Synods are meetings of bishops gathered to discuss a topic of theological or pastoral significance, in order to prepare a document of advice or counsel to the pope. The discussion at a synod is framed around an instrumentum laboris- a working document- developed before the meeting by a small working committee of Vatican officials and diocesan bishops.
During a synod, bishops make comments and observations on the working document, and meet in small discussion groups to propose changes to the text, or to suggest new texts and additional areas for consideration.
The 2018 synod, a meeting of 267 bishops and other Church leaders, is tasked with developing a document on young people, the faith, and vocational discernment.
The modern form of synods in the Latin Catholic Church began with the 1965 promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s Apostolica sollicitudo. That document established some processes and procedures governing the work of a synod, as did revisions made in 1969 and 1971. The 1983 Code of Canon Law gave additional clarity.
But the 2006 rescript Ordo synodi episcoporum established the most detailed procedural rules for every aspect of a synod of bishops, among them the election of members; the appointment, work, and authority of the general secretariat and general relator; and the voting on proposals (modi) and documents, including the points to be included in the final report.
Ordo synodi episcoporum required that modi and documents be voted on according to a procedure allowing bishops to make additional amendments, and delineating specific cases when a 2/3 majority of voting bishops would be required, and others cases that would require only an absolute majority (50 percent+1) of bishops.
According to those procedural rules, synod fathers were able to vote on proposals made for amendments or additions to the document, and eventually to vote on their approval of the document as a whole; those votes would require 2/3s majorities.
Though these procedural norms were tweaked in recent years, they remained largely intact. But on Sept. 15, they were abrogated- revoked- when Pope Francis promulgated a new document governing synods, the apostolic constitution Episcopalis communio.
Episcopalis communio eliminates nearly all specific procedural norms pertaining to the synod, including the established procedures for proposing amendments and for voting, and sets no specific approval thresholds for documents generated by the synod.
Instead of establishing specific rules, the September document calls on the General Secretary for Synod of Bishops, now Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, to issue instructions on those matters, and “regulations for each Synod Assembly."
No such instructions or regulations seem to have been issued for the current synod, at least not publicly.
The general rules promulgated in September do explain that the synod should seek “moral unanimity insofar as this is possible” on a final document written by the drafting committee, and that “approval of the members” should be obtained before that document is presented to the pope, who is newly able to promulgate it directly as an expression of his ordinary magisterium.
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Neither “moral unanimity” nor “approval by the members” are defined in the document, nor are they technical terms in canon law. At the moment, the General Secretary is able to interpret them according to his own judgment, and is bound to seek “moral unanimity,” whatever he decides that to mean, only insofar as he judges it to be possible. While the document says that particular law can determine how approval is to be sought, that particular law is precisely what has not yet been issued.
Nevertheless, Baldisseri has given some indication of how he understands the idea of “moral unanimity.”
“It is a matter of achieving a consensus that clearly goes beyond 50 percent. However, there is no legal definition. Moral unanimity is not defined by numbers,” he said Sept. 17, according to La Croix International.
Baldisseri and other Vatican officials have declined to indicate how much more than 50 percent would indicate “moral unanimity” among the bishops.
In the absence of particular regulations, the General Secretary is no longer obliged to hold votes on modi proposed to the drafting committee, as he was under the policies of the 2006 norms. He must now only hear from the discussion groups before deciding how to proceed, with a considerable amount of latitude.
Absent regulations to the contrary, the General Secretary is at liberty to conduct, for example, only one yea or nay vote on a final synod document prepared by the drafting committee, without opening the floor for debate, or holding votes on particular sections or proposals offered by the bishops.