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.
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.
Furthermore, because of the September document's caveat that moral unanimity might be unobtainable, the General Secretary may consider the document to be approved with anything more than 50 percent of votes, regardless of whether the bishops are obviously divided on controversial questions. Subsequent to such a vote, he may present a document to the Holy Father for approval as a part of the Church's ordinary magisterium.
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
The procedures used at the 2018 synod are likely to be used again at the 2019 Special Synod on the Pan-Amazonian Region, and in synods subsequent to that as well.
Cardinal Wifrid Napier of Durban, South Africa, told CNA Oct. 13 that in his estimation, the synod is proceeding along the same course as the previous eight synods he has attended. He added that while he has trust in the synod process and in organizers, he is uncertain about how voting will work in the later stages of the meeting. Napier mentioned that the process used in past synods, the one governed by the 2006 norms, "worked quite well."
Although Pope Francis has technically abrogated them, it still seems reasonable that the pope might intend for the procedural norms established by prior law to largely govern the proceedings of this synod, even if Baldisseri's remarks are decidedly more circumspect. Certainly, the meeting has proceeded to this point according to the ordinary way of doing things. But the synod fathers have good reason to seek clarity.
As Napier told CNA Saturday: "It's when we get into the hall [for final deliberations] that I think that process still has to be explained to us more clearly."
It seems unlikely that many synod fathers will be content with the ambiguous answers offered thus far by synod organizers. Few are likely to consider it fair if they are asked to continue working, getting closer to final deliberations, with no real understanding of the meeting's rules. And observers, especially the pope's critics, are likely to begin questioning the legitimacy of the synod's proceedings if it is not governed by a clearly defined process.
It could also become a detriment to the credibility of the synod, and even the communion of the synod fathers, if voting rules were to become a point of division and rancor at the last minute. For those reasons, synod fathers may judge it better that norms be discussed and promulgated as soon as possible, so that the final deliberations are not clouded by discontment or confusion about the rules.