Thank you for your explanation of the Petrine Office and the exercise of Papal Primacy. I have sometimes wondered how the Popes—normally seen as relatively fragile and elderly men—could run the vast Catholic Church which now counts about a billion souls worldwide. Even if Christ really wanted to build his Church on the rock that was Peter, surely even Peter was helped not only by the other Apostles but also—in time—by other presbyters whom he or the other Apostles called to the ministry. Likewise, I would imagine that the Pope is somehow helped in his ministry over the Catholic Church by the bishops (successors of the Apostles) and other ministers. Can you shed some light on the matter?
I PRESME you are referring to the exercise by the Holy Father of the Supreme Authority in the Catholic Church, and not just his ministry over the Diocese of Rome of which he is the bishop (hence the term Roman Pontiff). This matter is specifically dealt with in Book II (The People of God), Part II (The Hierarchical Constitution of the Church), Section I (The Supreme Authority of the Church) of the Code of Canon Law.
Assistance in Exercising the Papal Primacy
Can.334 — In exercising his office the Roman Pontiff is assisted by the bishops who aid him in various ways and among these is the synod of bishops; moreover the cardinals assist him as do other persons and other institutes according to the needs of the times; all these persons and institutes, in his name and by his authority, carry out the task committed to them for the good of all the churches, according to the norms defined by law.
Even if c.334 does not mention any specific forms of collaboration, aside from the synod of bishops, the succeeding Chapters of the aforementioned Section I (Supreme Church Authority) deal with specific institutions:
1) The Synod of Bishops — dealt with in Chapter II (cc.342-348).
2) The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church — dealt with in Chapter III (cc.349-359).
3) The Roman Curia — dealt with in Chapter IV (cc.360-361).
4) The Legates of the Roman Pontiff — dealt with in Chapter V (cc.362-367).
In this issue of CBCP Monitor, we shall deal with the Synod of Bishops, and then tackle the other forms of assistance to the Pope in the succeeding issues.
Before going deeper into the specific institutions that help the Roman Pontiff, it is important to make some clarifications regarding the nature of this assistance.
1) Personal exercise of Papal Primacy. During the redaction of the canon, it was made clear that the canon was dealing with the personal—not collegial—exercise of the supreme power. Thus, here we are dealing with collaborators of the Pope in his own government of the universal Church. In any case, this can be included in the wider sense of collegiality (not the strict sense of the College of Bishops as such) and only in this sense can it be referred to as a collegial collaboration.
2) Wide latitude of possibilities. Aside from the synod of Bishops, which is mentioned specifically, the canon does not concretize the way this collaboration is to be made, giving the Pope a wide latitude of possibilities as far as calling to his assistance other persons and other institutes according to the needs of the times.
3) Vicariate power of jurisdiction. The canon states that all these persons and institutes carry out the task committed to them by the Pope in his name and by his authority (...) according to the norms defined by law. Thus we are dealing with vicariate power of jurisdiction (in the strict sense).
The Synod of Bishops
Although the “synodal principle” is an ancient one in the Church—a reflection of the reality of communion as a fundamental principle—it has been applied analogously in different settings. The present Synod of Bishops is considered as one of the most important innovations to the canonical order from Vatican Council II, instituted by Paul VI in the M.P. Sollicitudo comnium Ecclesiarum (24.VI.1969). Its nature has only been clarified of late, after an initial period of doctrinal controversy, or what some author would call a terminological impasse.
a. Canonical Nature of the Synod of Bishops
Can.342—The synod of bishops is that group of bishops who have been chosen from different regions of the world and who meet at stated times to foster a closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and the bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsels in safeguarding and increasing faith and morals and in preserving and strengthening ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions concerning the Church’s activity in the world.
Certain quarters have pointed out that the CIC had avoided the debate on the canonical nature of the Synod of Bishops by not providing a legal definition of the synod that might have resolved the question, and instead limited itself to a description. Nevertheless, to my mind the chapter on The Synod of Bishops (cc.342-348) does give us enough elements—while conspicuously omitting certain others—to come up with a good notion of this institution.
1) It is a coetus episcoporum — i.e., an assembly or group of bishops. The terminological choice is important, because it shows the prevalence of the personal and functional aspect rather than the organic-institutional. This point becomes more obvious when we consider that in the M.P. Apostolica Sollicitudo, the Synod had been defined as a central ecclesiastical institution—highlighting its structural aspects and its hierarchical position in the ecclesiastical organization.
In fact, during the deliberations on text of c.343—which we shall deal with below—it had been suggested that the synod be considered as an organ of government of the universal Church, to which the Commission responded that it is rather a peculiar council of the sacred Bishops, a stable council of bishops, which did not enjoy any legislative or decision-making power, not even vicarious. Thus, the canonical legislator appears to have wanted to diffuse the institutional aspects of the Synod, preferring to emphasize its functional dynamics rather than its structural form.
2) It is not a representative body of the College of Bishops — Another noteworthy omission—with respect to earlier documents—is that of the adverbial clause taking the part of the whole Catholic Episcopate, which underscored the representative character of the Synod with respect to the College of Bishops. The Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the CIC explained this omission by pointing out the equivocal nature of the expression, given that one cannot attribute to the Synod such a representative character—in strict juridical sense—with respect to the Episcopal College.
3) It is a special consultative body in aid of the Primacy — At the positive level, we can affirm that perhaps the best way to understand the nature of the synod is to consider it as a special consultative body which the Pope convenes—at his discretion and for specific questions—in order to help him in the exercise of his power of primacy over the universal Church. This idea is articulated in cc.343-344. In this regard, we need to steer off two extreme positions, and make two clarifications:
a) It is not just any consultative body — Rather, the authority of the synodal conclusions are of the highest level—among consultative bodies—not so much by the formal force of the pronouncement, but by reason of the representative and sacramental qualities of the members of the synod. No less than John Paul II himself had affirmed that the unanimous opinion of the Bishops gathered in a Synod constitutes a pondus Ecclesiae peculiaris generis, quod alicuius voti consultivi rationem simpliciter formalem excedit.
b) But neither is it a deliberative body — and should not be confused with the only episcopal collegial organ with deliberative power, which is the Ecumenical Council. Paul VI had clarified this point, affirming that the Synod can in no way be considered like an Ecumenical Council, since it lacks the composition, the authority and the finality of such a Council. More recently, John Paul II had reaffirmed this point.
c) Although hypothetically it can become a deliberative body — with a power delegated by the Roman Pontiff for specific cases, in which case he has to ratify its decisions. Some authors have pointed out that this hypothesis has not been verified in fact up to the present, and I agree that even from the point of view of canonical technique, it would be quite clumsy.
b. Types of Synods
In the practical level, the CIC provides for three types of synods, based on purpose and membership. These are regulated in cc.345-346.
1) General Session — A synod of bishops can meet in a general session, which deals with matters which directly concern the good of the entire Church; such a session is either ordinary or extraordinary (c.345, in principio). These are convoked with a periodicity of three years.
a) Ordinary General Session — The membership of a synod of bishops gathered in ordinary general session consists of the following: for the most part, bishops elected to represent their individual groups by the conference of bishops in accord with the special law of the synod; other bishops designated in virtue of this law itself; other bishops directly named by the Roman Pontiff. To this membership are added some members of clerical religious institutes elected in accord with the norm of the same special law (c.346, §1).
The topics are selected in advance by the Pope and discussed by the conferences of bishops prior to the meeting of the Synod.
b) Extraordinary General Session – A synod of bishops is gathered in extraordinary general session to deal with matters which require a speedy solution; its membership consists of the following: most of them them are bishops designated by the special law of the synod in virtue of the office which they hold; others are bishops directly named by the Roman Pontiff. To this membership are added some members of clerical religious institutes elected in accord with the same law (c.346, §2).
In the absence of a clear criterion in the CIC regarding the difference between the two forms of the general session of the Synod, the special law, to which c.346 remits itself, situates the distinctive criterion in the note of urgency in the matters to be tackled in extraordinary session. Nevertheless, the fact remains that ultimately it is up to the Roman Pontiff to evaluate the note of urgency in the matter to be tackled.
2) Special Session — The membership of a synod of bishops gathered in special session consists of those who have been especially selected from the regions of which the synod has been convoked, in accord with the norm of the special law which governs such synod (c.349, §3).
Special sessions are designed for issues affecting one or more particular regions. The members are elected by their respective episcopal conferences—from one to four members according to the size of the conference (one delegate for every 25 members of the episcopal conference or fractions thereof).
3) Particular Assembly — This is a fourth type, neither foreseen in the Code nor in the special law on synods, created by John Paul II and convoked twice in 1980: with the Bishops of the Netherlands and the Ukraine respectively. It is very similar to the special session, but is differentiated from it in two points:
a) Membership — since it includes all the members of the episcopal conference, while the special session only includes a number of delegates from the same.
b) Para-deliberative Power — manifested in the particular assembly, at least in the two occasions when it has been convoked.
In any case, this only shows the great flexibility of the synodal institution, while at the same time exhalting the collegial methodology in the exercise of episcopal power in the context of a lived collegiality.