordinary Assembly, has been recognized through their views on how to “pastorally” apply Catholic teaching regarding marriage, family and sexual relations. It has also come to light that a so-called secret planning group, seemingly consisting of this small minority together with some theologians and journalists, has been meeting to discuss such progressively theological opinions before the October Synod of this year. 

The Church, since her inception, has been forced to define, and at times reiterate, the objective truth of the Faith in relation to error, hence the deposit of Catholic doctrine which has guided her for nearly 2000 years. Such definitions, in the face of error, have primarily been discussed and defined in Ecumenical Councils. Due in part to the remarkable media attention the Synod of Bishops has received, the Synod’s role in relation to Church teaching has become inflated and even exaggerated.

One of the primary guarantors and promoters of the true Faith is, and has always been, the College of Bishops (in communion with and under the Roman Pontiff) as ontologically always existing and governing the Body of Christ. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council affirmed the three ways by which the Church can pronounce her teaching infallibly: through the College of Bishops spread throughout the world (when the Pope, having consulted all bishops’ opinions regarding a topic, declares a particular dogma; for instance when Pope Pius XII declared the corporeal Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma of the Faith in 1950); in an Ecumenical Council (in which the entirety of the College of Bishops, with and under the Pope, is present); and by the Pope ex cathedra.

With the upcoming Synod of Bishops pronounced by Pope Francis to discuss issues related to the family and evangelization, and with confused understandings of what a Synod is, even among Catholics, it seems very timely to look at how the Church has officially defined it and what power it actually holds according to her own law.

The Synod of Bishops was instituted by Paul VI in 19651 in order to offer a more “efficacious collaboration” with the Roman Pontiff on the part of the entire Catholic Episcopate from all areas of the world.2 The idea of instituting a Synod was to demonstrate that all bishops, in hierarchical communion with the Roman Pontiff, are participants in the solicitude of the Universal Church,3 even if this very solicitude foresees a limited participation among the Catholic Episcopate.4 Although episcopal synods have an historical precedent, the Synod of Bishops was considered to be “one of the main innovations by Vatican II to contribute to the ecclesiastical order.”5 As pointed out by Paul VI, the aim of the synods, and other conciliar gatherings in the first centuries of the Church, was to establish methods of guarding the truths of the Faith and order of ecclesiastical discipline for the various Churches.6 With that in mind, the Second Vatican Council instituted the Synod of Bishops in order to provide, more adequately and more effectively, for the increase of the Faith and the maintenance of discipline in the particular Churches.7 The Code of Canon Law (CIC/83) defines the Synod of Bishops as an assembly (coetus) of Bishops which gathers at determined times. According to the Church’s law, the Synod has the following functions: 1) to promote union between the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops; 2) so that the Bishops, with their counsel, can provide assistance to the Roman Pontiff in order to safeguard the Faith and morals in the observance and reinforcement of ecclesiastical discipline; 3) to study problems regarding the Church in the world.8

The Canon Law confirms that the Synod of Bishops could not exist without the Pope (canon 344). Indeed, his role in relation to it reflects his primacy of jurisdiction over the Universal Church. The Pope’s juridical rights over the Synod are the following: 1) to convoke the Synod; 2) ratify the election of its members; 3) establish the questions to be treated; 4) determine the order of the agenda; 5) preside over the Synod or by way of another (through delegation); and 6) conclude, transfer, suspend and dissolve the Synod.9 The Pope also has the power to determine the place and time of the gathering, as well as the type of assembly to be held (i.e. general or special).10 As the practice has thus far shown, in his role of determining the agenda, he requests from the bishops’ conferences pertinent matters for consideration at the eventual assembly.11 Whereas, in the nomination of the Synod’s members, apart from the ones elected by Bishops’ Conferences or delegated by law, some are nominated directly by the Pope.12 The Synod’s permanent General Secretary is nominated directly by the Pope as are some of the Secretary Council’s members, and other special secretaries are nominated by him at each assembly of the Synod.13 Though some of the members of the synodal assemblies are ‘elected’, they are not elected in the true canonical sense since the Synod only has a consultative role. Indeed, the system of canonical election, as defined by the Code, is “juridically incompatible” with the Synod of Bishops’ consultative role in relation to the Petrine-office.14 In other words, because of its consultative nature, the Pope must be fully free when choosing the Synod’s advisors, and it means that those who are elected are not granted any office or power beyond that which they possess in their own particular Church. The fact that the Pope is not an actual member15 of the Synod of Bishops also affirms its nature as a consultative organ for him.

As is implied by the canons, the Synod of Bishops, ontologically speaking, is different from the College of Bishops. The College of Bishops is always in existence, insofar as it ontologically resides in the hierarchical communion, and this is by divine institution as they are the successors of the Apostolic College. A Synod of Bishops, on the other hand, is ‘in existence’ only during particular determined times. By virtue of their sacramental ordination the bishops present at a synodal assembly represent their particular Church and remain simply delegates of their episcopal conference or are nominated by the Pope.16 Unlike the College of Bishops, they do not possess any supreme power when gathered together in a synodal assembly. Rather, each bishop possesses a representative authority based on and conferred by the Sacrament of Orders. Thus their representation is not actualized by a ‘majority decision’ but rather must be guided by Faith and Tradition.17 Furthermore, the Synod of Bishops is not a juridical organ of the College of Bishops, nor does it possess any type of juridical representation from it.18 This can be seen from the fact that it is an assembly (coetus) at which a limited number of bishops from the Catholic world (ex diversis orbis regionibus selecti) attend, and which meets at determined times (statutis temporibus). In other words, it is not an ‘entity’ or ‘college’ which continually resides in the Church, like the College of Bishops19, nor does it represent all of the bishops in communion with the Pope, in the complete way that the College of Bishops does, but rather a portion through representatives of the Catholic episcopate20. So any attempt to make the Synod of Bishops an organ of the College of Bishops has no foundation in Canon Law.21

Juridically speaking, therefore, the Synod of Bishops is not a Council (Ecumenical or otherwise). Some have attempted to observe a link between the College of Bishops and the Synod of Bishops in the capacity of ‘extraconciliar activity’, thus claiming the possibility for the Synod to place an ‘act’ by the Episcopal College. However, the Synod lacks lawful (juridic) power because of its consultative character and it does not, and cannot, represent the entire Catholic Episcopate. Thus it is impossible for the Synod to place ‘collegial acts’ as defined and understood by the Canon Law. Theologically, the Synod has a primarily pastoral function which is meant to promote the connection between the Pope and the College of Bishops.22 Indeed, without reference to the precise ontological and institutional elements which define the Synod of Bishops, its nature and end (an ecclesiastical assembly to promote and guard the unity of Faith and discipline) can become nebulous concepts that distract it from its purpose23 (to provide information and offer advice). In fact, the misapplication of the so-called ‘ecclesiology of communion’ has utilized imprecise terms such as ‘collegial affection’ (collegialis affectus) in efforts to express the ontological reality of the Synod of Bishops and/or to attribute a collegial significance to the Synod as always in relationship to the College of Bishops, which would somehow have collegial power over the Universal Church through an ‘intrinsic collegiality’. By its very nature, however, the Synod of Bishops is a consultative organ which holds no jurisdiction at the legislative or executive level. The Commission for the Code of Canon Law (CIC/83) made it clear that the Synod is not a governmental institution of the Universal Church with legislative or decisive power. Rather, the Commission for the Code of Canon Law stated that the Synod of Bishops is a singular or stable counsel of bishops (peculiare sacrorum Antistitum consilium; stabile Episcoporum consilium) that does not have the power to legislate nor make decisions (Potestatem legislativam seu decisionalem non habet), nor does it hold vicarious power (ne quidem vicariam).24 Clearly then, because of its nature and competence, it is essentially different from an Ecumenical Council or any other permanent ecclesiastical institution that assists the Pope in governing the Universal Church.25 Rather, it is an assembly which seeks qualified representatives of the Episcopacy to help the Pope to study general questions regarding the whole Church.

Looking in more detail at what the Church’s law says about the Synod of Bishops’ ‘power’, the Code of Canon Law states that in discussing the questions to be treated by the Synod, the bishops may express (expromere) their wishes but they do not hold the power to resolve such questions (non vero easdem dirimere) nor issue decrees in their regard, except in certain cases as determined by the Roman Pontiff.26 In such particular cases, the ‘deliberative power’ is delegated by the Pope, which means it is not a proper power, and the decisions would also require his formal ratification if they are to have obligatory force.27 Again, these caveats are made in clear reference to the impossibility of the Synod of Bishops being considered in some way similar to an Ecumenical Council.28 Although with a purely consultative vote the Synod is limited in its expression, this rightly reflects the also limited ‘collegial expression’ of its representative members since it does not juridically represent the entire Catholic Episcopate.29 On the contrary, the bishops present at any synodal assemblies only juridically represent the Churches to which they have been entrusted.30 This means that a Synod of Bishops cannot in any way be, nor be understood to be, a second type of central government of the Church next to the entire College of Bishops in union with the Pope. Rather, these bishops remain bishops of their particular churches with a consultative power.31 Nevertheless, with a consultative vote it cannot be negated that the Synod of Bishops is a certain type of collegial expression32 though limited in number. Collegial expression is emphasized over collegial acts since a Synod, as already mentioned, cannot place collegial acts, as an Ecumenical Council could, for instance.33

The two primary functions of the Synod of Bishops, its consultative function and its promotion of union with the Pope, are inseparable from the unity of Faith, sacramental communion and ecclesiastical discipline. To foster a deeper union with the Roman Pontiff and the Episcopacy (arctam coniunctionem inter Romanum Pontificem et Episcopos) in turn, helps to promote the primatial role of the successor of Peter as guarantor of unity and head of the College of Bishops. In this way, the Synod of Bishops is an instrument which seeks a pastoral communion (communio pastorum) between the Pope and the Bishops in hierarchical communion with him.34

Indeed, the questions which the assemblies treat are generally in regard to doctrine and the problems regarding the lived Faith in the world. The treatment of such questions and problems unsurprisingly reflects the pastoral character of the synodal assemblies. In this same light, the mode by which the Synod implements its decisions confirms that the synodal conclusions hold a merely pastoral function, since they do not hold any proper juridic power. Even if a deliberative power were granted by the Pope, the ‘deliberative vote’ would regard papal authority and therefore could not, by any means, be defined as a collegial act.35 Since there are no ‘rules’, per se, regarding the characteristics of the final decisions or conclusions of the Synod of Bishops, the general practice is for the synod to “receive its opinion from the pope.”36 Such conclusions can be written or collected in the form of propositions, theses, calls, messages, statements, or exhortations, however, in practice it has been demonstrated that the synods limit themselves to propostitiones which are sent to the Pope for his “reflection”, and, subsequent to that, a relatio finalis is drafted which remains the only report with official value.37

It is of interest to note that the Pope is not obliged to follow the synod’s counsel nor confirm its decisions. Ultimately, the results of the synodal assemblies have no juridic or obligatory force in relation to doctrine. On the contrary, the questions treated in the assemblies have principally possessed a pastoral content.38 Thus, even though it has been expressed that the Synod of Bishops participates, in a certain sense, in the government of the Church and expresses, in a certain way, an ‘ecclesial judgment’39 regarding various problems which confront the life of the Church, such ‘judgments’ always presuppose the communion in Faith, Sacraments and government, and always have as their end the search for Truth and the common good of the Universal Church.40


1 See Apostolica sollicitudo.

2 See Christus dominus, n. 5.

3 See Ibid.

4 See Mons. Willy Oclin, Risposta della Pontificia Commissione per la revisione del Codice di Diritto Canonico, as quoted in Jozef Tomko (ed), Il Sinodo dei Vescovi (natura-metodo-prospettive), Città del Vaticano 1985, p. 180.

5 Gian P. Milano, “De Synodo Episcoporum”, in A. Marzoa (et al), Exegetical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, Montreal & Chicago 2004, p. 627.; “Il Sinodo dei Vescovi è un organismo completamente nuovo nella Chiesa Latina.” L. Chiappetta, Il Codice di diritto canonico, commento giuridico…, p. 436.

6 See Christus dominus, n. 36.

7 See Ibid.

8 See CIC/83, can. 342.

9 See Ibid. can. 344.

10 See Ibid. can. 345.

11 See G.P. Milano, “De Synodo Episcoporum”…, p. 634.

12 See CIC/83, can. 346, §1-2.

13 See Ibid. 348, §1-2.

14 A canonical election confers, on the elected person, a ius ad rem, that is, the elected person acquires the ‘right to the office’, see CIC/83, can. 178.; See also Juan Arrieta, “Il regolamento del sinodo. Novità e prospettive”, in Ius Ecclesiae, 19 (2007), p. 664 (footnote 14).

15 “In view of the extent of the pontifical prerogatives, doctrine has posed the question of whether to attribute to the pope the quality of being a member of the synodal assembly. A negative answer seems preferable.” G.P. Milano, “De Synodo Episcoporum”…, p. 634.

16 J. Tomko (ed), Il Sinodo dei Vescovi (natura-metodo-prospettive), p. 56.

17 Ibid.

18 See Juan Arrieta, “Lo sviluppo istituzionale del sinodo dei vescovi”, in Ius Ecclesiae, 4 (1992), p. 211.

19 See L. Chiappetta, Il Codice di diritto canonico, commento giuridico…, p. 438.; See also CIC/83, can. 347, §1.; Indeed, the only permanent function of the Synod of Bishops is given to the General Secretary, see Ibid. can. 348, §1.

20 See J. Arrieta, “Il regolamento del sinodo…”, p. 665 (footnote 16).; Here, it must also be noted that the Synod of Bishops, as an ecclesiastical assembly, is not doctrinally or juridically linked to the Conference of Bishops. See Juan Arrieta, “Lo sviluppo istituzionale del sinodo dei vescovi”, in Ius Ecclesiae, 4 (1992), pp. 207, 210-211.

21 See R. Sobanski, “Il Concilio Ecumenico, Il Sinodo dei Vescovi, Il Collegio Cardinalizio”…, p. 104.

22 See J. Ratzinger, “Scopi e metodi del Sinodo dei Vescovi”, p. 49.

23 See Apostolica sollicitudo, II, 1-2 for the purpose(s) (i.e. general and specific ends) of the Synod of Bishops according to its nature.

24 See Communicationes, 14 (1982), p. 180.

25 See L. Chiappetta, Il Codice di diritto canonico, commento giuridico…, p. 437.

26 See CIC/83, can. 343.

27 See G.P. Milano, “De Synodo Episcoporum”…, p. 630; L. Chiappetta, Il Codice di diritto canonico, commento giuridico…, p. 439.

28 See John Paul II in AAS 75 I (1983), p. 650.

29 See W. Oclin, Risposta della Pontificia Commissione…, p. 181.

30 See Ibid.

31 See J. Ratzinger, “Scopi e metodi del Sinodo dei Vescovi”, p. 50.

32 See L. Chiappetta, Il Codice di diritto canonico, commento giuridico…, p. 439.

33 See R. Sobanski, “Il Concilio Ecumenico, Il Sinodo dei Vescovi, Il Collegio Cardinalizio”…, p. 101; See also W. Betrams, “Commentarium in litteras apostolicas ‘Apostolica sollicitudo’ Pauli Pape VI”, in PerMCL, 55 (1966), pp. 115-132.

34 See J. Arrieta, “Lo sviluppo istituzionale del sinodo dei vescovi”, p. 195.

35 See J. Ratzinger, “Scopi e metodi del Sinodo dei Vescovi”, p. 49.

36 G.P. Milano, “De Synodo Episcoporum”…, p. 643.

37 See G.P. Milano, “De Synodo Episcoporum”…, pp. 635, 643, 647.; See also the Apostolic exhortation, Pastores gregis, promulgated by John Paul II which contains the various propositions of a synodal assembly.

38 See J. Arrieta, “Lo sviluppo istituzionale del sinodo dei vescovi”, pp. 194, 204.

39 See Pastores gregis, n. 58.

40 See J. Ratzinger, “Scopi e metodi del Sinodo dei Vescovi”, pp. 51-53.; See also Pastores gregis, n. 58.

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About David Salvato 0 Articles
David Salvato received his doctorate in Canon Law from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome, Italy. He is currently working as a lay judge for the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in California and teaching at the Archdiocesan seminary.